TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Is it Green or Fair Trade?

In today's world, where things come from is an important question. If we make things ourselves, we might question the toxicity of the dyes we use, whether the cotton used in a quilt is organic, if wool came from healthy, well-cared for sheep, or we might look around us and try to figure out how to recycle or upcycle discarded "junk" into something new. If we buy something, we might also wonder about these questions and whether the person who made it worked in a sweatshop or received fair wages for their labor.

Where, oh, where did this doll come from? Who made it? Is it old, new, collectible?

Those of us who have a passion for textiles, fiber art and all things handmade tend to zoom in on items that show expert workmanship, interesting designs, and a new way of putting things together. I draw a distinction between vintage and new work and whether something was made by and individual artist/crafter or as part of a business.
The doll is new, made of recycled fabrics. An unknown (to me) crafter made it. It is from Bolivia. It doesn't have much value as a collectible item, but is interesting as a cultural one. One can find plenty of handmade things online that are interesting to fiber enthusiasts. Knowing what the environmental and social impact that item has is a growing concern for those of us who want our purchasing power to help improve conditions here on Planet Earth. Products that fulfill environmental concerns are called eco or green products. They are measured by the impact their carbon footprint has in the production of the item. Products that represent underserved populations as an economic development initiative are referred to as fair trade products.

The doll is both fair trade and green. I bought several of these to sell in my eBay store last Christmas (I think there may be one left, hint, hint...). Inter-American Trading, my source, works with artisans in Bolivia and Peru.

Here is how they describe themselves:

"We are Direct Importers and Wholesalers of Handicrafts, Musical Instruments, Jewelry and Clothing from the Andean Countries of Peru and Bolivia .

We are a family owned business offering indigenous products through the private enterprise system. Our merchandise is produced in an environmentally sound manner. We are members of the Fair Trade Federation."

Groups like Inter-American work with people to help them improve their standard of life. Artisans working with such groups are often referred to as producers. The artistic impact of products they make often take second place to the saleability of an item. Producers may be paid by the piece, or may belong to a collective that helps decide how profits will be used for the benefit of the community as a whole. Success of a project might be measured by the number of locals who have greater access to education, medical attention, legal resources and so on. Often groups are structured as a collective, cooperative, non-profit, church organization or non-governmental organization.

Not everything fair trade is green and not all green products are fair trade. For example, a fair trade group might be working with batik artists in Indonesia. They might pay their producers fair prices for the batiks, but might use toxic dyes in the process. Many of the dyes used overseas are illegal in the United States because of their toxicity when discarded.

And, a green item, let's say an organic cotton scarf, might be made using good environmental standards, but they may pay their workers poorly. These are two different conscientious markets that need to marry. Both have loyal customer bases which have been slowly merging together. Fair Trade coffee is an example of how one cannot survive without the other. Coffee growers unite as collectives and find larger markets if they grow organic beans. This needs to happen in other production sectors as well.

I would like to introduce four organizations that have truly helped grow awareness and organize groups together. You may click on their website images to better read the text and visit their websites by clicking on the title. I have copied each mission below:

"The Fair Trade Federation (FTF) is an association of businesses and organizations who are fully committed to fair trade. FTF strengthens the capacity of its members, encourages the exchange of best practices, and raises awareness about the importance of choosing fairly traded products and supporting businesses committed to fair trade principles."

"IFAT is the International Fair Trade Association, the global network of Fair Trade Organizations. IFAT’s mission is to enable producers to improve their livelihoods and communities through Fair Trade. IFAT will be the global network and advocate for Fair Trade, ensuring producer voices are heard.

Over 300 Fair Trade Organizations in 70 countries form the basis of our network and membership is growing steadily. Approximately 65% of our members are based in the South (that is: Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America) with the rest coming from North America & the Pacific Rim and Europe. We are truly international!

Our members have the concept of Fair Trade at the heart of their mission and at the core of what they do. They come in many shapes and sizes and represent the Fair Trade chain from production to sale. Our members are producer co-operatives and associations, export marketing companies, importers, retailers, national and regional Fair Trade networks and financial institutions, dedicated to Fair Trade principles."

Aid to Artisans

"Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization, offers practical assistance to artisan groups worldwide, working in partnerships to foster artistic traditions, cultural vitality, improved livelihoods and community well-being. Through collaboration in product development, business skills training and development of new markets, Aid to Artisans provides sustainable economic and social benefits for craftspeople in an environmentally sensitive and culturally respectful manner."

Co-Op America's National Green Pages

"Co-op America is a not-for-profit membership organization founded in 1982.

Our mission is to harness economic power—the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace—to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society."

All of these organizations have loads of information on what constitutes fair (or alternative) trade. The National Green Pages is an excellent database for finding both green and fair trade products, not just for crafts, but for all areas of life, including investing financially in socially responsible banks and businesses.

This is a short article on introducing the concept of fair trade and green products. I am in the process of inviting groups to write about themselves and will include more articles on these topics in the future. Finding a way to improve the world through what we make is as important to me as the aesthetic value of a piece. Poor artists are not only in developing countries. Many of us struggle for basic needs in pursuit of our passions as artists or crafters. I have no health insurance and many of the other artists I know live in sub-standard conditions with no savings or safety nets. But, I have always known that this struggle has been my choice. I have a good education and could move to an area where my skills would receive decent compensation. I choose to live in a small town where good jobs are scarce.

Not so for most of the world. So, when a scarf, a doll, a quilt, or a weaving can make a real difference in someone's access to resources AND when that item contributes to cleaning up our environment- I'm all for it!

I have several fair trade groups listed under Fair Trade Fiber at the right and will continue to increase that listing as well as develop one for green products. If you would like to contribute articles to Fiber Focus on this theme, please contact me. Meanwhile, explore these organizations and you will find wonderful groups and resources out there! Go green and fair!


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