The Many Faces of Fair Trade


March 1, 2011
 

In the movement to distinguish fair trade crafts from mass manufactured global goods we strive to know the faces of production. The weathered faces of women weaving in the highlands; families gathered together around workshop tables carrying on a traditional art; teams of buyers and designers bent over design sheets and order forms. The closer one gets to fair trade the more diverse its faces become. It is critical that in defining fair trade craft standards and labeling processes that we identify this diversity as part of the reality and strength of the fair trade movement.

Through my work as a buyer for a fair trade craft wholesaler and retailer, working directly with artisan communities, it has become clear that in order to practice fair trade I must recognize its different faces:
 
1) the independent artisan
2) the small family business
3) the community cooperative
4) the large scale fair trade exporter
 
Each face represents an important and interconnected sector of the fair trade movement.

 

1) The independent artisan


The face of the independent artisan belongs to Louis, a traditional retablo artist (Latin American devotional painter) who designs, molds, paints and finishes each piece in his home on the outskirts of Ayacucho, Peru. His life-long training allows him to produce crafts for the local market and limited export. His access to the global market is limited and his survival depends on his connection to a small network of colleagues who work together to create innovative designs, set prices and make connections.

 

 

2) The Small Family Business

 

The face of the small family business belongs to that of Tito Medina and four generations of gourd carvers. Tito, his parents, siblings and community members work together in Cochas, Peru to keep a family tradition alive in their production of decorative gourds. In building the family business, decision-making power and benefits are shared amongst the members. Again market access is highly competitive and limited to local connections and a few overseas contacts. Their success depends on the exclusivity of their designs, the capacity of their production and the chance to build sustainable connections and markets.

 

3) The Community Cooperative


The face of the community cooperative belongs to Hilos y Colores, an association of six working groups, spread throughout the highlands of Peru, each of which has an elected president who works closely with the next to represent group needs and coordinate production of beautiful wool weavings in each community. Production depends on a solid democratic process in decision-making and profit-sharing, which connects the rural indigenous communities. Labor is shared amongst the whole community, men and women, old and young, so as to engage and elevate all members. This type of organization focuses on sustainable community based enterprise in which members take ownership over production and share in its proceeds.

 

 

 

 

4) The Large Scale Fair Trade Exporter


The face of the large scale fair trade exporter belongs to Allpa – a WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) member – that has been working with artisan communities throughout Peru in the production of handmade crafts for over twenty-three years. Allpa has more than 100 workshops that produce hundreds of different items such as gourds, contemporary weavings, ceramics, bags, scarves, gloves and baskets. The artisans are given designs and Allpa provides consistent support, follow-up, technical assistance, financing and training. Decisions are made at the executive level and labor is organized from the top-down. Production is competitive. The most efficient weavers are given the most work and the most successful designs are thus reproduced at the lowest price. Through this process Allpa is able to produce market responsive, high quality products with constantly evolving designs, which provides sustainable growth and income for a wide range of artisans.

 

Even though the large scale exporter is the most competitive source of fair trade products, and most commonly recognized by international fair trade member organizations, it is important to remember that designs and traditional production processes are also sourced and sustained at the level of the independent artisan, family business and community cooperative. Each of these fair trade craft faces works to keep traditional craftsmanship alive.

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