Unraveling Women’s Fair Trade

Selling beautiful crafts to support the artisans who create them makes everyone feel good. But are these businesses truly sustainable?

Published on WorldPulse, by Whitney Joiner, October 28, 2009.

One day, halfway into a trip to Uganda, Colorado psychologist Torkin Wakefield took an afternoon walk with her daughter and a family friend. They stopped to talk with a local woman who was sitting by the road crafting necklaces. The woman told them that to support herself she crushed rocks by hand in a quarry nearby for a dollar a day; in her spare time, she and her friends made necklaces by rolling brightly colored paper—trash that they’d recovered—into beads and stringing the beads into necklaces. “Why aren’t you selling these?” Wakefield asked, after convincing the woman to let her buy a handful. “There’s no market for them,” the woman answered.

Back in the US, after countless friends admired their necklaces, the three women wondered, ‘Is there really no market, or is it simply that the women haven’t found the right one yet?’ “We started thinking about how we could sell the beads in a way that wasn’t about retail, but was about women to women,” explains Wakefield.“We knew people would be interested in stories of resilient, hardworking women who were taking trash paper and turning it into something beautiful—something that could give them hope.”  

In 2004 Bead for Life was born. Their ambitious goal: help Ugandan beadmakers support themselves within the local economy. Their plan: hire a Uganda-based team to train the artisans in quality control (making higher quality beads at a faster pace); buy the beads from the artisans and sell them to a viable US market; use the net profits from the sales to train each artisan in a business that would be sustainable (like a dry goods store, a taxi service, or a restaurant); and then help the artisan launch that enterprise—all within 27 months …

… 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” … (full long 2 pages text).

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