It seems the fashion industry has recently rediscovered the value of artisanal work conferring authenticity to products. The hands of artisans are the hands of fashion. The more a product is visibly handcrafted, the more the product is attractive. Handmade means well made and signifies an emotional involvement industrialised goods do not deliver.
The phenomenon has created widespread attention. Marketing experts notice there is a clear preference for handmade goods when purchasing a gift for a loved one, with shoppers prepared to pay up to 17% more*. Management professionals state how paradoxically, new technology enables consumers' appetite for authenticity and the artisanal by connecting them with products and facilitating great customer service. An evident manifestation of this change in consumer behavior is the apparition of Handmade, Amazon's new online store that promotes itself as "the home for artisans", with over 80.000 items from about 5.000 vendors in 60 countries!
Artisans and Development
The aid and development sectors too have realised artisans are important. After agriculture, the artisan sector is the second largest employer in the developing world. Organising and harnessing the power of this sector to increase sales and efficiency has the potential to create jobs, increase incomes and foster sustainable development. Realising this, the aid community has increasingly invested in artisans and their usual approach to enable artisans to sell is to take them to trade fairs.
There are two kinds of trade opportunities at trade fairs: those where artisans sell directly to the general public and those where they have B-to-B meetings with buyers. In the first case, they sell their products and then return home without meeting any of those consumers again. In the second they are linked with buyers who either buy the products to sell them in their retail space as a sort of semi-charity enterprise or who invite the artisans to become part of their supply chain. Normally, this fails because everything - starting from the payment terms to product development to logistics - is difficult for somebody who lives in a developing country. The trade doesn't last and thus, these practices are not sustainable. There are exceptions of course, but the failure rate of these initiatives is frightening. This should be enough to put off development experts but the aid world is rarely discouraged by early failures!
The usual conclusion is to remove bottlenecks. One methodology is to provide access to capital, as artisans have no working capital to invest in a structured business relationship. Micro-lending schemes are launched and artisans get indebted. Another approach is to invite artisans to attend trainings to improve their exposure to market and international business practices. This incrementally transforms them into professional beneficiaries of aid: I've met artisans who live out of per diems. An alternative scheme is to hire a super expert with decades of experience in production and send him/her to frame the business. Usually, that person has always worked in a different context and tries to apply the recipe of his/her life to something that is light-years away. Failure guaranteed.
All these schemes have one thing in common: nobody knows how an artisan can sustainably sell their products. Yet everyone wants to develop a big scheme of work based on a well-written, top-down approach.
How to Support Artisans?
So what is there to do? Most artisans already know what to do. The rest is about understanding the value chain.
We have experienced this in the value chain of fashion. Artisans in the developing world are often approached by brands in search of authenticity. They are invited to develop products and are given money to produce a first order. Unfortunately, lack of continuity and the bottlenecks mentioned above frequently lead to the failure of such initiatives. The product development time of fashion is short and these processes frequently include materials the artisan is not able to master, the raw materials are not always available in the quantities required to fulfil an order, payment terms are unfavourable and so on. I know of a designer sending silk to an African artisan who only works with cotton (as silk doesn't exist in his region and traditions) - the collaboration terminated soon after.
The Ethical Fashion Initiative works in this framework by engaging brands to work with artisans in a different way: to work and plan the relationship on the basis of what people can really do. We created a system including intermediaries: social enterprises that employ artisans with more experience. The social enterprise interfaces brands and distributes production work to smaller artisans. The training offered within this structure is always linked to production: on the job learning. When brands accept this kind of framework, the results are immediately visible: work flows and a ground for mutual confidence is built season after season. Of course there are failures and problems, but in general the trend is positive: trade unfolds.
In parallel, we also invest in brands working with artisans. The closer these two stakeholder groups are, the better. As such, we started working not only with international brands that want the artisanal touch but also with emerging African brands. If supported, they are enabled to source from local artisanal supply chains. Consumers are a key part of this scenario. When the story of an artisan is told in the right way, consumers develop a powerful emotional linkage. In response to this realisation, we started measuring the impact of the trade generated on the artisan communities involved. The results of these impact assessments are shared with consumers and brands and the effects are undeniable: more orders and more work for artisans. In turn, this allowed us to apply fair labour standards and ensure dignified working conditions (download our impact reports here).
Today the first network of artisans and the respective social enterprise we developed in Kenya, Ethical Fashion Artisans EPZ Ltd., is independent. It works with loyal local and international brands, such as Vivienne Westwood who has steadily engaged to working for five consecutive years with African artisans, resulting in a huge impact and an incredible example for all fashion brands. Is this a replicable blueprint model? Not quite. This story shows there is no predetermined scheme: one must follow the market, common sense and continuously listen to people.
*Source: Christoph Fuchs, Martin Schreier, & Stijn M.J. van Osselaer (2015), "The Handmade Effect: What's Love Got to Do with It?", Journal of Marketing, 79 (March), 98-110.