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.

| September/October 2001

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?

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