One day, halfway into a trip to Uganda, Colorado psychologist Torkin Wakefield took an afternoon walk with her daughter and a family friend. They stopped to talk with a local woman who was sitting by the road crafting necklaces. The woman told them that to support herself she crushed rocks by hand in a quarry nearby for a dollar a day; in her spare time, she and her friends made necklaces by rolling brightly colored paper—trash that they’d recovered—into beads and stringing the beads into necklaces. “Why aren’t you selling these?” Wakefield asked, after convincing the woman to let her buy a handful. “There’s no market for them,” the woman answered.
Back in the US, after countless friends admired their necklaces, the three women wondered, ‘Is there really no market, or is it simply that the women haven’t found the right one yet?’ “We started thinking about how we could sell the beads in a way that wasn’t about retail, but was about women to women,” explains Wakefield.“We knew people would be interested in stories of resilient, hardworking women who were taking trash paper and turning it into something beautiful—something that could give them hope.”
In 2004 Bead for Life was born. Their ambitious goal: help Ugandan beadmakers support themselves within the local economy. Their plan: hire a Uganda-based team to train the artisans in quality control (making higher quality beads at a faster pace); buy the beads from the artisans and sell them to a viable US market; use the net profits from the sales to train each artisan in a business that would be sustainable (like a dry goods store, a taxi service, or a restaurant); and then help the artisan launch that enterprise—all within 27 months.
Though none of the organization’s founders had a business background, Bead for Life has made impressive strides toward its poverty eradication mission in the five years it’s been in operation. Not only has the program graduated hundreds of beaders who have gone on to earn regular incomes in various economic sectors, they have also provided elementary, secondary, and vocational training for impoverished youth, assisted beaders in building over 100 affordable housing units, and started a grants program that is providing financial backing to other organizations working to end poverty.
While Bead for Life has been more successful than some of its cohorts, it is just one of many organizations that has tapped into a retail narrative that is playing out across America, in small private boutiques, in major retailers like Whole Foods and New Seasons, and online. The idea is simple: Buy beautiful, “exotic” crafts—baskets from Guatemala, jewelry from Afghanistan, textiles from South Asia—and help women work their way out of poverty.
It’s commerce with a conscience in a market that is increasingly focused on not only eco-friendly, but also people-friendly, business practices and products. With its roots in the fair trade movement—which is fundamentally a strategy for creating ethical economic opportunities for communities that have been exploited by conventional trading systems—it seems this brand of empowerment commerce is a simple win-win enterprise for both the artisans who make the products and the entrepreneurs who buy and sell them.
But the reality is less clear. World Pulse talked to eight businesses who confirmed that there are many challenges within the sector that make it difficult to grow their businesses, and all agreed that one of the biggest issues is its ultimate sustainability. “Artisans get paid upfront, whether the product sells or not,” explains Liz Wald, a former crafts importer who is now the director of international business development at Etsy, an online marketplace of handmade items. “But if you don’t do it in a way where you can have a profitable business, you’re not really helping people in the long run. I was self-funded and ultimately, I left the industry. I realized I could continue to do this as my personal charity, but who’s going to pay my rent?”
“There aren’t that many people who are really trying to save the world with every purchase,” says Wald. “So you have to have a tremendously good product that’s fairly priced first, and then do a good job of telling your story.” None of this is as easy to do as you may think, which probably explains why there is a wide array of business models in the industry, but still no definitive answer as to which, if any, of these businesses will create a model that will bea long-term help to artisans, as well as a profitable enterprise that will outlast its founder’s personal commitment to its success.
Some artisan handicraft sellers are not-for-profit, others are for-profit; some sell one product, others sell hundreds of different items. Most of the businesses that World Pulse interviewed don’t have the resources to set up offices on the ground in different areas around the world, so they partner with established nongovernmental organization s (NGOs) that act as the middlemen between the artisans and the businesses. The entrepreneurs regularly travel to the artisans’ countries to visit some or all of the producers they employ.
Within this setup, general logistics prove to be a challenge to businesses. Yes, the world is growing ever smaller, thanks to technology, but language differences, and the fact that most of these businesses are getting crafts from women in hard-to-reach areas saddled with political instability and violence, means that communication is often a problem. And then there are the myriad cultural considerations. Questions that might be no-brainers from a business perspective—like whether you can return a shipment of orange bowls if you’ve ordered blue—take on a completely different meaning when those bowls are made by producers who are as emotionally tied to their work as they are financially dependent on it. “You need to be able to return an order if you’re working with suppliers and buyers who want to be able to return it,” says Shauna Alexander Mohr, former owner of a popular jewelry business that sourced materials from women’s cooperatives internationally. “But when you’re working with war widows, you can’t do that, from a heart and soul perspective.”
There are also different concepts of speed and consistency between the artisans and the buyers, notes Beth Kapsch, co-founder of Global Sistergoods, another online marketplace for handmade items. “Many of the groups we’re working with have typically been selling their products at market, and there’s great variation between what they consider the ‘same’ product,” she explains. “We’ve had situations where we’ve had 1,000 bracelets come in, but they would actually be 100 different things that were sort of bracelet-like, and in different colors, so then we’d have to divide them up into ten different products. Upon occasion our artisan partners are like, ‘Why would you want them all to be exactly the same?’ Which makes sense—they’re artists!” To overcome this issue, some of the buyers hire their NGO partners to offer quality and consistency trainings, and others work with organizations like Aid to Artisans, who make it their mission to help artisans meet this challenge.
Growing too quickly can take down a company with even the best of intentions, as Amber Chand says happened with her first foray into the world of empowerment commerce. Eziba, the company she co-founded in 1998, launched with $40 million in venture capital funds, and eventually collapsed—a turn of events that, she says, “absolutely stunned” her. One of the reasons that Eziba failed, Chand believes, was “the pressure to grow the company very quickly. The venture capital money needed huge returns, and we made marketing mistakes. It couldn’t find a way to sustain itself.” Now with her Amber Chand Collection that specializes in gifts from women artisans from areas that have been the center of conflict, she insists, “My vision is to start small and let the artisans know I’ll be working with them for years. My model is one of slow, steady, sustainable growth, giving women the opportunity to rebuild their lives. With big amounts of money you get intoxicated. Eziba was a good company, but the traditional model of business still harbors principles that I don’t think are ultimately viable.” [paging]
Priya Haji, CEO of World of Good, one of the largest retailers in the handmade sector and the first to scale up the industry by partnering with eBay, thinks differently. “We’ve got to think big,” she insists. Her eBay partnership, launched in September 2008, sells products in 15 categories from 150 artisan communities in over 70 countries. “There are potential problems of scale, yes, but let’s have those problems. Right now this is an industry that has a much bigger production capability than demand.”
World of Good works with multiple artisan groups in one region to create the same types of products, explains Haji, “so as demand for the product grows, we can maintain consistency without overwhelming their system. Some villages can’t produce a large quantity [of an item], or there are products that can’t be made in large volume. They don’t have the infrastructure. So we distribute production across different organizations.”
According to Haji, there is one greatest challenge to the industry: “When you have so many communities doing great work and needing access to markets—how do you open doors quickly enough for them? Right now in the US there’s $55 billion worth of sales in the broadly defined ‘handcrafted’ sector. How do we convert more of this to be from people in poverty?”
Pricing is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the business because on the one hand, you have to charge enough to pay the artisans a price that will help lift them out of poverty and, on the other hand, you have to compete against mass-produced items sold by big-box stores for far less. “The biggest detriment to artisans making traditional crafts is knockoffs of those crafts at mass retailers,” says Marilyn Hnatow of Aid to Artisans. “It looks like an African basket—but it was made in a factory in China.”
“Plenty of beaded jewelry is sold, but it’s not all ethically produced,” says Haji. “It’s made in factories. We have to give the customer more choices that are handmade and sustainably produced.” To better convince potential customers of the importance of making these choices, World of Good describes each item in detail on its site, sharing information such as the region where it was made, as well as the story of the artisans who made it, and asks an independent third party—like the World Fair Trade Organization, Rainforest Alliance, or Green America—to verify the “positive impact” of the products purchased.
KJ Lewis, co-founder of Global Sistergoods, says that her company tries to sell the product itself first—and then sell the customer on the product’s story and the positive benefits of supporting local artisans. “We also want to appeal to someone who hasn’t thought about fair trade,” she says. “If we can carry new and different things, then we can help educate consumers about the issues facing women in these countries. These women have a product people want; they just need a conduit for it.”
Framing the purchase is important, too, notes Amber Chand, of the Amber Chand Collection. “The message has never been, ‘Oh, look at these poor women,’ but rather, ‘Let’s celebrate these women’s resilience and strength.’ You buy it because it’s beautiful and high quality; it’s competitively priced; and it includes the deepest stories of these women. It’s not charity buying.”
Although often small scale, Mohr says one important fact to consider is that many of these artisan enterprises may not bear substantial risk because they can be done by women in their spare time. “They can work in the fields and weave in their homes in the evenings, or string beads. It’s supplementary income for a lot of these small co-ops,” says Mohr, “because even at a small level women are starting to be able to send their kids to school, get shoes, put a roof over their heads, and meet basic needs.”
“In terms of creating a large-scale shift, though,” she tempers, “we have a ways to go.”
Even with all the fraying challenges and the growing pains, empowerment commerce companies are multiplying. Woven together, they may eventually tip the scales toward wider sustainability in the global market for goods produced by women’s hands. These tenacious companies are bound to their commitment to the artisans they work with—to their stories, their histories, and the things they have in common. “It’s great to feel this kinship with the artisans we’re partnering with,” says Global Sistergoods’ Beth Kapsch. “We’re moms, we work at home, our kids are around, we’re trying to run a business and be creative—and these women are doing the same thing.”
But they can’t forget why they got into this industry in the first place: to bring the beautiful work of artisans who live in dire poverty and terrifying political instability to a new market. “The women we work with are so resilient,” says Bead for Life’s Wakefield. “Children dying of malaria; children kidnapped and forced into being soldiers in the war in northern Uganda. Every time a new group of beaders comes in, they dance and sing together before talking beads. It’s a very joy-filled work.”