This piece was written by Leah Wise and originally appeared on her website StyleWise, a blog that continually provides thoughtful and nuanced insight into ethical fashion and justice.
Artisan made was the buzzword that triggered my exploration of ethical consumerism.
In 2011, while undertaking a routine shelf-tidying during my shift at Hobby Lobby, a privately held “Christian” craft and home decor chain, I came across a little metal frog, the kind of random object you buy for a friend’s housewarming party without considering what they’re actually going to do with it.
The tag said something along the lines of “made by skilled artisans in Haiti.” The price? $3.99.
Holding that little frog in my hands, I was puzzled. Here was an item being marketed as a kind of art, intricately cut and crafted by skilled hands, and yet it was nestled onto a retail shelf containing dozens of like items. And yet it was the same price as a latte at Starbucks, less expensive than a Hallmark greeting card.
It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that there must have been hundreds of other items in that store that were made by human hands. The frames in the frame shop, cut to size before shipping to my store. The decorative vinegar bottles containing bright red peppers. These invisible hands were not even given the dignity of “artisanship,” and yet they touched and crafted the things that bored grandmothers bought on a whim with their 50% off coupons.
This story might tell us lots of things – for one, it woke me up to the exploitative realities of the global consumer goods industry – but today I want to focus on something too often overlooked:
Artisan-made does not mean much without context.
What the designation does tell us is that a person, or group of people, made a product, likely with minimal high-tech tools.
But the phrase is thrown around to imply that these “artisans” are known entities – people with whom the company or boutique owner may have a relationship. But, as was the case with Hobby Lobby, more often than not these nameless, faceless craftspeople are anonymous even to the ones who’ve categorised them as artisans and subsequently exploited that label for marketing purposes.
The fair trade market is chock full of items designated as artisan-made, but even the best intentioned “ethical” advocates can get lazy when tracing these niche supply chains. Instead, they will tell a secondhand story passed down from middle men or co-op managers, not ever knowing how the artisan groups function, or whether they’re receiving a living wage.
I have to admit that not even *I* was committed to doing this work until a reader asked me, point blank, if I knew how a fair trade organisation I had promoted was linked to their artisan producers. So when MATTER Prints reached out with the same conversation – themselves puzzled by the way other purportedly ethical producers were using the term – I was anxious to do a deep dive. I spoke with MATTER team member, Farisia, about how they derive greater, more transparent meaning from the artisan-made distinction.
How to Tell If Your Item is Artisan-Made and Honestly Made
1 | Artisans Live and Work in Multi-Generational Craft Communities
Unlike industrialised consumer product manufacturing, which typically takes place in designated facilities outside of town centres, artisans typically live in small communities or extended families that support and uphold multi-generational craft traditions.
To ensure authenticity, MATTER specifically partners with artisans that exhibit “skill in a craft acquired through generational transfer.” This creates greater accountability between the brand/marketer and artisan because it makes it impossible for a Fortune 500 company to march into a community, half-heartedly “teach” a skill, then slap the artisan-made designation on their tags and websites.
2 | Local production is run by the same locals
Many well-intentioned fair trade business owners enter an artisan community with a plan to build something from scratch. On its surface, this is understandable. If you’ve been dreaming up your business from a far-removed location, it’s easy to get wrapped up in an inaccurate idea of what products will be available to you, how you want them to look, and who your customer is.
But this is inappropriate, not only because it often perpetuates Colonialist ideas of “progress,” but because it takes the power out of the hands of the people who hold all the skill. Artisan co-ops, when they are thriving, are run by locals, thereby keeping the heritage and financial success of the community in the community, where it belongs. Artisanship, by definition, resists outside forces that would place the burden of aggressive capitalism on its shoulders.