Fair Trade Case Studies
Our work and how it changes lives
Handmade Expressions works with over 30 artisan cooperatives from all over India. Most of the people we work with are women, and all of our artisan partners are able to earn a living wage, get development help, and benefit from our partnership with them. Here are some case studies of real people we work with:
VSA India: Building Capacity
Our line of recycled cassette or video tapes is made by a very special group of artisans in New Delhi, India. They belong to the international organization formerly called Very Special Arts, which focuses on working with children and adults with disabilities. The project brings out the creative skills in these special artists and at the same time prepares them to become financially self-sufficient and self-employed. By teaching children and adults how to make bags (among other products), they are ensuring that they will have the skills necessary to survive in the world. They are also able to raise money to keep the program going, ensuring people with disabilities get a chance to express themselves and participate in society. It is a small group, and we at Handmade Expressions decided to support it by helping them bring their products to the North American market. However, our role has evolved from just carrying their products, to helping them improved their products, design new products, add functionality to their products, etc. We do this through one on one dialogue with the artisans themselves.
Handmade Expressions has partnered with this artisan cooperative for a few years now. In the past, we have done small cosmetic and coin purses with them (made of recycled cassette and video tapes), but with little success because of quality issues. This limited the amount of work we could give them, hindering the pace of their development. In early 2008, our sourcing director (Rashmi Dhariwal) and our design director (Ruchi Agrawal) both went to visit the cooperative specifically to help them overcome this issue. After sitting down with them, engaging in dialogue with them, and working together to understand the production process, our design director helped the artisans tweak their techniques to improve the quality of the work. This dramatically improved the reception of their recycled products with our customers. At the same time, they worked together to develop some new passport bags, which are proving to be a great success. Now the artisans have more work because retailers in the US like their products better. Moreover, they can transfer what they learned through us to their other work, helping them get more business on their own.
Amar Jyoti: Creating opportunities, building capacity and protecting the rights of children
Our popular, recycled newspaper bags are made by an organization whose main purpose is to provide education and health care to underprivileged children. They also provide vocational education to help them become self-sustainable when they grow up. The school raises some income by making the newspaper bags, and we are glad we can help them sell these amazing, green products.
Many young boys and girls run away from their homes in villages to escape gender discrimination, abuse, poverty and many other problems. They dream of making it big in the city, and arrive at the train stations alone. However, their inexperience, their innocence and their lack of skills force them to live in slums, beg on the streets, or be victims of human trafficking. Luckily, there are organizations that want to put a stop to this tragedy. Handmade Expressions is working with this one in particular, which focuses on getting youth off the streets and saving them from sexual and labor abuse. However, this organization still needs help to be able to make the products and sell them.
This organization started making the recycled newspaper bags as a means to raise money for their cause. Fair Trade enabled them to find a market that would support them. We asked them to line the newspaper bags with cardboard to add durability and functionality, since we wanted to sell them in North America. However, when this was being done, the price of the bags became unsustainable. We would have had to charge way too much for each bag and the initiative would’ve ended there.
However, we did not give up on the group and our sourcing director (Rashmi Dhariwal) paid them a visit to solve this problem. She sat down with the artisans and went through each step of making the bag, explaining to them that there might be ways to save money. Eventually, she found out that the artisans were buying the recycled cardboard from the local markets at retail prices, which explained the skyrocketing of the cost of making the bag. After making some calculations with them and helping them project production quantities, she realized they qualified to buy cardboard in bulk at discounted prices. She then proceeded to help them find a wholesaler from which to buy the cardboard, and the artisans were able to produce bags at affordable prices. Now these bags have helped sustain their project and their livelihood!
Thanks to our help, this organization can now work works towards a just and equitable world with projects such as:
- Home placement project
- Nutrition programs for the rescued youth
- Vocational education to teach practical skills
- Formal and informal schooling
- Health and psycho-social rehabilitation
- Prevention strategies, where they meet the boys, girls and adolescents at the train stations before they end up in the slums
Rann Kala (The Art of The Desert): Creating opportunities and respecting cultural identity
Several northwestern regions of India were completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in January 2001. It was the most severe earthquake (out of more than 90 earthquakes) to hit Kutch in 185 years. The area affected is called the Rann of Kutch, a seasonally marshy saline clay desert located in the Thar Desert, in the state of Gujarat, India. It is the home of an artisan cooperative that makes our mirror work products.
This group of artisans practices very intricate mirror-work embroidery. In earlier times, this beautiful art was used to make dowry items for brides-to-be. For the longest time, it was considered too precious to be sold to outsiders. However, fair trade policies, a growing respect and appreciation for the art, and the need to rebuild after a devastating natural disaster compelled the local people to share their art with us.
When we first visited them, we noticed right away that the region of Kutch, in Gujarat, India, is extremely rich with traditions. It is a land almost untouched by time. The artisans dress in their own, very colorful, very elaborate clothing. They have their own lifestyles almost undisturbed by cultural influences, both from inside the rest of India or outside of India. One of their most sacred treasures is their art of mirror-work embroidery. This is learned from the elder women in the villages, who teach the younger generations to be proud of their heritage.
Due to the lack of employment opportunities in these regions of India, many people resort to working in agriculture, which is seasonal and crops are often affected by drought. However, with mirror-work embroidery, over 2500 artisans living in villages across this region are revitalizing this traditional craft for sustainable livelihood. However, these artisans are very careful to share their art and their culture. It was proving difficult for them to work with the outside world, as they perceived that they were not respected and that their art was not appreciated. This was hindering the income they needed.
Through careful and considerate dialogue, and after explaining to them the principles of Fair Trade, the women in these villages decided to team up with us to sell products made through their traditional arts. We knew it was a very important heritage for them, so we have been very careful to show respect for it. The guidance we have given them has only altered the functionality of their products, not the looks or the technique. For example, if they normally make a dress with their art, we worked together with them to make a small bag or a scarf.
The artisans now feel that their art is of greater use, since they can make a living out of it. They understand that we respect it, and that we convey their story through tags and posters, so the end consumer will understand its value. They also appreciate the fact that we are not altering their artistic technique, but rather advising them to use it in a different way to make products that sell. They learn from us and our world as much as we learn from them and their world, in an exchange of culture, art, ideas and products! This is a Fair Trade.
As part of our personal agenda, Handmade Expressions is installing free solar panels to power light bulbs in the villages. Their huts are made of mud, far away from modern infrastructure. Many of these villagers have no access to electricity, limiting their vision at night. By installing solar panels in their huts (which are in a desert, so there is a lot of sunlight throughout the year), we hope that they will be able to illuminate their homes at night and lead a more comfortable lifestyle.
Sahaj: Creating opportunities for women
The Dahod district of Gujarat, India, is comprised of tribal people who have long depended on agriculture to make a living. This means that their work is very seasonal, leaving long gaps between the times they can toil the land. Many men in the village leave their families and migrate to cities to look for seasonal work there, leaving the women behind to make a living by themselves.
It was in this environment that a group of people in a non-government organization decided to branch off and help the women develop their arts and crafts in the hopes to achieve sustainable employment. Their mission is: “Socio-Economic empowerment of the woman through art and craft based activities to secure her position in society where she can think independently, become a role model for future generations, and above all does not have to prove herself because of her gender.” In order to achieve this goal, this organization trains and empowers tribal women groups with vocational education, helping them create functional products and make a living. The group has grown to include more than 2,700 tribal artisans (working part-time or full-time on the crafts) from 52 different villages of the area.
Boori is a lady we met in our last trip to visit this group (she can be seen in the picture above). She joined this artisan cooperative 10 years ago as a widow, a great disadvantage for a woman in her region. Before joining the cooperative, she and her community were facing horrible hardships. Thanks to this cooperative and its beliefs in Fair Trade, though, Boori (along with other women in this cooperative) went from making an average of Rs. 500-1000 per month to making Rs. 3000-4000 per month. Apart from the increased income opportunities within the village, women have also gained social status within their family, community and various government and banking institutions. Thanks to the success of the program, men started joining and now make up 10% of the group.
Thanks to Fair Trade, Boori was able to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation, giving her the opportunity to re-marry. This is almost unheard of in her tribal society, but is a testament of how Fair Trade is directly challenging social structures and reshaping them so they can benefit everyone.
We believe that this is a great example of creating opportunities for marginalized producers because Boori faced many challenges before joining this group. She is a woman in a society where men are usually in control. She was also a widow, meaning she was left alone to fend for herself. Her village depended on agriculture (a job reserved for men, usually), but the work was seasonal and affected by climate change. All the odds were against her.
However, thanks to the economic empowerment that was offered to her by Sahaj, Boori became a productive member of society. After learning her craft, Boori became productive within the cooperative and started getting paid. This new empowerment enabled other men and women in her village to see her real worth. They were able to see beyond the fact that she is “just a woman”, and started valuing her better. This also enabled her to become a decision maker in her society, and is now respected and known in her community. Finally, she was able to remarry, which is almost unheard of in this part of the world.