Ethnic & Ethical: Shopping for world arts

Responsible shopping for world arts and crafts requires doing a little homework, but the benefits of buying handmade, environmentally friendly products and the stories of artisans whose lives have been changed are inspiring and powerful incentives.


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As you set the table with dinner plates from Thailand, salad bowls from Vietnam, Filipino flatware, and Kenyan place mats, do you ever wonder about the artisans who made those exquisite objects? Do you know if they are paid fair wages and whether their art is environmentally friendly? If you yearn for a closer connection with the artisans than a small “Made in Brazil” label, try shopping at one of the growing number of retail stores and websites that help indigenous artisans sell their crafts in the world market and live more sustainable lives.

When shopping for world arts, it’s important to identify your priorities, says Keith Recker, executive director of the nonprofit development organization Aid to Artisans. “Do you want to empower world artisans or do you want to buy goods at the lowest price?” he asks.

Look for an organization or company that makes long-term commitments to artisan communities. The e-commerce and catalog retailer, for example, is seeing strong sales of colorful safety-pin bracelets from South Africa. But Amber Chand, eZiba cofounder and vice president of vision, says the company will not ignore its relationship with the artisans—Ndebele women in Johannesburg, who struggle with poverty, single motherhood, and AIDS—once the bracelets are out of vogue. Instead, eZiba plans to help the artists develop other products. Launched in 1999, eZiba (ziba is the Persian word for beautiful) works with artists in more than sixty countries.

Juanita Fox, media coordinator for Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit organization that markets world arts, says it takes many conversations with artisans to determine a fair price for each product. What the artist needs to make ends meet, time spent making the product, material costs, local market prices, and what others are being paid are all part of the equation. On average, artisans who work with Ten Thousand Villages make approximately 28 percent of the retail price of their products, Fox says. Founded in 1946, Ten Thousand Villages works with 150 artisan groups in thirty countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Peru. The organization also has fifty-six retail stores in the United States that sell world crafts.

Question Artistry

When shopping for world arts, find out if your retailer poses the kinds of questions that’s Michelle Wipplinger asks of artisans before doing business with them. These include:

  • Where do the products come from, and are they old or new?
  • Are the wood products sustainably harvested?
  • Are toxins used in manufacturing?
  • What ventilation is available for workers?
  • Is pottery made with lead-free glazes?
  • Are animals killed to make the products?
  • Are the products made using child labor?

Aid to Artisans takes a similar approach, training traditional artisans in business skills while developing products for the global market. According to Recker, artisans can make between one-sixth and one-half of the retail prices of their products, depending on how many parts of the traditional retail supply chain—artisan-exporter-importer-retailer-consumer— are involved. Aid to Artisans currently works in Bosnia, Central Asia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Mexico, Mozambique, Peru, Romania, Southeast Asia, and Tanzania. And the organization maintains strong connections with past project participants in other countries., which is allied with National Geographic Ventures, has cut out steps in the supply chain in a move to pay artists more for their work. Novica considers itself an online art agent for 1,700 artisans worldwide. Catherine Ryan, vice president of communications, says Novica’s artists can make 50 to 70 percent of the retail price of their work because the company connects consumers directly with artists through the Internet, cutting out middlemen. Headquartered in Los Angeles, Novica has twelve offices that work with artisans in twenty-five countries. The artists set their prices and manage their inventory with advice from Novica staff. “Artists are consulted to sell their items above traditional local retail but below international retail because part of our mission is that customers also benefit considerably,” Ryan says.

Some world arts organizations emphasize the importance of being sensitive to local economic conditions when determining a fair price for crafts. Sonja Carson, founder of, a for-profit retailer that helps female artisans and their families develop and market their crafts, is committed to redressing economic disparities through her company. Yet she and her partner, Michele Wipplinger, understand that it can be as inappropriate to pay artisans too much as it is to pay them too little. In some communities, Wipplinger says, women who are paid significantly more than the men could become victims of physical violence. Founded in 1999, is currently involved with artisans in Turkmenistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as with indigenous people in Alaska. On average, the company pays artisans 25 to 30 percent of the retail price for their work. In addition to selling world arts on the Internet, has a retail store and design studio in Seattle.

Buy Responsibly

In the buying and selling of world crafts, two worlds collide. Many consumers don’t have a sense of purchasing responsibility, says Jennie Wood, partner in a project called Rubia, which markets handmade, naturally dyed pillows, hats, sweaters, and shawls crafted by Afghan women living as refugees in Pakistan. “We are taking objects from a world where things move slowly and tradition is the focus and trying to sell them in a world where we buy stuff, throw it away, move fast, and don’t want to spend a lot of time shopping,” she says.

Some companies also believe it’s important to draw on artisans’ own traditions rather than using their skills to create products with no relationship to their culture. Wood sees the potential for companies to take advantage of skilled artisans who are desperate and willing to make anything. “There’s always the danger of stomping on cultural traditions until there’s not much left of them,” she says.

On the other hand, Recker at Aid to Artisans says that traditional and nontraditional craft making often continue side by side. He cites Ghana artist Ester Ocloo, who says, “Do not fail to tell us in Ghana what the market wants.” To preserve traditional crafts, Ocloo says, the traditional artisans must also be preserved.