I didn’t KNOW….LOOKING BACK to 1990

As a young product developer I landed an amazing creative job with a large corporation right out of college and began traveling the world to meet artists is far off lands that were so unfamiliar to me and so exciting to experience. Our vendors would take us to tourist destinations throughout the cities we visited in order to immures us in the local cultures.  I remember seeing the streets of India, Thailand, China and the Philippines full of tents hanging high above with the hustle and bustle below full of artisanal goods & fashion accessories being bartered & sold to tourist as I walked through these markets amazed. The items being sold were so unique in my mind because of the unfamiliar, cultural nature of the item itself, as well as the markers presence and the unfamiliar marketplace I stood within. As an American I never saw or experienced anything like this. People were bartering prices; it was like a game to get the lowest possible price.  My first impression, seeing those artisanal goods being sold plentifully, was that the artisans were getting good business and the game of gaining a low price was appealing to me… it looked like fun! I had no idea, at the time, so much of what I was experiencing was negatively impacting the artisans themselves… the people, the families and the livelihood of their villages.

Fast forward 28 YEARS…

I look back, over the past 28 years, and recall the many vendors and factory workers throughout Asia that I have interacted with and engaged in business practices. For me, corporate product development was disengaged. It lacked a human connection, a desire to want what’s best for the people we were working with. This is not a fulfilling business model. So, I set out for change.

When I finally escaped corporate product development and entered the kinder world of Fair Trade Entrepreneurship I started working with people of purpose, people that wanted a better world, and expressed great passion for humanity. I was thrilled to see so many American Entrepreneurs partnering with Cooperatives that truly cared about global welfare and focused on indigenous artisans in varied regions of the world.  I learned that my naïve notion, of younger years, that artisans having a lot of work must mean success for them; could not be further from the truth. Most Artisan Groups share their concerns about not having enough work, and when selling their goods at local markets or through domestic traders the prices they receive for their handmade craftsmanship is too low to be sustainable. In order for the Artisans families to be fed, many are forced to accept the low price as a means of survival for the most basic of human needs. This lead me to the realization that artisan-made goods don’t automatically equate to healthy returns for the Makers themselves… there’s a side of this business equation that was unknown and possibly untold… until now.

Fair Trade Principles are changing lives and the way I understood the trade business to be in corporate America is so far from a growth model for all. Artisans are vulnerable because they frequently have to face the decision of having no business or selling at an unsustainable price. Their crafts were once a part of their everyday life but now they are at the mercy of selling their heritage crafts short at tourist markets as novelties being sold cheap for the best bartered price. Fair Trade principles is not about “the barter”. It’s a model of respect and fairness. As a business woman that embraces all the principles of Fair Trade Partnerships we sometimes purchase handmade goods from the Artisans directly in volume at a price much higher than the bartered price found at these tourist markets. We are proud to be doing this! We see great value in the indigenous crafts that are keeping cultures rich in heritage and global minded Americans love a piece of this heritage and they value the quality and time it took to make the item… and most of all the understanding that their purchase is empowering an Artisan and their family to rise above the odds in their country.

I now see artisan-made goods in many big box stores at prices so low that I am sure it is not sustainable for artisans. Here’s the big questions: As consumers, should we support that? For the artisans, is selling their goods at low prices better than no business at all?

My sense is NO for the following reasons:

  • Unsustainable wages start to push artisans into a cycle of poverty and this works against what we have worked so hard to build.

  • Big Box Stores are jumping onto the popularity of ethical, fair trade fashion accessories. Consumers believe they are purchasing a product that was purchased at a fair wage with an ethical working environment, but that is not what is happening in many cases. They are exploiting the indigenous artisans by ordering large volumes at much reduced prices. The makers are people, not factories. They can’t sustain this volume without working extremely long days and they are not being paid a fair wage. This is working against everything Fair Trade, Ethical, and Sustainable business models stand for.

  • Artificially low prices in a few stores has the potential to lower the market pricing for that entire craft which is extremely damaging.

  • The effects above start to impact an artisan's motivation and pride in their art, which inherently puts the artistic heritage at risk.

For me, artisanal fashion accessories made sustainably are more than a piece of jewelry. A happy artisan puts soul into each piece they create. Pieces made by artisans that are struggling and demotivated lack the soul in each creation. To me the mass productions are only artisanal looking and not really “artisan made.

The most common way to decide if the artisans are being treated fairly behind a brand is to find the artisans voice in the products you are buying. Get close as possible to the makers to know their stories. Brands that put the makers in the forefront are passionate about helping them grow and prosper. Offering them opportunities to rise out of poverty.

It’s important to me at High 5 Humans to bring an awareness to those that might not know the lives others are living outside the US. Our consumers love the Human Connection of knowing the Makers & knowing their stories. Handmade locally & globally gives us a wide variety of products & cultures. A “Purchase with a Purpose” means so much to those that shop at HIGH 5 HUMANS.



I hope I shed a little light on a topic that you're interested in learning more about. I learn something new every day and here's a great source of information to peak your curiosity and awareness even further...


1 comment

Feb 10, 2019

For an artisan who enjoys handcrafting wearable art, I too am frustrated with people not wanting to pay what it is worth. I commend you on doing the right thing to pay your artisans a fair wage and value their crafts. Your offerings are beautiful and well made. Thank you for giving the Artisans a voice. ;)

kathy roeland

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