Crafting Access

Case studies, Design, Designers, Markets, Marketing, Trade, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Crafting Access: Building a Market for Indian Handicrafts in a Globalised World

Wood, Sharmila



Current Situation:
Globalisation and the Machine Made Problem

Globalisation, the liberalisation of trade policies and economic reforms mean that borders in worldwide trade have been lowered, and new markets have emerged for handicrafts. Today, vibrant and quality handmade products from all points of the globe vie for a market share in the international marketplace, and the Indian craft sector has found itself competing with talented artisans from many countries, in particular from regions in South East Asia, Latin America and Africa. In some market segments, the economics are not in favour of Indian artisans, with competitors able to produce high quality products at lower prices, with the support of modern infrastructure, and better credit, research, management and market development.

The biggest threat to the Indian craft sector remains industrial manufacturers who produce cheap products in volume and can respond quickly to changing consumer trends. Small scale, cottage industries can be slower to adapt to the market; struggle to compete on price points and to meet the production timelines of industrial manufacturers. As a result, they often lose out to large corporations and macro industries which are supported by modern technology, capital, resources, and extensive marketing and trade networks. Machine made replicas, and imitations of authentic products are also being sold as genuine handicrafts at cheap prices, thus reducing the market share of real handmade products.

Textile production is one subsector that has been in a severe decline due to the entry of imitations and machine made products into the market. Imitation Benarasi brocade, produced and exported around the world from China, is hurting the weaving community in Varanasi whilst in2007, the Association of Handloom Units announced that 60,000 Bodo households would lose family income due to mill made, imitation cloth (Chatterjee 2007). Clearly, there is a need for intervention – The Handloom Reservation Act (1950) does not go far enough in protecting the intellectual property rights of artisans. Poor implementation and loopholes that allow the intellectual property rights of handloom producers to be violated through the large-scale duplication of handloom products by power looms will continue to damage the sector.

Industrial made, branded clothing, lifestyle and home-ware retail has also impacted the handicraft market. Branded clothes, such as Levi’s, and Reebok, have become signifiers of contemporary style and ‘modern’ India whilst handicrafts have become symbols of ‘tradition’ and even, ‘backwardness.’ International brands have also become symbols of wealth and luxury, and are seen to be inherently more valuable than handicrafts. There is a prevailing perception that handicrafts are ‘overpriced.’ Whilst the price points may be higher than machine made competitors, such concepts also reflect the low valuation that handmade products hold, despite the craftsmanship, originality and the intensive labour and high level of skill required to produce them.
Market perceptions about handicrafts are well worth challenging. Consumer preferences are not necessarily fixed, as fluctuating fashion and market trends demonstrate. Although some of the associations around brands may have tangible, rational attributes – a store such as United Colours of Benetton may have appealing, trend-driven designs, with good selection and choice in clothing styles – these perceptions are undeniably influenced by the sophisticated marketing and advertising strategies used to build brand consciousness amongst consumers. Gaining market acceptance for handicrafts beyond the niche craft market as items of high social and cultural value in modern India will take dedicated resources, and serious investment – as well as hard work.

The mass produced goods that have flooded the market also impact the income of artisans at the local village level. Across India, artisan-made utilitarian objects of daily use have been replaced by factory-made goods. For example, in many regions the market for earthenware has been obliterated by the saleability of plastics and glassware. The situation is exacerbated by poor economic conditions in village communities, which reduces the spending power of rural consumers. At best, artisans are able to earn a subsistence income producing crafts. Due to this constriction of traditional markets and the prevailing socio-economic conditions in rural areas, artisans now look to new markets to sell their wares, yet many remain at extreme economic and geographic disadvantages. Opportunities to participate in exhibitions, fairs and bazaars at commercial centres such as Dilli Haat in New Delhi provide valuable sales channels for artisans. Yet, limited resources and the infrastructure in rural areas, such as poor roads and limited public transport options, continue to restrict access.

Whilst some markets have contracted, there are also new opportunities opening up, particularly abroad. There is consistent demand from the USA, UK, Germany, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia for handicrafts. Export figures for the past five years are positive, the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts show an increase of 53% in five years in the combined exports of art metal ware, wood ware, hand printed textiles and scarves, embroidered and crocheted goods, shawls as art ware, zari and zari goods, imitation jewellery and other miscellaneous crafts (Jaitley 2005). These figures present an optimistic picture. Yet, the fact that India currently only accounts for 2% of the world trade in handicrafts despite having over 30 million artisans and weavers illustrates the huge, untapped potential of the sector.

Investing in the craft sector, expanding markets for handicrafts, and introducing policy initiatives that are serious about growing the sector, are measures that seem worthy of consideration. State support and assistance in marketing has enabled China to corner 17% of the world trade in the same sector. Marketing is not just expenditure; it is investment in real, sustainable development for the country’s artisans. There are wider economic and cultural spin-off benefits from gaining this kind of market share.

Making the Market Work for Artisans:
Positioning Indian handicrafts

Whilst globalisation has to some extent plunged the sector into crisis, it has also opened up new markets and, with the right positioning, Indian handicrafts can benefit from the growth in socially conscious consumption and ethically and environmentally responsible consumerism. Products that are people-positive and planet-positive are amongst the fastest growing market segments in the market today. In the USA, the size of the eco or ‘green’ market reached US$ 230 billion in 2007, and grew an additional 38% or US$87 billion in 2008. Research has shown that 47% of US adults are willing to spend up to 19% more on a green product. In general, the Indian handicraft sector fits with values of fair trade if artisans are working in fair conditions and where people and the environment are more important than profit. Handicrafts are manufactured with minimal environmental impact and have a low carbon footprint; they are produced in a community-friendly way, locally, with natural materials, and natural finishes.

Poverty alleviation, income generation, and women’s empowerment, values that are at the core of many craft producer organizations, also resonate with socially responsible consumers. As Laila Tyabi describes: “Craft is not just a production process- merely a mechanical, mindless, somewhat outdated form of earning and employment. It is a rural woman’s creative means to conquer her desert landscape, and the confines of her limited income – her way of transcending the dependence and drudgery of her arduous agrarian and domestic life cycle. It is a creative skill and strength that is uniquely hers – an individual statement of her femininity, culture and being” (Tyabi 2003). Across the country, successful craft enterprises uplift and empower, allowing imagination and creativity to challenge the confines of marginalization and poverty. Any branding strategy needs to promote these meaningful and solid benefits to the end consumer, enabling consumers to participate in the dialogue between craft and livelihoods.
Handcrafted products can also be positioned to capture the premium, high-end market. Amongst consumers in the developed world and the elite in Indian cities, there has been a reaction against the standardization and heterogeneity of mechanized high-tech products, which has created value and niche spaces for hand processes. In contrast to the similarity and uniformity of mass produced goods, crafts are cultural goods that embody creativity, skill, intellectual property and social and cultural meaning. It is possible to position Indian handicrafts in the realm of luxury brands, emphasizing their high level of artistic skill, their aesthetic qualities and cultural value by showcasing crafts as one-off pieces, exclusive and rarefied in carefully chosen prestigious venues such as art galleries. The elevation of handicrafts to this realm is partly about overcoming consumer prejudices. But just as Aboriginal Art in Australia has challenged its tag as ethnographia to become the hottest contemporary art available in the country, attracting international collectors, similarly Indian handicrafts must leverage its many attributes to position itself in the exclusive, premium products trade.

Promoting crafts in the elite market can raise its value and segue craft products into the mass middle class market. Aspirant consumption, where goods represent status can be used to the advantage of the craftsperson if we can effectively link Indian handicrafts with ‘sustainable luxury’ and create a sense of exclusivity that makes them highly desirable – and worth paying a premium for. Handicrafts cannot, and should not, compete with machine made products. To do so does not honour and respect the distinction between the two forms of production – one, involves alienated labour geared towards mechanized time; the other, attention to detail, hand work and the space to produce creatively. Rather, than compete on price points we must compete on design, and originality – positioning crafts as an alternative to mass production. Investment in the research and design capacity of artisans must be included in any strategy that seeks to address the marketing and market demand problems confronting artisans. These so-called ‘interventions’ have been adopted by the crucial institutions emerging to bridge the gap between artisans and the market – Self Help Groups, NGO’s and small to medium enterprises.

Opportunities for artisans to reinvigorate their practice, to create crafts that fuse contemporary design with tradition are pivotal in terms of their saleability. Designers and artists can assist artisans to integrate new ideas and tradition, bringing to life a new set of products. The All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association and the U.S. based Aid to Artisan have run the Artisan Enterprise Development Alliance Program (AEDAP) which has included product/design development with 17 craft social enterprises over the past three years. A key component of AEDAP has been to pair enterprises with Indian and American designers who can offer a global market perspective, and expertise in international home decor, gift and fashion accessories. Designers assist artisan groups to revitalize traditional skills, improve product quality, solve production issues, and create new products whilst retaining the cultural integrity of their craft production giving artisans an edge in both the domestic and international market. There is a danger that the relationship between designer and artisan can succumb to structural hierarchies. Any successful design development must be truly collaborative – it must be based on an egalitarian exchange that honours artisanal style and skill and respects their creative vision. The designer must participate in the workshop as both a teacher and a student.

Some enterprises have been able to adopt strategies and facilitate interventions that can open up new market opportunities and linkages. However, the capacity to perform these activities varies considerably from one group to another. Many enterprises lack the appropriate marketing and managerial skills, and the leadership needed to forge a successful enterprise. As many groups are restricted in the scope of their marketing activities by budgets and resources, it is a rare entrepreneurial mix of dedication, creativity, business acumen, design sensitivity, and market knowledge that is required to build an enterprise that provides real returns to artisans. Given the complexity of global markets, and the challenges confronting the sector, it is unrealistic to expect craft enterprises to alone broker the position of Indian handicrafts in the international market, particularly when grappling with multinational companies that have a virtual artillery of resources at their disposal.

Incredible! Branding:
Lessons to be learned

There is evidence that developing a sector-wide approach to brand building and marketing, supported by strong policy and investment can address market demand problems. The success of marketing strategies adopted by the tourism sector, such as the ‘Incredible India!’ campaign initiated by the Ministry of Tourism, in partnership with businesses and the private sector is one example. The campaign has been an exercise in international branding supported by intervention from every possible government sphere. It metamorphosed India into one of the top destinations of the world (Kant 2009). For more than a decade, up until 2002, India’s share of the world tourist traffic had remained static at about 0.38 percent (Kant 2009). With no common branding strategy, or coordinated consumer oriented public relations strategy, there was a wide gap between potential and performance.

During a time of severe crisis, as consumer demand for travel to India fell to a new low, and the impact of terrorism reduced global travel, the Incredible India! campaign was launched. With 27 states, and a diverse range of culture, religions, and peoples, along with the experiences and destinations available in India creating a clear, unified and strong image of India was difficult (Kant 2009). The Incredible India! Campaign creatively spun the heterogeneous nature of India into an attraction and turned the contrasts that exist – the old and new, east and west, urban and rural – into a strong selling point. Images of the tourism wealth, as well as the country’s culture, spiritual and intellectual power have been effective in distinguishing the Indian tourism experience from those available in the rest of the world. Indian tourism grew by 25% in volume (tourist arrivals) and 36% in value (in U.S. Dollars terms) in 2004-2005. According to the latest statistics released by the Government of India, tourism revenues are expected to rise by 42 % from 2007 to 2017.

In developing a brand identity for the Indian craft sector, we can also look to the strategies used by the‘ Made in Italy’ campaign, run by the Istituto nazionale per il Commercio Estero (ICE) or the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade a public, non-profit and independent government agency under the supervision Italian Ministry of Productive Activities, Foreign Trade Department. The ‘Made in Italy’ concept is to construct an image of Italian products, and Italy in general, as synonymous with quality and style. It serves as a brand building segment for the economy as a whole – the scope is broad, encompassing travel, fashion, food, sport, art, wine, manufacturing, accessories and interior decor. According to recent figures published by the ICE, their ‘Made in Italy Private Label’ products, available in supermarkets, continues to gain ground and reached a 13% quota of the total value of sales in consumer products, with figures fluctuating between 7.5 and 8 billion Euros.

In partnership with the private sector, the ICE promotes Italian style and living internationally through a large network of 111 offices in over 83 countries. They organize regular, institutional, artistic, social and commercial events aimed at industry professionals, trade press and end consumers. ICE participates in international trade fair exhibitions, and host seminars and workshops on an ongoing basis during these times. These events are enabled through public funding and co-financing from enterprises and other entities. The ICE keeps their brand fresh and alive with new marketing campaigns that reinforce ‘Made in Italy’ as a premium, and exclusive brand.

The latest campaign features the iconic Italian-born actress, model and author, Isabella Rossellini who has been appointed as the external representative and figure head of the brand. As Italian Trade Commissioner and Executive Director for the USA, Aniello Musella muses, “Isabella Rossellini’s beauty, intelligence and personal commitment to artistic culture personifies the values of the Made in Italy campaign.” The ICE also gains leverage from Rossellini’s celebrity – as the ‘face’ of luxury brands, most famously for international cosmetic brand, Lancôme, whom she represented for over a decade, she is already perceived to personify certain values that the brand is promoting – elegance, style, and exclusivity. An effective brand ambassador, Rossellini creates the right symbolic qualities, and illusion around ‘Made in Italy’ to add value to a range of Italian products.

Crafting Access:
Craftmark – Handmade in India

Strengthening the appeal of handicrafts, and penetrating new markets also requires a strong policy backed by government – in addition to the work of SME’s, SHG’s, NGO’s and business. Developing a global brand that differentiates and distinguishes Indian handicrafts from those available in other parts of the world has been proven to build international recognition and greater equity in trade and target markets. Within the sector, an effort to develop a pan-Indian mark for Indian handicrafts has begun with the Craftmark initiative, that was conceptualized to create a distinct market identity for Indian handicrafts, and highlight the craft worker’s unique skills as well as the unique characteristics of a craft product. Craftmark is an effort by the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) to counter the impact of fake handicrafts in the market by denoting genuine Indian handicrafts, and developing sector-wide minimum standards and norms for labelling a product as a handicraft. Events such as the 2008 exhibition ‘Authenticity’ held at the Indian International Centre in New Delhi raises awareness about the difference between real and imitation handicrafts.

Under this initiative, AIACA licenses the Craftmark logo for use by Craft-based businesses, cooperatives and NGOs for use on product tickets and labels. AIACA has already signed up various market leaders and leading craft support organizations to carry the mark and to support the process of publicizing and raising consumer awareness. Organizations that are using the mark include Anokhi, Sandur Kushalakala Kendra, Kala Raksha, Avani, The Kishkinda Trust, and Fabindia and the mark appears in their shops on genuine handmade products. There is potential for Craftmark – Handmade in India to be leveraged into a global brand, conceptually similar to Made in Italy but denoting the attributes that make Indian handicrafts unique. AIACA is currently working towards building the Craftmark into a strong brand through in-store displays and posters, catalogues, and direct mailing to consumers. We are also tying up with international craft support organizations to publicize the Craftmark in other countries. Promotional efforts include a website that consumers can use to look up information on retailers, craft producers and craft support organizations that carry the mark. The website also gives wholesalers and customers the ability to look up detailed information on the craft genres of products that are being sold carrying the Craftmark logo. An online social media communication strategy was recently launched to increase visibility amongst consumers – around the world, on the internet.

Craftmark-Handmade in India, with ongoing endorsement from private business, and support from government, can reach more consumers, and create a definable profile that adds real value to Indian handicrafts in a way that makes them distinct from other handmade products available in the global market. This exercise in branding makes reference to the whole of the diverse and large multiproduct sector; sub-sector branding can also be initiated, once an overarching brand that establishes a clear and precise identity for handicrafts, as a whole, is consolidated.
The power of Indian artisans to benefit from market action lies in their ability to participate in markets where they can take advantage of commercial opportunities. The potential benefits of new international markets have to date had little impact in real terms of economic growth for artisans, who remain amongst the lowest socio-economic group in the country. Van de Berg, M. Boomsma & I.Cucco point out that for markets to contribute to pro-poor growth they must increase the total amount and value of products that the poor sell in the value chain. They argue, “In providing the structures and processes for production and consumption in a society, markets lie at the heart of economic growth and poverty reduction. But in reality, poor people tend to have little access to the opportunities that markets make available.” State support and an investment in marketing are urgently required and should be a priority amongst policy makers. With an estimated 12.5 million people employed in the sector, we must ensure that the rapidly evolving and integrating global trade and financial systems work better for the benefit of artisans and enterprises. Brand building, and investment in marketing can help remove barriers to economic participation.


Amitabh Kant (2009) ‘Branding India –An Incredible Story’, Harper Collins, India
Ashoke Chatterjee (2007) ‘The Indian Craft: Sunrise or Sunset in a Global Market’, Craft Revival Trust, New Delhi, India
Jaya Jaitley (2005) ‘Craft as Industry,’ Seminar: The Monthly Symposium, New Delhi, India
Laila Tyabji (2003) ‘Tradition and Transition: A Crafted Solution to Development’, Price Claus Journal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Van de Berg, M. Boomsma & I.Cucco (2009) ‘Making value chains work better for the poor: a toolbook for practitioners of value chain analysis’, in ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’, Asian Development Bank, Vietnam

This article was originally written for the Context journal and has been published in the 2009-2010 special issue on crafts.

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