Dollars That Do Good?
Unsure whether to buy that gorgeous Guatemalan basket…or that one? Here’s how to make sure you’re choosing ethically.
Look for the story.
Experts agree that the more a seller is willing to share the story behind the product—whether online, or in the store’s display—the more a customer can rest easy. Adequate details usually mean that the seller is intimately acquainted with, and invested in, her artisans.
Look for the Fair Trade mark.
Is the seller a member of the Fair Trade Federation? Although many reputable businesses in the industry may not have
the means to go through the rigorous process to become a member of the Fair Trade Federation, this symbol is a postitive sign of the businesses’ practices.
The Fair Trade Federation and World of Good’s Priya Haji agree that as a consumer, asking questions is one of the best things you can do. “Consumers keep [the handcrafted sector] on track,” Haji says. “We focus on how to ensure that our standards are high, so that consumers can engage and ask questions.”
Unraveling Women’s Fair Trade
Priya Haji, CEO of World of Good, one of the largest retailers in the handmade sector and the first to scale up the industry by partnering with eBay, thinks differently. “We’ve got to think big,” she insists. Her eBay partnership, launched in September 2008, sells products in 15 categories from 150 artisan communities in over 70 countries. “There are potential problems of scale, yes, but let’s have those problems. Right now this is an industry that has a much bigger production capability than demand.”
World of Good works with multiple artisan groups in one region to create the same types of products, explains Haji, “so as demand for the product grows, we can maintain consistency without overwhelming their system. Some villages can’t produce a large quantity [of an item], or there are products that can’t be made in large volume. They don’t have the infrastructure. So we distribute production across different organizations.”
According to Haji, there is one greatest challenge to the industry: “When you have so many communities doing great work and needing access to markets—how do you open doors quickly enough for them? Right now in the US there’s $55 billion worth of sales in the broadly defined ‘handcrafted’ sector. How do we convert more of this to be from people in poverty?”
Pricing is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the business because on the one hand, you have to charge enough to pay the artisans a price that will help lift them out of poverty and, on the other hand, you have to compete against mass-produced items sold by big-box stores for far less. “The biggest detriment to artisans making traditional crafts is knockoffs of those crafts at mass retailers,” says Marilyn Hnatow of Aid to Artisans. “It looks like an African basket—but it was made in a factory in China.”
“Plenty of beaded jewelry is sold, but it’s not all ethically produced,” says Haji. “It’s made in factories. We have to give the customer more choices that are handmade and sustainably produced.” To better convince potential customers of the importance of making these choices, World of Good describes each item in detail on its site, sharing information such as the region where it was made, as well as the story of the artisans who made it, and asks an independent third party—like the World Fair Trade Organization, Rainforest Alliance, or Green America—to verify the “positive impact” of the products purchased.
KJ Lewis, co-founder of Global Sistergoods, says that her company tries to sell the product itself first—and then sell the customer on the product’s story and the positive benefits of supporting local artisans. “We also want to appeal to someone who hasn’t thought about fair trade,” she says. “If we can carry new and different things, then we can help educate consumers about the issues facing women in these countries. These women have a product people want; they just need a conduit for it.”
Framing the purchase is important, too, notes Amber Chand, of the Amber Chand Collection. “The message has never been, ‘Oh, look at these poor women,’ but rather, ‘Let’s celebrate these women’s resilience and strength.’ You buy it because it’s beautiful and high quality; it’s competitively priced; and it includes the deepest stories of these women. It’s not charity buying.”
Although often small scale, Mohr says one important fact to consider is that many of these artisan enterprises may not bear substantial risk because they can be done by women in their spare time. “They can work in the fields and weave in their homes in the evenings, or string beads. It’s supplementary income for a lot of these small co-ops,” says Mohr, “because even at a small level women are starting to be able to send their kids to school, get shoes, put a roof over their heads, and meet basic needs.”
“In terms of creating a large-scale shift, though,” she tempers, “we have a ways to go.”
Even with all the fraying challenges and the growing pains, empowerment commerce companies are multiplying. Woven together, they may eventually tip the scales toward wider sustainability in the global market for goods produced by women’s hands. These tenacious companies are bound to their commitment to the artisans they work with—to their stories, their histories, and the things they have in common. “It’s great to feel this kinship with the artisans we’re partnering with,” says Global Sistergoods’ Beth Kapsch. “We’re moms, we work at home, our kids are around, we’re trying to run a business and be creative—and these women are doing the same thing.”
But they can’t forget why they got into this industry in the first place: to bring the beautiful work of artisans who live in dire poverty and terrifying political instability to a new market. “The women we work with are so resilient,” says Bead for Life’s Wakefield. “Children dying of malaria; children kidnapped and forced into being soldiers in the war in northern Uganda. Every time a new group of beaders comes in, they dance and sing together before talking beads. It’s a very joy-filled work.”
Editor’s Note: This piece is the first of a two-part series investigating the realities behind women’s empowerment commerce. Read part two in our next edition, where we take an in-depth look at the benefits and challenges from the artisans’ perspectives.