Definitions of “artisan” and fair trade relationships

Recently, a few of Bridge of Hope’s clients have become increasingly critical of our artisan group members. Their prices are too high. Their work ethic is questionable. Their designs seem uninspired. They just seem to lack drive. They are not really artisans, just people looking for additional income.

Basically, a central question seems to be: “What is an artisan?”

I am not referring to what artisans do. Artisans work in a variety of specified crafts. Our artisans work in a variety of fields from carving, to pottery, to weaving, to sewing. Each of these skill sets are put towards the same goal of the creation and sale of luxury products to higher income consumers.

I would argue that this goal is fairly standard across all artisans, in or outside a fair trade model. I want to talk instead about the ways different fair trade groups define “artisan” within their vision and mission.

It’s a question I have neglected in this blog, as many others in the fair trade world seem to neglect. To use an apt, but crass parallel: much like pornography, each person knows it when they see it. Of course, we each draw the artisan line somewhere different.

I’ll be the first to admit that I often make a bigger deal out of these questions than is really necessary or valuable. It is easy to move from careful consideration to unhelpful existentialism. Even easier to start exploring questions of meaning just as a mental exercise or attempt to look smart. I write this post because some conflicts in the fair trade world start with informing definition work forming amorphous policy.

Are artisans poor? Are they bridges to cultural values from decades past? Are artisans indigenous women?  Are artisans sustainable producers? In my experience an artisan can fall into anywhere from all to none of these categories. Whichever one the organization chooses to focus on will greatly shape its strategies and metric for success.

Organizations that consider poverty as a defining trait of artisans will likely focus on empowering these artisans to overcome cyclical poverty traps. They will provide workshops on various artisan techniques, as well as entrepreneurship. This organization will measure success by the way their artisans improve their economic lives. Like all development programs, they will need enormous patience as results are slow and artisans seem to slow to fully invest.

If an organization defines artisans as carriers of cultural heritage, they will seek to empower established artisans through helping them develop entrepreneurial skills and providing them with new markets. That organization will showcase the artisans’ process to their consumers. There will likely be little patience for artisans that fail to complete orders or lack commitment to artisan work. Success will first be measured in how much cultural traditions are revived and passed along to younger members of a society.

An organization that defines artisans as indigenous women will seek to empower these largely underprivileged members of their society. Similar to a poverty-focused organization, this group will focus on empowerment through training and entrepreneurship. Success is measured in how these women’s lives are changed and gain greater social standing. Tiffani Sharp, who runs one of Bridge of Hope’s client stores, Mama Willow Tree, interviewed our female artisans on how the work has led them to overcome stigma in society and take on new roles. Likewise, they will also need patience with slow progress.

An organization that prioritizes sustainability in their definition of artisans is seeking to offset the negative effects of consumerism. They will seek out artisans that recycle and reuse materials, as well as provide artisans with sustainability workshops. Primary success is reducing waste and the carbon footprint of production.  There will be minimal toleration for non-organic materials or cost efficient, but wasteful techniques.

These definitions are not mutually exclusive nor are they exhaustive.

Not all artisans are poor. Not all are grounded in tradition. Not all artisans focus on sustainability. Not all artisans are downtrodden in their society. When we ignore that complex picture, we get poorer fair trade models.

Admittedly, most organizations do not treat them as mutually exclusive, but when everyone is not on the same page about what an artisan is, it reduces cohesion within the fair trade model.

A fair trade store that focuses on cultural preservation will not want to work with artisans who are still perfecting their craft as means for additional income. They will prefer to work with artisans rooted in tradition, many of whom are not in as great need or poverty.  A sustainability-focused organization that also seeks to empower indigenous women might not work well with an artisan seeking to build a business in the sale of low cost artisan works in high income markets.

These hypothetical, but representative conflicts usually end with artisans meeting clients where they are. In some cases that might result in an overall positive change for the artisan group towards more sustainable production, or more inclusionary practices, or fairer wage payment. In others artisans and fair trade clients will go separate ways and artisans may end up in non-fair trade networks.

I notice a larger problem to all of this. My definitions came from the supporting fair trade organizations. I do not have a concrete idea how artisans define their vocation. Bridge of Hope’s supporters even less so.

We are all just seeking to help and construct a vision for how to help through just trade practices, but we are still rooted in a system wherein the wealthier folks mandate their vision. Sure they listen to a certain degree, but largely, they still seek to sell products and realize a mission.

It is expensive and time-consuming to create and meet that mission mutually with artisans. It means making decisions more slowly. It means pouring money into regular visits. It means putting aside the hours spent researching the perfect recipe for just commerce in your economically privileged home. It means listening, not presenting a plan to artisans who feel obligated to agree with someone who flew thousands of miles to be with them. It means sacrificing your vision in favor of one shared with the artisans. It means failing at working together pretty regularly. It means mutual support for those failures.

It means a better model. Especially in the tough times I have witnessed this year.

Bridge of Hope attempts to work mutually with artisans. It is part of the reason we move slowly, in addition to our endemic short-staffed-ness. Our artisans often move slowly or in a way that seems antithetical to progress. On one hand, I understand if they want to prioritize repairing their homes or improving their communities’ access to basic utilities over paying for and producing a new design. On the other hand, they often forget about deadlines and simultaneously lament the turnaround on an order as well as the lack of orders. Understanding why artisans’ drive might seem low helps us to engage with them to improve that.

While we celebrated together at the artisan gathering, Daniela pointed out the mild hypocrisy in seeking more orders, while not taking advantage of present opportunities. We have encouraged artisans to seek out training workshops and request funding support. Of course, prioritizing artisan-led ideas means advancing more slowly for the reasons I mentioned, but it means advancing more cooperatively.

Slowness should not impede us here. The invaluable give-and-take is completely worth nightmarish logistics. Fair trade artisan markets sell luxuries to middle and upper class consumers. As long as artisans are being lifted out of dire poverty, clients and artisans have the luxury (pun intended) to work things out.

Not every case will result in a positive outcome. Groups may recognize that the gap between their visions is too wide. Most relationships will be strengthened by patient, albeit occasionally mind numbing dialogue.

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