For Handmade Expressions, sustainability means creating products that respect and restore people and our planet. It means creating products that do not cause harm to our global community and reversing some of the harm that has already been done. As we proceed on this ambitious journey, questions come to mind on whether this level of sustainability can truly be achieved and whether we can make a difference with this pursuit. Lets explore a few of the several layers involved in our product supply chain for better understanding.
Take our metal cuff bracelets, for example. The lifecycle of these cuffs begins with mining the base metal to extract from an ore. From this initial point of impact, we can already ask: Are working conditions safe for the mine workers? What environmental impacts are a result from mining? What emissions are being released in the air during the refining of metal? Unfortunately, we have no insight into this step of the production process because these events occur before the materials are gathered by any producers. The second step in the lifecycle is the actual creation of cuffs from this metal. Here, we can ask: How are the working conditions for the producers and are they being paid fairly? What development opportunities are we creating for their community? Since we work directly with our producer partners, we have full insight into this process and have seen for ourselves the positive impact the practice of sustainability has had on this group. High sales of these products have provided jewelry producers with the necessary income to open larger workshops and install a computer room for children to use as we observed in our latest trip to India. After product creation comes logistics, such as packaging and shipping for distribution. By shipping products by sea and air from India to our warehouse in Austin Tx and from our warehouse to retailers across the country how much carbon is being released during this process? Although we may be unsure to what extent this is doing harm, we attempt to reduce the negative environmental effects by choosing carbon offsetting options for our ground shipments. Lastly, what is the end of life for the cuff? Can it be recycled or will it go to a landfill? What recycling options are available for the product and for the consumer?
We can go into a lot more detail, but as you can see, there are a large number of people, processes and variables that need to be considered when achieving sustainability. So, coming back to our original question: Can we really make a difference in our pursuit, considering the several factors and possible setbacks? For us, the answer is ABSOLUTELY. We don’t know if our products will ever be 100% sustainable but with each product, and each trade we are improving lives, creating opportunities and protecting our environment. We are applying our knowledge and resources to create positive impacts. If we all collaborate and make small changes in our individual areas of work, one day as a community, we will reach that level of sustainability. Sustainability for us is not a goal but a way of working. It is the reason we choose to be in this business.
Long regarded as an exotic and fascinating culture, India conjures up images of vividly colored saris, bustling spice markets, ornate temples, and intricate artwork. While these do exist, this is of course an incomplete picture of such a vast and diverse country, and on our recent business trip we gained much more of a holistic understanding of the country and artisans with whom we work.
Handmade Expressions traveled to
India this past April to not only meet with the artisan groups and our Indian
team, SETU, but also to introduce two team members to Fair Trade and Indian
culture. We – Alison and Patricia – traveled with Manish and Ruchi from Austin
to India for three weeks. There, we met Rashmi – who directs the team in India –
and traveled throughout the north and western parts of the country, from Delhi
to Bhuj, Japiur, and finally Gwalior.
Traveling with locals gave us a
unique perspective on India. While we saw pieces of the exotic India that is
so commonly portrayed in the media, we also gained insight into the realities
of people’s daily life, both their achievements and their struggles. We saw how
Fair Trade operates in relation to artisan groups, particularly in terms of
developing products and economic sustainability. We realized there are
challenges in HME’s work, and began to devise solutions. But the most important
thing we gained was a new cultural understanding. Follow this first step – the travel
through India – on our journey:
We arrive to Delhi for the first
time, welcomed by Manish and Ruchi who looked comfortable and happy to be back
in their homeland. The immediate sensory
overload of colors, sounds, and smells alerted us that we are somewhere new,
somewhere unique. Though exhausted after a 17-hour flight, we were excited to experience
a new culture and meet with the artisans who craft the products we see every
day in our warehouse.
Our new favorite mode of
transportation was the auto cab – which is basically a motorized rickshaw that
is similar in size to a golf cart. Comfortably, three passengers can fit in an auto,
though at one point we had up to eight! The compact size allows drivers to
tightly weave between other cars, bikes, and cows that share the Indian roads –
which is both exciting and frightening at the same time! Ruchi described this sense perfectly to us as,
“Everything coexists in India.” Because it was obvious that we were foreigners
in India, many drivers asked to give us a ride. Raj, here, took us on
our first ride.
Our first full day in India, we went
to an outdoor market/bazaar called Dilli Haat. Here, artisans travel from
around the country to set up stalls to sell their handcrafted goods. There were
many beautiful crafts, including bangles, scarves, purses, and traditional
Indian shoes. The shoes in particular stood out to us because of their beautiful
embroidery, embellishments, and expert leather-work. Despite the fact that we
work with and see Indian crafts every day in the US, it was unique to see so
much artisan work together in one place.
Unexpectedly, we had the rare
opportunity to meet with a new artisan group in the heart of Delhi. This is a small
group of refugees from Manipur who make pottery out of stone. They invited us
in to their home/workshop and we got to see the entire production process from
start to finish. Ruchi sat with one of the women who was weaving cane around
the handles of mugs and discussed her work. We were inspired by their
persistence to make a living for themselves in this bustling city, as well as
their use of all natural materials and processes.
With each artisan group, we discussed
design abilities, looked at samples and materials, and worked on developing new
products. It was a unique opportunity to work directly with designers and
artisans from another culture, and really helped to give an understanding of
fair trade design. With each group we strive to understand their abilities and
challenges in product development. The cooperative here is a group that does
beautiful handloom weaving, and we are currently developing rugs and structured
bags that will compensate for the sturdiness of their weaving.
After a hot and long day full of work,
we ravenously enjoyed some Indian food at a weaving cooperative like the locals
do – with our hands! It was a surprise for us to be served rice and curries
without utensils, but we quickly learned how to use roti – a flat,
tortilla-like bread – to pick up the other food. And, of course, we washed our
food down with some Thums Up!
In the center of Old Delhi, we took
our first rickshaw ride to visit a jewelry-making group. The streets in this
part of the city are very crowded and narrow, which leaves no room for cars or
autos. While it was exciting for me to ride on a rickshaw, seeing the
structural limitations even in the heart of the country’s capital made us
realize the many limitations – such as transportation, sourcing of materials,
and communications – that small artisan groups face.
Sania, the youngest daughter of the
founder of our jewelry-making group, helped us look at samples in her father’s
new workshop. This group crafts modern and trendy jewelry pieces, and the
success of their sales has allowed them to grow into a new and larger space,
complete with a sample room for taking potential buyers and a computer room for
the children, like Sania, to complete their schoolwork. Ruchi noted there was a
huge improvement both in their work space and in the group’s confidence.
Chai Masala is an integral part of
Indian culture, and we drank at least two cups each day either with meals or
during visits with artisan groups. While the spiced, milk-based tea wasn't popularized in India until British colonization, it now has become a symbol of
Indian hospitality. Despite the drastic differences in our livelihoods and
cultures, we shared tea and biscuits with every artisan group that we visited.
It impressed us how welcoming and giving Indians were to their guests, and how
they go out of their way to make visitors comfortable. One group even used
fresh milk from their goat out back to make tea for us!
After Delhi, we traveled to Bhuj, were we
were immediately awestruck by the Shree Swaminarayan Temple. Bhuj is in the
western part of the country, in Gujarat, and devastated by a massive earthquake
in 2001. This temple was rebuilt after the earthquake and was just completed in
2010. It is constructed almost entirely of marble, with intricately carved
Hindu motifs adorning all the walls and ceilings. The temple was filled each
morning with Hindus praying, and many people were quite intrigued to talk to us
about our background and get our opinion on their temple and India in general.
In the rural
area surrounding Bhuj, we visited a group of bell-making artisans. We were able
to understand the art of tuning the bells – which is a craft in and of itself.
Because these bells were traditionally used in the community as cow bells,
herders were able to recognize their cows by the tone of the bell. Making bells
is quite a laborious process, however, and Rashmi discussed the issues the artisans
face in procuring materials and production to try to help them find solutions
to make their work more sustainable.
to Sanjana, who has been practicing the wax-resist dyeing technique of batik
for 6 years, we got a clear understanding of not only the working conditions of
the artisans associated with this NGO, but also of their lives outside of work.
She explained to us how it is difficult for women to find work opportunities in
the area because their available time is limited by traditional family duties.
Working for an NGO not only is more secure than industry jobs, but also more
flexible with hours and many women are able to work out of their homes so that
it is easier to combine domestic duties with making a living.
development NGO from where we source our batik products is very supportive of
artisan growth and empowerment. They support workers to not only grow within
the organization, but even to start their own businesses if they are motivated
to do so. Ankita, shown here, began by sewing as a sample maker, but went to
receive training in cutting and now works as the master cutter – a very rare
position for women to hold.
Bhuj was a very agricultural region, though it is also well-known for its
intricate artwork. Though many industries sprung up during the city’s
rebuilding phase after the earthquake, the surrounding areas are still quite
rural. Herders travel on the same roads as automobiles with up to 30 cows,
adorned in bells and beaded head-wear. Cattle are sacred in India, and are
revered as a symbol of wealth and strength. Throughout the country, cows roam
the streets freely and are always given the right of way.
control is an important, but often tricky, aspect of hand-crafted production.
Inconsistencies in patterns, colors, and stitching are inevitable, checking
through each piece is a time-consuming process, and rejections can add up to be
quite costly for an artisan group. Here, Rashmi discusses quality standards Rameshbhai
and Meenaji (far right, head of QC) at one of our partner NGOs in Bhuj. They
gave us ideas for ways that we can further assist with quality improvements,
such as providing a pantone color board and hosting a sewing workshop.
From Bhuj, we
took a 24-hour train to Jaipur. Traveling by train is the quickest way to learn about Indian
culture! The stations are packed with
travelers, entrepreneurs, and vendors. Indians move quickly and without
hesitation when boarding a train. Everyone carries
large packages and bags and brings meals so space is often an
issue. The list of
passenger names is taped to the outside of each car, and on this first trip we
were unable to find our names as we realized our wait-listed tickets were never
confirmed into reservations! Unable to wait for another train, we boarded without
tickets. Though I was nervous, Manish, Rashmi, and Ruchi assured me that all
would be okay and eventually we did get beds to sleep!
In Jaipur, we
visited a paper-making cooperative. All of the papers we used are made from
recycled cotton scraps, and we were able to see the complete production process,
from shredding cotton, to making pulp, then pressing into sheets. Here, wet
sheets of cotton pulp are being taken to get pressed flat before they are hung
to dry. The completed sheets are then used to make stationery products and
journals. It was interested to see the process by which a piece of fabric becomes a sheet of paper, just like the pages I journaled on each day!
Our final stop was Gwalior, where our
India office is based. We spent a couple days understanding the operations and
work of the Indian team and also had some “big picture” discussions regarding
Handmade Expressions’ vision and direction. Overall, the trip was very much a
learning experience – about the work we do, the production processes of
different art forms, and what Fair Trade really means in practice. It also
expanded our world-view and cultural understanding, as traveling with locals
gave us a unique, insider perspective that would not otherwise have been
Packaging has immense power to enhance the beauty of a product inside it. Fromboxes, ties, or other wrapping, such packaging makes a statement about the brand and product and helps draw a customer towards it. However, in the retail industry, the most basic form of packaging is just a plastic poly bag around each product.
At Handmade Expressions, our products travel from India to USA, then are stored in our warehouse before again traveling from our doors to our retail partners. They are exposed to dust, dirt, and moisture and have potential for scratching or breaking before making it to the shelves in a retail store. For us, good packaging is important for two reasons: protection and efficiency. Protection from scratching, rubbing, dust, or water and efficiency for fast identification – pick and pack.
The challenge is the synthetic composition of packaging; all bags we use are made of plastic. By putting each product in a poly bag we end up using a lot of plastic, of which we suspect only a portion gets recycled. We find ourselves at a crossroads. It seems almost contradictory to develop environmentally-friendly products with almost no synthetic new fibers but then package them in all this plastic. I wonder if in the bigger picture we are protecting or harming the nature.
Corn/compostable plastic is not easily available in India. Also I wonder whether retailers who end up with the final packaging would separate out the corn plastic and take it to compost. Recycling seems an easier option from a practical standpoint. Bulk packaging in one bag has been another idea we’ve had. This will not work for all product types though because of issues of scratching and rough handling (dirtying or creasing of products) during the packing or shipping processes. We also thought about replacing plastic bag with paper. Shot down! This would cause issues with identification during picking and receiving and tearing of paper during handling. Tracing paper? Not sustainable either as the wax coating makes the paper not recyclable.
We have recently started to make pack sizes of 2 to 6 units per poly bag for the majority of our products. Each pack is the minimum selling unit. Changing the unit packs in the middle of a product cycle is causing logistical trouble but it will help and cut down the plastic a fair bit. There is still a lot more opportunity though. We wonder if there is any other approach to this issue? Any innovative thinkers out there willing to share their ideas?
Interesting statistics here:
Exotic. Alluring. Enchanting. Mysterious.
times, somewhat bizarre.
For thousands of years India has captivated
visitors. And now HME employees, Patricia and Alison are adding their names to
the list. What will their individual experiences be?
Okay, a bit dramatic. But to be honest, as the time
to leave came closer, the excitement grew … and why not?
For Patricia, a product developer specializing in
home decor and fashion accessories, India represents an intrinsic part of
creative design’s history and influence. For the anthropology major, Alison,
it’s a chance to observe first hand a culture considered to be a cornerstone of
Best of all, they have Ruchi, Manish, and Rashmi as
During the next two weeks all five will be traveling in the
Central and Western regions of India. By train, plane, and the occasional bus,
the group will visit specific areas in Central and Western India, where local artisan groups partner
with HME to produce the products found in our catalog. Yes, this is a working trip,
with very little time for seeing the typical tourist sites.
Patricia — with Ruchi giving background and insight
— will learn about art forms and artisan production capabilities. She’ll also
collect resources and references that will enable our product
design/development department to become even more adept in its ability to
successfully meld Indian artisan culture to Western consumer trends.
Alison on the other hand, with Manish’s guidance,
will dive into gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning of fair trade and
sustainability — from the artisans’ point of view, and then from HME’s mission
of supporting artisan communities. Alison will also be working with Rashmi and our India team on
the production side of things, developing ways to improve our forecasting,
ordering, shipping, packaging and labeling processes.
And there’s more: Ruchi will also be working on the
introduction of an innovative production process model, which we are confident
will help alleviate many of the common hurdles encountered within the business
of artisan products trade.
Some may ask, “Why the additional investment and
effort to go the extra mile?”
Our response is simple … the wave is building. Now
is the time.
By identifying and developing
new ways to successfully partner with artisans, retailers, and consumer
communities, socializing the message of fair trade and sustainability will be
the natural by-product.
And with growing support from our wonderful retail
partners and Fair Trade friends, as we break new ground Handmade Expressions is
confident of improving opportunities for outreach to a wider audience.
As always, we invite your
interaction. Keep checking for updates on our travelers experiences, and please participate with feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and well
wishes to those journeying through beautiful India.