Artisans in the Developing World, and Why They Matter to Us

Part 3 of 3
July 26, 2015 Updated: August 7, 2015

This three-part series raises thought-provoking questions about women artisans in the developing world who are survivors of human trafficking and other travails. These hard-working women artisans are striving to succeed—but their success depends on us. They need a market.

For more, see part 1 and part 2.

The growing demand in the United States for distinctive, ethical, and independently crafted items creates both a challenge and an opportunity.

Artisans in developing countries have a chance to fill a gap in the U.S. market, but this is not without obstacles. Although artisans can distribute their goods to local individual communities, they have limited-to-no access to a broader consumer audience. But, what if this could change? How could this opportunity for partnership be turned into a win-win situation for both the U.S. and the artisans? And why should we care?

Artisan Empowerment, Cultural Exchange

Expanding access to the international market would empower artisans in developing countries, most of whom are women, both culturally and financially.

Crafting is an integral and heralded part of many cultures, whether this takes the form of colored cloths, stone-inlaid jewelry, or wooden home-decorative pieces. Skills and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation, along with the stories and values that they represent. With increased potential to sell products comes an increased potential to share cultural values and beliefs. Artisans are able to share their stories and create awareness outside their communities. For the U.S., an increased exposure to other cultures will support heightened consciousness and help foster global awareness. 

Whether the cause is gender prejudice, abject poverty, or a combination of multiple factors, economic opportunities for women in developing countries are rare.

Whether the cause is gender prejudice, abject poverty, or a combination of multiple factors, economic opportunities for women in developing countries are rare.

With an expansion of access to the global market comes the expansion of job opportunities. When able to sell their goods abroad, women artisans are economically empowered to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, as well as aid their communities.

Jane learning to make jewelry
Jane Mosbacher Morris, CEO and founder of TO THE MARKET, at the Releve co-op in Kolkata, India, learning to make jewelry from women artisans. (Neil Ruskin for TO THE MARKET)

 

Collaboration among the artisans who live in the same community will also contribute to economic growth. This collaboration will allow them to reach global markets more efficiently and learn specialized craft techniques from one another.

Ethical Economics

For the Ethical Fashion Forum, ethical fashion “represents an approach to the design, sourcing, and manufacture of clothing which maximizes benefits to people and communities while minimizing impact on the environment,” according to its website.

By supporting artisans in the developing world, the U.S. will bolster ethical fashion’s position in the global economy. According to Eco-Business, a group focusing on the Asia-Pacific’s sustainable development, the global value of the apparel retail industry will increase in value by 20 percent from 2014 levels—reaching a staggering $1.5 trillion in 2017.

As of now, the majority of products coming into the U.S. are made in China. Cross-cultural trade will diversify the retail pool, allowing more countries to engage with each other interdependently.

In supporting artisans abroad, the U.S. can become a global change maker in the field of ethical fashion.

The diversification will even help level the playing field for the developing countries, increasing economic output overall while increasing income for artisans and their communities. 

Further, U.S. consumer support of artisan-made, ethically produced, and high quality goods will ensure that these goods become integral to the U.S. market.

This market opportunity will strengthen sustainable value chains and streamline the process of distributing handicrafts to the United States. In supporting artisans abroad, the U.S. can become a global change maker in the field of ethical fashion.

African baskets made by women artisans. (Neil Ruskin for TO THE MARKET)
African baskets made by women artisans. (Neil Ruskin for TO THE MARKET)

A Different Kind of Fashion Statement

Connecting with the large number of artisans in the developing world gives markets, the consumer, and the artisan the opportunity to cooperate and collaborate.

Fashion conveys a message, and in this case that message is one of sustainability and empowerment.

Fashion conveys a message, and in this case that message is one of sustainability and empowerment. A balance is created where both the demands for ethically made goods and a source of livelihood are met.

Not only does this connection give the U.S. and other Western countries a concrete way to aid the developing world financially, it also enables artisans to share their stories, crafts, and culture with a global audience.

Ultimately, this will help bridge the divide between artisan and consumer, between the developed world and the developing world. By means of empowerment, job creation, and ethical awareness, increased international trade could indeed create a win-win situation for both America and developing world artisans.

A woman in Kolkata, India, cuts a sari Freeset screen print. (Neil Ruskin for TO THE MARKET)
A woman in Kolkata, India, cuts a sari Freeset screen print. (Neil Ruskin for TO THE MARKET)

Meredith Mosbacher is Chief Media Officer at TO THE MARKET. Her work has been featured in publications including The Huffington Post, Newsweek/Daily Beast, the Wharton Blog, and Enterprising Women. Angela Marie Teng currently contributes content to TO THE MARKET as a summer intern. She also writes for the Intercollegiate Finance Journal while currently pursuing a dual-degree in Economics and Archaeology at Brown University. 

Learn more about how TO THE MARKET is empowering survivors at www.tothemarket.com. You can also join their journey @LetGoTTM (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and @TOTHEMARKET (Pinterest, Google+, Youtube).