THE BLOG

Meeting Your Maker: Why Fairtrade Brands Should Meet The Artisans Behind Their Business

15/03/2017 11:40

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Photo credit: Harjit Sohotey-Khan

India. It's a vast and beautiful country that swings between exquisite and extreme. The diversity both in culture and religion has resulted in a craft and textile industry that's hard to beat in terms of creativity and sheer regional variety. Every day, millions of hands are busy weaving or crafting ancient techniques passed down through generations, into products that are sold worldwide. That's why I'm here. I've come to meet the social enterprise I partner with and the artisans who craft our products.

I'm in Delhi, sitting in a café by the window, drinking my masala chai. A child spots me, walks over and knocks on the window. Making gestures with his tiny hands of how hungry he is, I look into his big, beautiful eyes that are silently pleading for money. This is the extreme flipside to the exquisite. The poverty. Present in the dishevelled appearance of the poor. Malnutrition stumbling around on stick thin legs with red, tired eyes looking up at the well-dressed madam that has come from a foreign land. I finish my tea and jump into an auto rickshaw, deciding to skip breakfast that would have been eaten awkwardly under the gaze of a hungry child. After a hair-raising journey where the driver nonchalantly avoids three head-on collisions with a truck, a dog and a person, I am deposited on the doorstep of House of Wandering Silk.

Katherine Neumann, the driving force behind this wonderful social enterprise, greets me like an old friend. I'm a bit star-struck. An ex-humanitarian aid worker turned social-preneur, is not someone I meet every day. I spend two days with Katherine, getting to know the amazing team who work behind the scenes to design, produce and ship my products to me. I'm taken through every stage of the upcycling process of our products. From scouring the colourful sari markets of Delhi sourcing vintage saris to seeing a batch of freshly stitched scarves arrive from the artisans in West Bengal.

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Photo credit: Harjit Sohotey-Khan

I meet the artisans that design and craft our necklaces. These lovely women from Nagaland along with two male artisans are provided a sustainable income in a safe and flexible environment. They design and transform the excess sari material left over in the process of making scarves, into stunning sari necklaces. I can finally put a face to each necklace I sell. There's a connection, names, conversations and now memories for me. Being part of the process gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of what they do and how they benefit.

A couple of days later, I transport myself to Kolkata, West Bengal. I've got two days of meetings with two groups of Kantha artisans ahead of me. I travel for hours through lush countryside, where towns give way to peaceful villages that give my ears a well-earned rest from the chaos of the city. The artisans who manage and train the other women, greet me with a steaming mug of chai and an amazing home cooked meal which after a long journey I'm so grateful for. I watch as the women stitch our scarves. It's labour intensive work, requiring a great deal of patience and an eye for detail. I interview and speak to them through the help of an English-speaking representative from the organisation that supports them. We talk about their daily lives, how their lives have benefitted from our partnership and what their hopes are for the future. Sujata, a vibrant woman full of joy, tells me how they can finally save for their children's education, how they have assistance with health care needs and how flexible working hours means they can work from home or at the cooperative base.

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Photo credit: Harjit Sohotey-Khan

It's particularly great to connect on a personal level and share stories, including my own. I see how this cooperative of women support each other to overcome obstacles and seek opportunities to improve their income. Their relationships with each other are simple and honest. Whilst many women go out to work in cities, those in rural areas are still governed by cultural and social expectations of looking after the family. Being able to work in a flexible environment that allows them to look after their children and earn a sustainable income, empowers them to contribute financially to the household as independent individuals in their own right.

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Photo credit: Harjit Sohotey-Khan

Meeting the artisans has changed my perspective on my business. Before, I felt like I was just sitting on the sidelines looking in on my own brand but now I feel as if I'm connected. I would definitely recommend other brands to try and visit those who craft their products. I've learned not everybody wants to or has to. You can easily tell the stories of the women to customers, without going and of course, there's an element of expense. Yet I felt disconnected to that story and to my brand. You see, I've been inspired by these women. I feel it's important that I can see for myself the conditions these women work in. It's important I connect on a personal level and it's vitally important that they benefit from a fairtrade business I've chosen to invest my efforts in. Because after all, it's tough being on the ethical, artisan end of the spectrum and trying to influence peoples' behaviours. For me, It's a pleasure to share their stories and a positive, inspiring experience that I know will ultimately empower my business.

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