Traditional Handmade VS Fair Trade Handmade

by Donald Clark

Courtesy of The Crafts Report
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''I've been hearing a lot of artists debate quite frequently over what constitutes traditional handmade crafts and fair trade handmade. What exactly is the difference and why is there so much controversy?'' - Marcus Wright

First, handmade is handmade whether it's made in Ghana, Peru, China, or the United States. It's the hands that count. Traditional handmade is a new term for me. Traditional could mean an item was made using long-established techniques that are heavy on the hand part, for instance pieces that are cut by hand rather than using a laser cutter. I have a feeling that's not the point of your question; rather, you may be asking about handmade in the U.S. versus handmade off-shore. Let's take a look at this comparison. Of course people are making things by hand all over the world, but everything produced doesn't qualify as being a fair trade item.

Beginning in the second half of the last century, individuals and organizations in developed countries became concerned with the working conditions and income of artisans producing items for the world market. Many of these items were and still are available in the United States. We have all heard the horror stories about the deplorable working conditions and low pay that workers in other countries sometimes receive. We're told that in some cases the workers are children who aren't paid at all, or perhaps very little.

There are a number of organizations in the U.S. that work directly with artisans in developing countries. Many are non-profit groups and their goals include developing product designed for our market and manufacturing it in a way that the makers are paid a fair wage for their work--hence fair trade. Aid to Artisans located in Washington, D.C. is one of the oldest non-profit organizations working to bring fair trade handmade goods into the U.S.

Now we have fair trade handmade created off-shore and handmade in the U.S. Where should our allegiance lie? Insisting on handmade goods regardless of where they are made feels right to me. The dilemma becomes the question, “Should Americans support local, domestic crafts people or should we buy from international sources?” There's no one easy answer to this.

Some people prefer Made in the U.S.A. goods only; others with a more global point of view choose to support artisans in other countries. Sometimes the items we seek aren't made here and must be sourced off-shore. I feel best about the purchases I make if I know the objects were made by hand and the maker was paid fairly wherever they may live.

''I've been diligently working towards building my handmade crafts business the past few years, and I am happily finding success in my niche. I'm eager to make my small craft business appear more corporate and less like a hobby interest. Do you have any ideas on how to make this happen?'' - Meri Claughfner

Well, first I'd suggest you move away from the corporate model. I believe and have for over 50 years that one of the reasons the buying public is drawn to our work is that it's the opposite of corporate. Being more professional in your business activities would however, be a goal I think you could strive for. To me this means building your brand and continually enhancing it. Historically, having a brand is a concept that has been rejected by craftspeople. Whether or not it's a conscious decision, we all have a brand. It's not something one goes out and purchases, it's built over time and reflects the business it represents. My observations suggest that the most successful craftspeople are the ones who manage their brand in ways that result in their work being seen in a positive light by the buying public. So what does this really mean?

At the outset we need to understand that everything about our business contributes to the perception of our brand. Certainly you have worked to create pieces that are executed with a high standard of design and flawless craftsmanship. Now we have to look at the support materials used to sell your product. The booth you use to sell at either retail or wholesale shows needs to be carefully designed and beautiful to visit--all while being totally functional for you and your customers. The printed materials you use also should be carefully designed. I'd place post cards, show handouts, catalogs/price sheets, order forms, business cards, and stationery in this category. This task needs to be assigned to the best graphic designer you can afford. Further, you should have it all designed at the same time even if you aren't going to print everything at once. This will ensure a specific cohesive look that is unmistakably yours. Today a well-designed, easy-to-use website is considered an essential component of every marketing campaign. For extra guidance, read the next reader question and my response.

''I'm getting ready to update my website, e-commerce store, and printed catalogs. How do I learn to compose better, more enticing product descriptions that sell and will engage my buyers?'' - Cassandra Block-Neubauer

Be aware that even the best written product copy won't sell an item if it's not presented in a visually exciting manner. Each object offered must be represented by a perfectly styled photograph. If necessary, show more than one image. Keep in mind each image you use typically adds to the cost of the catalog and could heighten any visual confusion to the page. This means your catalog and e-commerce site must be designed to draw the consumer in and make a purchase.

In traditional settings, one of the main factors motivating a customer to purchase a handmade object is the presence of the maker at the time of the sale. They want to talk to you, to know you, and be able to share that experience with the recipient of a gift, or to relive the interaction each time they use the item themselves. So let's look at some pointers for writing copy that will sell without you being physically present. Remember above all else, you need to know your audience and write specifically for them.

Catchy headlines always work on me. I find myself reading copy about things I'd never buy because of a few carefully chosen words. The bestselling copy is brief and to the point which is meant to get the reader to make a purchase. It's important that the copy includes specifics like color, size, materials, and suggested uses--but that's not enough. You'll want to write about specific features that set this particular item apart from the competition. Next, you'll want to point out the benefits that will enhance the user experience with your item. By the end of the reading copy the customer should have enough information to make a purchase.

Be mindful that most likely you aren't selling something the buyer needs; you have to make them want it by carefully crafting copy that emphasizes the positive experience they'll have when they own or gift your item.


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