Tag Archives: fairtrade

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.


Smile!: Am I biasing the narrative?

After a couple months of floundering, I am definitely beginning to improve. I am improving my overall demeanor when interacting with artisans. I increasingly enjoy each interview.

I am more aware of the way our different backgrounds will manifest themselves. I am also comfortable knowing there is much I do not realize about our differences. I am confident that we can weather the challenges of any unexpected differences. For that and probably other reasons of which I am ignorant, our interactions have become vastly more amiable.

Unfortunately, there is one required part of my job with which I doubt I will ever be comfortable. I do not like asking the artisans to smile for the camera. Rather, I do not like having to ask a second time. A follow-up request means they did not agree to the initial request.

Refusals are awkward. For me. For them. For everybody.

The awkwardness is not why I feel so uncomfortable. The majority of my interpersonal conduct is fairly awkward. I’ve always managed.

No, my discomfort stems from something far more systemic than an awkward exchange.

I abhor putting a positive spin on the lives of those in poverty for the comfort of the well-off.

Alright, perhaps that statement is overly and unnecessarily pessimistic. In fairness, I will provide some context.

When Daniela first explained this project to me, she outlined that it was critical that the artisans smile. She said that would be difficult, referring to the numerous photos without smiles on the Bridge of Hope website, but that it was a common request from clients.

Similarly, the purpose of the video interviews is to provide Bridge of Hope’s customers, the intended audience, with a window to the lives of their producers. That is an admirable pursuit and an answer to increasingly complex commodity chains, which masked the struggles of producers to the consumer. Transparency improves solidarity between artisans so it befits fair trade.

Transparent messages are rarely clear-cut and concise though. These artisans have dynamic work lives that are difficult to express in short, digestible snippets.

I wrestle with whether I can reconcile transparency and accountability to our customers. It’s an editor’s dilemma. What do I cut? How does that spin their story? Is that transparent? Is the authenticity I have in mind unattainable?

Not every artisan group has a commercial-worthy success stories. Most are understaffed, underequipped and under-skilled. Consequently, most struggle to meet deadlines and stay creative.

This was most true for, Tupaq Yupanqui, whose situation I detailed in a previous post. They receive minimal orders and are struggling to meet the quality standards for export to fair trade shops in the United States. During our visit, we discovered that each member had unique knitting needles, which contributed in a large part to their quality struggles. While that’s a good discovery overall, the group was founded in 2007. That length of time speaks volumes to their success.

The older members of Tupaq Yupanqui seemed disdainful of my request that they smile.

Daniela suggested that minimal success creates a sort of vicious cycle. Groups with little success do not tend to prioritize their fair trade work because they are working to support themselves through countless other means like farming, construction work or clothes washing.

Of course, it is far more difficult to succinctly explain why a group does not prioritize their fair trade work. Sure it makes sense when you take the time to read, but many supporters and clients want to hear that fair trade is making a positive difference.

Other more successful groups are happy to smile and share during their interviews. Even in these interviews though, a moment comes when the group brings up a recent drop in orders. My guess is that the demand for fair trade artisan work, a decidedly luxury good, has not recovered post-recession.

Do I include this request for more orders in the videos? I’m often torn. I want to tell an honest story, but is it in poor taste to include their need for more orders in videos created for their clients?

I do not have the answers to those questions. As the only one who views all the interview footage, I likely overthink it. At the same time, it is exactly that position that requires me to be cautious.

My role affords me substantial power over the narrative. I am the bridge (no pun intended) between artisans and customers. I help amplify the artisan’s voice. I have a genuine responsibility to relay their words without swaying the message.

Unfortunately, that is impossible. Customers lead busy lives. I do not fault them for not wanting to sit through an amateur short film even if they prioritize solidarity in their lives.

As a result, I keep the artisans’ videos below five minutes, which I consider a stretch.

In five minutes, I cannot feature every answer from an interview or every word spoken by every artisan. So I cut and I paste until I have a straight-forward short film on a group. I try to feature the artisans’ voices and downplay my own as much as possible.

Privileging artisans’ voices is one of a few solutions I have implemented to reduce my natural bias.

Additionally, I will share these interviews with the artisans at our 12th annual gathering in March. Also, I will provide each group with access to the digital files, as well as a few hard copies of photos from my visits.

The intent is to honor that the artisans are equal, if not more important stakeholders to the customers.

What can a fair trade customer or retail store do on their end? Well, you can start by watching videos and seeking to learn more about artisans. Following that, ask fair trade collectives and intermediaries like Bridge of Hope to share the footage that does not make the cut. At the same time, recognize that some information is privileged. Transparency ends where privacy begins.

Most importantly, for me, for you, for anyone involved in fair trade, continue to face these challenges. Traditional commodity chains erase suffering. This work is some of the most capable at ending that injustice. It is not without issues, but this does not invalidate the larger goal at work.

Reconnecting with artisans in the mountains

This past Sunday night, my supervisor, Daniela and I took a night bus to Huancavelica to start a two-day excursion to visit most of the artisan group members of Bridge of Hope.

The trip took us to Huancavelica, where we took a collective car to the Yauli district intending to meet with members of Tupaq Yupanqui, Sumaq Ruracc and Achka Maki. In the afternoon we returned to Huancavelica to meet with El Mercurio and then take a collective car two hours to Huancayo. On Tuesday, we met with La Esperanza and Llamkay Tuki. Tuesday night, we came back via another night bus.

During the trip, Daniela presented new design ideas suggested by Bridge of Hope clients, while I continued my project of taking photos and videos of the groups to update each group’s page on our website. I also invited each group to an artisan gathering in March, in honor of the Peruvian Day of Artisans. Most importantly, we rekindled and maintained some relationships that had been starting to waver in recent years as the quantity of orders diminished while the time between visits increased. Plus, I learned a heck of a lot about the role that Bridge of Hope plays in assisting artisans. Overall, it was a productive and critical trip on a personal and organizational level.

In fact, the trip was so productive, I have far too many reflections to be offered in one post. I gained a greater appreciation for Fair Trade, thought about ways to model the concept for study, and witnessed notable disparity in artisan success even within Bridge of Hope. I’ll leave that for other possible posts and choose instead to stick with an overview and a short reflection on my own growth.

As I said, the trip was successful. The whole picture obscures a few little hiccups along the way. Some were minimal. I decided to pack light and had far from the proper warm weather attire and rain gear for the mountains, which are currently in their rainy season. Luckily, Yody, the leader of the group, El Mercurio, provided me with a small blanket to help me survive.

Additionally, our first visit, with Tupaq Yupanqui, was something of a mess. Daniela had prioritized this group, having organized a workshop on improved weaving techniques for them. Unfortunately, we learned upon arrival that the group did not have the necessary tools and materials for this workshop. Likewise, several members arrived three and a half hours later. This slow morning meant we had to cancel our visit with Achka Maki, as we were too far behind schedule to meet with them and be able to move on to Huancayo that night.

Daniela was visibly upset and frustrated, but persevered to show them new design ideas and have a frank discussion about communication. Also, she agreed to provide funds for them to buy the necessary tools for each group member.

Looking back, that perseverance was inspiring. Especially, alongside my own floundering. Admittedly, I was not surprised that the whole process seemed to break down. I’ve, somewhat unfortunately, come to expect these sorts of hiccups whenever coordinating with folks in the mountains. In some ways, I feel bad being so frank about it, but generally sometimes things move more slowly than people from the outside expect. It’s not my place to make any explanation as to why that is, but it’s what I’ve noticed.

Unsurprised by the slow morning and mildly confused as to whether or not I should wait to get started, I sat alongside Daniela, occasionally taking pictures. I am still working on moving past my frustration with these scheduling miscues, because they are exactly what holds those in privilege back from helping others in solidarity.

For example, my video interview was objectively worse with the Tupaq Yupanqui than the other groups that were far more organized. I struggled to connect with this group. Later, it became clear to me that Tupaq Yupanqui’s lack of organization comes from a lack of notable success with fair trade. Those that are the most need are often the toughest to help.

Of course, sometimes groups stay unresponsive and that is very frustrating. Daniela circumvented the question of when to stop offering support, by offering more autonomy. She is pushing all groups, including Tupaq Yupanqui, to seek out and submit workshop ideas for approval by Bridge of Hope.

Admittedly, the strategy of participatory development is not a new one. It’s not a silver bullet. Still, it aligns far more with the fair trade schematic and will hopefully lead to group empowerment, even if that is arguably unmeasurable.

After the slow start with Tupaq Yupanqui, we went on to have a far more successful set of meetings with the other artisan groups. I conducted more fulfilling interviews, developed a slightly more inviting approach, and decided to share the best photos with the artisan groups and show the videos at our gathering in March. It’s a small gesture, but one I think will truly help build and maintain relationships.

Plus, Daniela and I had some much needed bonding time. It’s not that we didn’t not get along before, but we were often on different pages. My hope is that going forward, we will both work better together for the greater cause of BOH.

From here my plan is to write a few other posts with more targeted reflections on the trip. If those don’t come out, my apologies. I have quite a lot of video editing to do in these next few weeks.

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