This past weekend, as I wandered through the stalls and tables at the Vegetarian Food Festival in Boston, Massachusetts, I remembered a time not too long ago when a large portion of American society did not know the definition of a vegetarian, or the meaning of phrases like “organically grown” and “fair trade”. It has only been in the past five to ten years economic, culture and health awareness has increased among middle class citizens. With the growing perception about developing nations, sweatshops and diversified cultures, some Americans have begun to think differently about where the products they buy come from and how they get to rest on the mantles and coffee tables of urban homes. And with this heightened sensibility to the lives of workers, agriculturists and artisans from around the globe has come numerous American based organizations that educate the public about poverty, displaced markets and global trade.
A great example of this is a New England based NGO called Aid to Artisans (ATA). With connections on almost every continent, ATA encourages American companies and buyers to buy craft products at fair prices so artisans can slowly work their way out of poverty. In India alone ATA works continually with other organizations like Seva Mandir’s Sadhna program to bring quality handicraft goods to American markets without money absorbing middlemen. Through a multi-tiered process ATA helps design and market craft objects while training artisans for a better future.
In their designing process experienced consultants work with artisan entrepreneurs and artisans to modify and improve existing crafts and craft techniques. These improvements can be as drastic as introducing new products or as simple as standardizing sizes, shapes and colors. These sessions also include introducing new technology such as better kilns for firing pottery or new tools for improved products and more efficient creation. Although all of this may seem a bit intrusive to the tradition of craft, the designers are careful to retain traditions and indigenous knowledge.
ATA provides marketing through their “Market Link” program in three different manners. First, through trade shows they exhibit artisan products in various exhibitions in America, Europe and South Africa. At these shows ATA holds seminars where artisans can meet with marketing experts to learn the tools of the export trade. By attending trade shows the artisan gain valuable information about new products, competition and current design trends. Secondly, ATA connects buyers and artisans directly by bringing new designs to buyers and by bringing the buyers to new designs. Often ATA will take a buyer to countries where they have ongoing projects so the buyer will have first hand knowledge about craft creation and traditional resources. Lastly, ATA engages in market research studies in order to provide the best support to their artisans and the best quality products to their buyers.
The training sector of ATA works in two different ways. First, there are various in-country training sessions held for either artisans or individual business in order to educate them about planning, pricing and costs. Second there are formal marketing training sessions held under the Market Readiness Program. Every January and August a workshop is held in New York City and coincides with New York International Gift Fair. During these workshops artisans gain valuable information about exhibitions, import/export protocol and building relationships with buyers. They also have the opportunity to tour local artisan workshops, warehouses and import stores. Twice a year in Johannesburg, South Africa, a similar market readiness program is also held during the SACRDA Gift, Toy and Décor Exhibition. ATA also gives business training to artisans and aids in supporting new NGOs.
Aid to Artisans has assisted craftspeople from Bolivia, India and Ghana to name a few. Their relentless passion for the upliftment of the indigenous artisan has saved the lives of thousands and brought a little bit of tradition into the homes of Americans. So hopefully in a few more years when concepts like vegetarianism and organic food seem like they’ve always existed, all handicraft products we buy in department and import stores will have a “Fair Trade” label pasted proudly on them.
Aid to Artisans, Inc.