Is Fair Trade Fair to United States Artists?

by Megy Karydes
This article was featured in the January 2009 of The Crafts Report® and is reprinted with permission.

An artist prepares her workstation and gathers her materials in a small space. She begins by taking the stone and metal pieces and slowly turns them into a work of art--a polished, wooden necklace with silver-colored metal beads to complete the look. A necklace like this could easily find a home with any woman who appreciates handmade jewelry. It could have been made by an American artist--but it wasn't.

The necklaces are handmade by women artists in India and were brought to the United States by way of Handmade Expressions in Austin, Texas. Handmade Expressions, an importer of fair trade and handmade jewelry as well as other items, is among the growing list of organizations who are supporting demand for fair trade products in the United States.

Artists create for Handmade Expressions of Austin, Texas

What is fair trade?

Fair trade is an international movement designed to alleviate global poverty and promote sustainability through global trade of commodities (such as coffee) and crafts (baskets, jewelry, etc.). It encompasses principles such as:
  • Against slavery and child labor
  • Environmentally friendly processes
  • A respectful relationship between producers and buyers
  • A fair wage for producers
  • A healthy working environment for producers
  • Gender equality in respect to wages and working conditions
  • The development of communities for self-sustainability
Consumer demand in the United States has increased and retailers have responded by incorporating more fair trade products into their merchandising mix. Even trade shows such as Beckman's Handcrafted Show in Chicago, Ill., introduced more fair trade vendors than ever before this past July.

Artist versus artist

Galleries such as Mindscapes Adornment in Evanston, Ill., are noticing the increased demand for fair trade goods and are responding by bringing in some fair trade pieces from Nepal. Carole Richey, owner of Mindscapes Adornments, is mindful of the type of fair trade products she brings in and tends to seek out items that are less ''ethnic'' looking to appeal to her market.

''Evanston is very supportive of fair trade,'' Richey says. ''I think it complements our other pieces.'' Nancy Phillips, general manager of WomanCraft, agrees that incorporating domestic and international products can be a smart strategy for retailers. ''Customers today can access product from anywhere around the world,'' Phillips adds. ''Retailers today are competing in a global market, and to get people in their doors, they need to bring in a range of products to appeal to a larger consumer base and draw more traffic to their store.''

WomanCraft provides artisan positions and transitional jobs to women facing barriers to employment so they may earn income, improve job skills, build a work history and increase economic self-sufficiency. The artisans learn to make eco-friendly note cards and customized bridal stationery as part of their training, and the nonprofit organization is noticing an increase in retail interest as more customers are seeking out these types of products.

Phillips admits, however, that the fair trade story isn't enough to compel a customer to buy. ''The product has to have value; it has to appeal to the customer,'' Phillips says. ''The fact that it's fair trade is icing on the cake.'' Textile Artist Debbie Bartz, owner of Taylor and Coultas in Jacksonville, Ill., has been in business since 1988 and has seen her business as an American artist dwindle over recent years. She has recently started to source some of her work internationally, a decision driven by ''economic necessity, but a regretful one,'' Bartz feels.

''I would like to see American retailers support U.S. artists over third-world artists,'' Bartz begins, ''but retailers won't because they're concerned about price more than ever.'' Howard Schwartz, a jewelry designer and co-owner of Whitney Howard Designs in California, sees art as art--no matter where the person lives. ''It's important in today's economy to support artists all over the world,'' Schwartz believes. ''It shouldn't be limited by any border as long as it's legitimately fair trade.''

Items available through Handmade Galleries LA

Artist crafting for Handmade Expressions

Manish Gupta, founder of Handmade Expressions, works with artisans in India to create gifts, home accessories and jewelry, and agrees with Schwartz: ''The handmade market is a very small is competing against machine-made products from large industries that offer value and consistency.'' He notes that fair trade can help the handmade market in that it has a strong human appeal and, therefore, introduces more American consumers to the beauty of handmade items.

Schwartz and Gupta also note that geography plays a part when it comes to the look of the art. ''A product from Egypt has an Egyptian style to it,'' Schwartz explains as Gupta adds, ''Artists in developing countries have their own wealth of rich and traditional art forms and need more support and encouragement to keep their art alive.''
One big happy family

Rather than looking at it as us versus them, Carmen Iezzi, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation in Washington, D.C., chooses to look at it from a more collaborative perspective and a shared mission of understanding, ''Artists in general have a shared interest in educating consumers about their craft,'' Iezzi observes. ''We need to educate to value and effort of a handmade product and appreciate what it took to make that item.'' The fair trade movement, according to Iezzi, is about using handmade products as a catalyst for change. ''The cultures and techniques used by some of our artisans are underrepresented in the United States, but it doesn't have to necessarily compete against American-made art. It can easily complement their work in shops.''

Andy Spyros owns Handmade Galleries LA in Los Angeles, Calif., one of Los Angeles magazine's top 25 gift shops, and shows local handmade and fair trade in her 5,000-square-foot store. ''The biggest gift in the world is creativity, '' Spyros maintains, ''and we want to support creativity wherever that may come from.'' She makes the analogy that incorporating handcrafted works from other countries is like being a parent of more than one child. ''You love your first child and you wonder how it's possible to love another child just as much,'' she begins. ''Then you have another child and you realize that you can love them both--there isn't a finite amount of love and that's the same thing with our artists.''

Iezzi also recommends American artists consider sourcing some of their raw materials from fair trade sources. ''The Fair Trade Federation website (fair has a listing of members who offer fabric by the yard or beads, for example,'' Iezzi adds. ''We want to make it as easy as possible to work with our partners, whether it's by providing a flyer of fair trade members exhibiting at trade shows on our website or being a resource through access to our members.'' Explains Gupta, ''Ultimately, art is a representation of free mind and free soul, it cannot be bound by territory. ''And that's something we can all agree on.

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based professional writer and marketing/public relations consultant.

Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article ''Is Fair Trade Fair to United States Artists?'' as featured in an email newsletter. This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of the The Crafts Report magazine and was reprinted with permission. Please keep in mind that the comments expressed below are those of our customers and do not reflect the views of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads.

''I enjoyed Megy's article on Fair Trade goods. I buy both Fair Trade finished goods when I can. I think there is room for both artisan handmade goods, and Fair Trade items.

I also love to try to find Fair Trade materials for jewellery making when I can. It may cost a little more, but I would rather use materials that have been made by workers that are working in safe working conditions.''
- Jan, UK

''While I believe it is important to support artists everywhere, I'm beginning to think perhaps we should think a little more about the American artist. He (or she) has to make his living by what he creates. He has to live by the American economy which is increasingly difficult to survive in. When you introduce all this very cheap merchandise (although often nice) into the market, guess what people are going to buy.

At art shows, many items are not made by the artist anymore, though they may have been designed by him. This forces out the small artist who makes every item himself. We may be sorry when artists can no longer compete in the marketplace.''
- Suzanne

''I really liked reading this article; it applies to many articles other than jewelry and I support fair trade fully! Art knows no boundaries! We all belong to this elusive ''global family'' even though we are separated by (man-made) borders.''
- Hanneke

''...While I agree it is important to support fair trade in other countries, I also feel it is important to recognize that people in America are also experiencing financial struggles in rural areas, and that shopping local is a way to help grow our own cottage industries!''
- S J, Washington

''I think it's wonderful how your company helps spread awareness of various issues. The Fair Trade article was very interesting. As someone who fights against human trafficking (slavery), I applaud your ongoing efforts to increase awareness of global issues.''
- Lori

''I work at an international organization and we often want to provide gifts to visiting staff or other foreign nationals. I'm at a loss in Washington DC to find anything ''made in USA.'' There is a humorous observation I have heard all over SE Asia: gifts from the US are made in China. We desperately need the profile of US artisans and crafts people raised in the eyes of the American consumer letting them know we're out there.''
- Rochelle, Washington, DC

''I enjoyed reading the article about fair trade. It was educational, informative and provided a nice link that I shall research.Thank you.''
- Vicki

''After reading the article on fair trade, I must say that I agree that it is not fair to American artists. The simple truth is that the cost of living here in America is exponentially different than in third world countries, and therefore the third world can afford to trade, even ''fair trade'' at pennies on the dollar compared to what we can. Charity starts at home and I think we need to remember that by being forced to compete on such an uneven playing field, all we do is force ourselves into poverty.''
- Lucy

''I was afraid you would be against Fair Trade in your Jewelry Maker's Newsletter. I am pleased to see that you support it. We are all in this world together and together we can make it a better place.''
- Jane

''As to so called ''Fair'' trade: when the cost of living in Philadelphia (my home) drops to where I can afford to live on a couple of dollars a day a la India, only then will it be ''fair'' to for me to have to compete directly with artists from India, Tibet, etc., whose main appeal is going to be price, price, and price.

As to the retailers who claim it is all about the beauty of foreign work as well as a desire to help those countries develop, I will only believe them (the retailers) when I see them paying the foreigners the same premium prices that artists in NYC, LA, San Fran, etc., customarily get for their jewelry.''
- Irene, Pennsylvania

''I just read the article about is fair trade really fair....I think it is a very necessary process in that we are becoming a global society more and more--whether we want to or not. I think it has become critical to ensure that people everywhere are entitled to a fair wage and respect, and help with growing practices or craft creating or whatever to improve both their costs and the environmental impact their actions have. I think fair trade is necessary and very valuable....and I look for fair trade products all the time.''
- Anna

''Hi, I've just been reading your article about fair trade and although I agree with the author in principal, I find that I can't compete with the prices of 'fair trade' goods. Here in the UK the hand crafted market has very little impetus as it is. I don't charge for my labour because that would price me out of the minute slice of the market that's left, after cheaper imports on the shelves of our major supermarkets, high street fashion shops and even boutiques, sporting fair trade labels. Imports are sold much cheaper then I can afford to buy in components, like beads and findings, to make my jewellery items. The last thing I want, is to sound petulant and resentful, so I ask that you not misunderstand my motives in raising my point. I personally feel that fair trade is a grey area and doesn't benefit people on the home ground. It is not an equal system. It's a wonderful thing to take care of artisans in other countries but I want to encourage that home grown artisans get equal opportunities.''
- Charmaine, UK

''Thanks for the article on Fair Trade jewelry. It's good to see that market expanding and can only help all of us who are artists.''
- Karen

''I have been in crafts (leather work, beading, jewelry making) for many years.

I hate to say it, but Americans would rather pay for ''fair trade'' from third world countries, than from Americans. For some strange reason, they believe that what we make is not the same as what is made in other countries. ''Made in America'' means nothing to a lot of Americans anymore, even the ones who complain about ''made in whichever country'' it was made in.

Everything in this country is now being farmed out to other countries due to the cost of materials and labor. We are being taxed to death. The economy in this country will not pick up until people start taking pride in themselves, their country and what is produced.''
- Birgit

''Thanks for the article on Fair Trade. It's a topic that I've been interested in lately and couldn't have come at a better time.''
- Heather, Canada

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