Tuesday, November 27, 2012
a kid growing up so close to the border of Texas and Mexico, my parents would
take me across every once in awhile to experience the culture and to shop. As a
young kid, I thought of Mexico with childlike wonderment; a mystical place
where you could get anything you wanted at a fraction of the price, where
smiling kids would sell you trinkets and ask for spare change. Recently, as an
educated adult, I returned to the border and these same exact memories brought
feelings of sadness and an abhorrence of my prior ignorance. The grim reality
of the economic situation along the border is not the fairy tale I had once
past month I traveled with a group called Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera,
(which translates to Austin So Close to the Border), to the Mexican border city
of Ciudad Acuña. Austin Tan Cerca is a community driven, non-profit based in
Austin, Texas. They hold quarterly delegation trips to border cities in Mexico
to meet with CFO, which is the Border Committee of Working Women and Men in
Mexico. This non-profit is dedicated to teaching Mexican workers their labor
rights as citizens. Austin Tan Cerca and the CFO have a solidarity partnership,
meaning it is not a relationship based on charity, but a mutual commitment to
shared values and equality.
we crossed the border into the beautiful city of Acuña, the economic imbalance
was immediately apparent. Many of these border citizens live in harsh
conditions, often with no electricity, safe drinking water, or modern
amenities. They work an average of 50-60 hours per week making an average of
one dollar per hour, often being subject to the cruel nature of their
superiors. While labor rights in Mexico are actually very progressive, labor
regulation tends to turn a blind eye to labor injustices in order to increase
profitability for sweatshop factories, called maquiladoras.
why do the maquiladora workers of Ciudad Acuña stand for these injustices?
Well, most of them are stuck in this system. They have families they must
provide for and even though their salaries do not give them the freedom to buy
anything but staple foods, they need their job so their families will not
starve. But, for the sake of a better future for their children and
grandchildren, a group of these workers have united with the CFO to join with a
union called Los Mineros, or the Miners Union. This union works to gain the
rights they are guaranteed by law.
formation of this union did not come without its repercussions. Workers known
to be working with the CFO have been fired, even blacklisted. The government
and the factories have even created their own “yellow” union, the CTM, which is
a corporately funded union who only has the factory’s interests at heart. This
false sense of security has come with bribery, brainwashing, and plenty of
other illegal activities. After creating the CTM, the government decided to
allow the workers of the maquiladoras to decide their own fate: either they
choose Los Mineros or the CTM to be their union representation. Workers were
warned that if Los Mineros won, the factory would leave Ciudad Acuna and
everyone would lose their jobs. As
projected, the CTM was victorious. Although the workers of the maquiladoras
lost their fight for the union they wanted, the awareness brought about the
issue is still considered a triumph for the CFO. This event drew international
attention to Ciudad Acuna and the fight for labor rights in Mexico.
see these workers standing up for what is right regardless of the consequences
eye opening and inspiring. Their struggle gives hope to the thousands of people
stuck in this same unfair labor system. But their voice can only travel so far.
It is our duty as responsible people to do our part to end labor injustice. What
can you do to help the workers of Ciudad Acuña and those fighting against labor
oppression across the world? Raise awareness of this issue
and others like it by forming discussions with peers, blogging and sharing
articles like this on social media. Through word-of-mouth, social media, and a devotion
to sustainably made products, we can show the world what is going on and help
stop sweatshop labor for good.
If you or someone you know would like first-hand experience like mine,
visit Austin Tan Cerca’s website and apply for the next delegation.
posted by Michelle Ovalle at 01:53 PM on Nov 27, 2012
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
does it mean to be a sustainable business? There are many different terms that
are used to market sustainable practices – fair trade, organic, green, eco,
social responsibility. At Handmade Expressions, we think sustainability is a
combination of these, creating a positive impact for people and the planet. As
an example of this holistic commitment to sustainability, we want to share with
you a recently completed water conservation project with the artisan
group who crafts our Eco Shopper bags.
HME began working with a group of hand-block printing artisans
in the Barmer region of northern Rajasthan, India, about 5 years ago. This is a
remote, desert region where craftwork is one of the few viable sources of
employment. However, with limited access to export markets, these artisans were
struggling economically. Handmade Expressions helped the group design marketable products that
incorporate their traditional craft. The Eco Shopper was a huge success, and
has remained one of our best-selling products for years.
Over time, the continued orders have contributed to positive
socioeconomic development within the community and allowed HME to add an
environmental lens to our focus. Water is a scarce and precious resource in the
dry, desert region of Barmer. However, this art form requires massive amounts
of water to dye and wash fabric. We noticed that the group lacked resources to
recycle their waste water and it was drained into the surrounding fields. HME's
India team, SETU, decided to take on this challenge and has been working since early
2012 to develop a water filtration system for this group. It was completed and
installed in the end of August. This system now allows water to be reused up to
15 times and will save at minimum 5 million liters of water per year!
This was a wholly sustainable effort, combining our
people-positive and planet-positive values to help this artisan community.
Water filtration helps:
Environmentally – conserves water and blocks harmful effluents from being
discharged into the land with waste water,
Economically – saves money from purchasing and importing clean water and
increases work time efficiency,
and Socially – allows the community to continue their traditional
craftwork in a sustainable manner.
To us, sustainability is a way of working, of being committed to
long-term positive change for people and the planet. While HME is proud of this
accomplishment, we know this project could not have been completed without
being a partner to this group or giving sustainable order volumes. We appreciate
your support of the Eco Shopper and want to remind you, especially during Fair
Trade Month, that your purchase can have a big impact! We hope to help you
share this message through your community with a Fair Trade block-printing event.
Can one product or one company really make a difference? As a small company committed to
sustainability, one successful product – the Eco Shopper – has made a huge
positive impact. Imagine if all businesses adopted sustainable practices, what
a difference products could make! We invite you to share your thoughts and impact stories of how
fair trade and sustainable businesses have made a difference!
- by Alison Hanson
posted by Michelle Ovalle at 04:02 PM on Oct 03, 2012
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
This past May, over the week following
World Fair Trade Day, I traveled up the coast of California
with Lata Kachhawaha.
Lata ji is a passionate and inspiring woman from Rajasthan, India who traveled
to the United State to meet with Fair Trade Towns committees, fair trade retail stores,
and conscious community members. She also presented at the Fair
annual conference in Seattle, WA about her work with artisan communities.
Lata ji’s presentations and stories
were incredibly rousing. She helped to found the Society to Uplift Rural
Economy (SURE), an NGO based in the dry desert region of Barmer. Lata ji has
worked for over 20 years for rural development and women’s empowerment through
fair trade. As she explained her work, people kept asking what it means for a
handicraft to be fair trade. It seemed that people tend to equate fair trade
with fair wages – but in reality there is so much more to the story. Lata ji
explained that for artisans, “fair trade
is not just about price – it is about holistic development.”
To fair traders, it is easy to
understand what it means for commodities to be fair trade, but for crafts it is
a little less clear. The fair trade products that tend to dominate consumer
markets – such as coffee, chocolate, tea, and bananas – are commodities that
are traded globally at a market-determined price. Fair trade certification
guarantees that farmers are paid a minimum amount – a fair wage. If the market
price rises above that floor, then fair trade products receive a set amount
above the market price. Added to the price is also a designated “social
premium” amount – for coffee, this is $0.20 for every pound of beans. There are
of course other social and environmental standards of fair trade certified
products, but economics is the backbone.
For crafts, fair trade is a much more
fluid concept as there are no set trading prices. The product mix is diverse
and often incorporates multiple materials with various art forms, so it is
difficult, if not impossible, to set a standardized price. Handicrafts cannot
be certified; rather, companies are members of a fair trade network (FTF in the
U.S.) and agree to social, economic, and environmental principles in their
trading relationships. Fair wages for artisans is still an important factor and
prices are usually set as a collective decision by the artisan group or through
detailed cost-analyses with groups. However, social empowerment, gender
equality, business training, environmental stewardship, and community development
are equally as important as price in this model.
As Lata ji described SURE’s work, it
was evident that wage is just one piece of the puzzle for rural development.
Along with SURE’s livelihood program, the organization also has programs for
women’s empowerment, health, children’s education (particularly for girls), and
natural resource management. Just one example of SURE’s integrated approach:
women in Barmer traditionally have to walk miles and spend half their day every
day just to fetch water since the region is so dry. SURE helps with microloans
and some supplies so women can build water storage tanks in their home, giving
more free time to focus on family and craftwork – therefore earning more money.
This process of empowerment and development is what fair trade truly
Handmade Expressions chooses partners
who take this same holistic approach to fair trade. In 2010, our team in India,
SETU, partnered with SURE on a community development project to provide 100 solar lamps on village
huts so women could continue their craftwork after dark and children could
study into the evenings. This was a need identified by local women in Barmer
and has dramatically increased their potential for income generation.
Partnerships such as we have with SURE inspire me that fair trade has potential
not only to pay artisans a fair wage for the products, but also to have a
lasting impact on the development of the community as a whole.
-by Alison Hanson
posted by Michelle Ovalle at 01:35 PM on Aug 21, 2012
Thursday, May 31, 2012
by Manish Gupta
As I was traveling by train across India in March, I befriended a fellow passenger whose family runs a Churi making workshop. Churis are beautiful bangles made of glass, that come in all sorts of colors and designs. Churis are an essential accessory for any woman in India and a cultural staple. The conversation with my new friend about churis helped me realize how much goes into the creation of making churis that the general public is not aware of.
He explained to me in great detail the many processes involved in creating this beautiful jewelry piece before it makes its way to the market for sale. He also explained the different levels of expertise for the bangle makers. The master churi maker, also known as the Churiwala, is a position held for the most skilled craftsman, who is responsible for rolling the churi from the molten glass oven. His salary is an average of $500 a month, which is quite high for an Indian craftsman, and therefore a position many strive to get. Unfortunately a Churiwala’s life span is only 40-50 years due to the harsh work environment of his role and the constant inhalation of toxic fumes. I was stunned… is the Churiwala being paid more to sacrifice his life so others can beautify theirs? If the community purchasing the churis on the market were aware of this situation, would they still wear the jewelry so proudly?
When discussing the possibilities of improving the life of the Churiwala with better working conditions, he explained that small-scale industries such as this, do not have access to the technology to create safer processes and with the industry being so competitive, these small scale producers cannot afford to invest in “expenses” even though it would ultimately create better conditions for their workers. This was a harsh realization for me – that in a close knit community, such as this, there is a lack of care for one another’s well being and that, only few are aware of reality like this. If that connection is lost within a close community such as this, how can we expect to create these connections on a bigger scale? The power of change must start from within and expand outward and it should begin with spreading awareness. Communities must be informed of the harsh work environments their citizens are being exposed to and how to prevent it from happening. This spontaneous interaction with my friend sparked a fire under me to want to make things right and reinforced the value in spreading awareness even on the smallest scale in order to create change. Knowledge truly is power and it is our duty to keep our communities informed.
posted by Michelle Ovalle at 09:37 AM on May 31, 2012
Monday, March 12, 2012
SUSTAINABILITY can mean a lot of things to different people. It is a concept generally understood to encompass social and environmental values and implies long-term harmony between people and the planet. However, specific definitions, priorities, and policies can vary between organizations or people, which can be confusing to the general public.
For Handmade Expressions, our values are rooted in sustainability. As a fair trade handicraft company working towards social development in India and a seller of consumer goods in the US, we recognize that sustainable practices are an essential part of our business. We have spent the last few months diligently working to define exactly what sustainability is to HME, researching the impact of our products and processes, and setting guidelines for our entire production chain that aligns with our values. We want to share with you where we are headed on this path towards sustainability.
SUSTAINABILITY for Handmade Expressions means that our products and business activities will have a positive impact on people and the planet, both in the present and future. We strive to empower all business partners from producer to consumer and to minimize our environmental footprint.
More specifically, we have clearly outlined the values that will act as a guiding factor for our decisions and progress us toward a higher level of sustainability. These values serve as the root from which our actions will grow and define how we intend to create positive impacts for people and for our planet.
While there is work to be done in each of these areas, HME is committed to strengthening each of these values, developing innovative methods and practices, and collaborating with each of our partners to have a positive impact on the communities and ecosystems with which we work.
In the last year, HME has initiated a few sustainability measures. We have begun to gather more comprehensive information on our partner artisan groups and our products in order to measure our sustainability footprint. We reduced the plastic packaging of our products by close to 50% by packing in multiples and are currently testing other, more sustainable options. Our warehouse team implemented a recycling system with our office neighbors so all orders shipped to customers are packed only with recycled materials. HME’s team also takes small steps – such as composting and recycling, utilizing natural sunlight, and printing double-sided – to reduce waste and energy use in the office.
For 2012 and beyond, HME is planning further initiatives to enhance sustainability. We have set a goal to reduce our shipping impact by sending most products by sea. We are also researching the environmental impacts of the base materials of our products to set strategies for material sourcing. This is an exciting time to be in business, especially in the sustainability industry – where people and the planet are increasingly taking priority over profit. Stay tuned for updates on our work.
We invite and appreciate your comments, suggestions, and support on this pursuit.
posted by Alison Hanson at 10:37 PM on Mar 12, 2012