Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chasing the Fair Trade Bead...in the Real World

When is a bead a "fair trade bead?" 

There is a lot of confusion in the minds of many buyers about what, exactly, the phrase "fair trade" means. Does it mean that this bead has to have been officially certified as fair trade by a licensed certification agency? Or that it has to have been produced within the framework of "...a trading partnership which aims at sustainable development for excluded and disadvantaged producers..." (part of the definition of fair trade agreed upon by the Fairtrade Foundation, Oxfam and Traidcraft)?  Or just that it has to have been produced and acquired legally and ethically, with no person having been exploited during its production or distribution process, and with the producer of the bead having been paid a fair price for his or her labor? And if that's the case, how can the average bead buyer know? How does one go about finding out?

The bad news is that it's all very complicated, and it can be a bit overwhelming to the would-be bead buyer with a conscience. Even certification does not absolutely guarantee fair practices--how can it? With all the good intentions in the world, there's no way that any agency can monitor from minute to minute the production and trading activities of the dozens of small producers and distributors they have certified. There's no way for them to be absolutely sure, for example, that the producers' children are not being used as a source of free labor when no one is there to observe it. And even if an agency were capable of keeping tabs on and dealing with such violations of fair trade principles, what about the bias of buyers in developed countries towards taking that "Fair Trade Certified" label as gospel? If we only buy "Fair Trade Certified" products, aren't we further marginalizing the thousands and thousands of small producers who haven't been fortunate enough to have access to, or even to hear about, such a thing as a certifying agency? Aren't many people less likely to purchase uncertified goods made by ethical producers simply because it's harder, if not completely impossible, to ascertain by whom and under what conditions those goods were produced? 

The good news is that there is a rising consciousness in the Western world about Fair Trade principles and practices, and that this generally bodes well for the future of artisans in developing countries if we can just figure out how to get good information out there to prospective buyers. 

As the director of a small organization that tries its best to follow fair trade principles, I'm just as confused as anybody else, and with better reason than most, since I've experienced first-hand how difficult it is to carry out the ideals of the Fair Trade movement in real life. 

Here is the Fair Trade Federation's list of principles upon which their members are supposed to operate (from their website at http://www.fairtradefederation.org)
  • Creating Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized Producers
  • Developing Transparent and Accountable Relationships
  • Building Capacity
  • Promoting Fair Trade
  • Paying Promptly and Fairly
  • Supporting Safe and Empowering Working Conditions
  • Ensuring the Rights of Children
  • Cultivating Environmental Stewardship
  • Respecting Cultural Identity

This is wonderful. There's not a thing on this list that I don't believe in and approve with all my heart. I want to uphold all of these principles. They represent the ideal I strive towards. The problem is that, when you're actually on the ground in a rural town called Somanya in the West African country of Ghana (or, I suspect, in any other developing country), things just aren't that simple. 

The Soul of Somanya crew in September of 2010 with two guest teachers,
Kathie Power Johnson and Sarah Thomas.

Let me tell you a story.

Soul of Somanya's original idea was to have the beadmakers I taught on my first trip design and produce jewelry, which I would then do my inexperienced best to help them market in the U.S. and elsewhere throughout the world. However, further experience showed us that, with a couple of notable exceptions, these particular beadmakers seemed unable even to fill bead orders within a time-frame that would allow us to satisfy Western retailers expectations. What were the chances that they would deliver orders for jewelry on a workable schedule? Because we're not talking about a three-day or a three-week or even a three-month lag here. Orders, if they ever came back at all (which more often than not they didn't) were taking as long as six months to show up, and even then, they almost never contained the specific bead designs we had actually ordered. 

Now I know all about Africa-time. In fact, unlike many Westerners, I like it, and I fully subscribe to it when I'm there. It's wonderfully relaxing. Typically, within a week of arriving in Somanya, I'm a different person--fully de-stressed and completely happy. So I have no desire to be instrumental in changing what I regard as a healthier and much saner approach to life...at least, not by very much. But six months? How could we possibly succeed in the world market if we couldn't guarantee delivery in less than six months? The answer, of course, was that we couldn't.

I can't pretend to know why the artisans were taking so long to complete and deliver our bead orders. Perhaps some of them had emergency situations arise. Perhaps some were simply reluctant to put in the extra hours required. Perhaps some were too busy filling other people's orders to fill our orders, despite the fact that we were paying market (rather than wholesale) prices, and even advancing them the money for the necessary materials and supplies. But in that case...was business really that
good? Relative to others living in this place, where most people survive on less than two dollars a day, did they even really need our help? Strike that. I knew they did. Almost everyone in rural West Africa needs help. But at least these artisans owned businesses that were going concerns. At least they were successful to the point that keeping up with the demand for their goods was apparently a challenge. And anyway, their level of need aside, the bottom line was that if Soul of Somanya couldn't count on a dependable supply of jewelry to sell, we'd go under fast, and then we'd be of no use to anyone here. Having no capital, no experience and no connections, the odds were already stacked against us. So how could we make this work to the greatest advantage for the most people? 

Ultimately, we decided we would have to change the original plan. We would continue to buy beads from the beadmakers' cottage industries, but we would hire a separate staff of artisans to make the jewelry at our own place of business, where we could guarantee a pleasant and healthy work environment, regulate the quality of the goods being made, ensure the timely payment of a living wage, and make sure that what was being produced was what we most needed right then based on which products were selling well at any given time. We could evolve towards being a co-op once our staff was ready to establish their own cottage industries as jewelry artisans. And meanwhile, we could dedicate ourselves to serving a group that very clearly needed our help desperately--namely Krobo youth who, given the scarcity of jobs in Ghana's rural areas, are at high risk for migrating to the larger cities looking for employment that turns out to be non-existent. With heartbreaking regularity, they end up living on the streets as prostitutes, beggars or thieves. But we would be in a position to prevent this from happening, at least in a handful of cases. And at the same time we could feel secure in the knowledge that we were operating firmly within Fair Trade guidelines.

This decision to hire a separate jewelry-making staff was not a popular one with the beadmakers I had taught, and I was not without mixed feelings on the subject myself. Perhaps if I'd had the resources to stay in Ghana for many months and work closely with these artisans over an extended period of time, I'd have been able to close the gap between when our orders were being placed and when they were being delivered. But I didn't have those kinds of resources. And given their inability right then to meet us at least part of the way towards being able to do business effectively in the West, I just wasn't seeing a better alternative. Moreover, in an unexpected twist, the appropriateness of our decision was confirmed near the beginning of my second visit to Ghana when one a spokesman for the group argued very eloquently that they had planned on having their children make the jewelry while they continued to make the beads. Children who, as I happened to know, were minors.

Not on my watch. The legal working age in Ghana is eighteen, and some of these children were more like eight. I know that living in rural Ghana is, in many ways, much like living on the North American frontier back in the day, and that many parents view their children's labors in the family business as being absolutely necessary to the family's survival. They may be right--who am I to judge? We're talking about subsistence-level economics here, where the most basic form of survival is a daily challenge for many, if not most, local families. And it's not as if they were planning on sending their children off to work in sweatshops. But I couldn't allow any of that to matter to me. There was no way I was going to sabotage our ability to help here by breaking the laws of the land; nor was I willing to justify the ends of our efforts by means of selling goods that were being produced using child labor, however customary the practice might be for some people in Somanya. For me, the beadmakers' announcement of their intentions to use their children in this way settled the matter of who would be making the jewelry for once and for all.

As for placing orders for particular bead designs, we quickly resigned ourselves to the fact that this was not going to be a productive way to try to do business in Somanya. It appeared to me that the beadmakers were happier creating whatever designs were inspiring them at any given moment. As an artist, I could understand that, and I was in favor of coming up with a system that would accommodate this kind of creative flexibility. So we decided to just buy from them at market (rather than wholesale) prices whatever beads they had available whenever we needed beads and had money to spend. 

But therein lay another difficulty: we very rarely had any money to spend. We were still in our start-up stage, and we were struggling just to make payroll every week. There were whole three-month periods when we couldn't afford to buy a single bead, making do instead by designing our jewelry around whatever we still happened to have in stock. Moreover, whenever we did finally manage to come up with enough money to make purchases, we were typically desperate for the beads; we needed them right now. But the various beadmakers didn't necessarily have beads on hand to sell to us right now. No one's fault--that's just how their system of production and distribution works. And even if they did have beads on hand to sell to us, it was usually just one or two bead designs, and we almost never needed a large quantity of one or two things. The difficulty in predicting whether any particular bead design would be available when we needed it had already prompted us to shift to a one-of-a-kind or a-few-of-a-kind approach to jewelry production. So while it was apparently more cost-effective for the beadmakers to make large batches of one kind of bead, what we needed was a wide variety of beads, but not very much of any one thing. We found ourselves at cross-purposes.

In many ways, nothing much has changed since that first, start-up year. With regard to our jewelry artisans, we qualify as fair trade right down the line. We have created opportunities for these economically marginalized producers; our relationship with them is transparent and accountable; we are working towards building capacity; we are promoting fair trade; we pay promptly and fairly; we offer safe and empowering working conditions (including allowing the artisans' children to accompany them to work when they have no other safe and healthy option); we make sure all of our artisans are of legal working age; we use and create eco-friendly products; and we try very hard to respect the cultural identity of our artisans while allowing them creative space for the innovations that they, like most artists, crave. In addition, they have a say in how the business is run. (For example, they voted early on for a 5-1/2 hour work day, so that's what they work.) 

Just as an aside, the business model we've ended up following leans a bit more towards the paternalistic than what we originally intended, but this, too, has been our young artisans' choice. None of them so far has been interested in starting his or her own cottage industry--they are simply not at that stage of their lives yet. Many are still trying to save money to go to high school. And since our philosophy dictates that we show respect for what they want rather than imposing upon them a business model that is more politically correct but that forces them to take more responsibility than they are ready or willing to take on at this stage of their young lives, we've acceded to their wishes in this. 

Anyway, with that single caveat, I am very comfortable stating that Soul of Somanya, Inc. is run strictly on Fair Trade principles...right up to the point where we are in need of beads. And then things get a little blurry. Because, more often than not, we are forced to go to market to buy beads from the local bead sellers rather than from the artisans themselves. And those artisans, who would be receiving the full market value of their products if they could be depended on to fill our orders in a timely fashion (and if they were able to navigate around our admittedly irregular timing in placing those orders,) are instead having to share the profits with their bead sellers.

There is no exploitation here. Kroboland's bead sellers are NOT the greedy, blood-sucking middleman stereotypes that Westerners have been taught to envision. On the contrary, they provide legitimate, much-needed services to the beadmakers of the area. They provide, for example, transport for large quantities of these very heavy goods. That's huge. Very few people in Somanya can afford a car or truck. They also provide the tables for displaying the beads, and the canopies that protect both the products and the customers from the elements. They take other financial risks as well, such as buying large quantities of beads that may or may not ever sell. They are an important part of the Krobo bead industry, and they should be receiving an income for the services they provide. Moreover, the local bead artisans typically have long-standing and very friendly relationships with their bead sellers. 

But buying some of our beads through these middle(wo)men places us in a distinctly gray area with regard to Fair Trade principles, and this makes me itchy. Much as I like and respect the bead sellers we've dealt with, I'd rather see all of the money we spend on beads going directly into the pockets of the people actually producing them. That is one of the paramount principles of Fair Trade, and I'd like to be able to uphold it with regard to the beadmakers as well as with regard to our own staff of jewelry artisans. But our real-world needs--the needs of the youth we have pledged to serve--don't mesh with what the beadmakers can supply. So what are we supposed to do? Import beads from somewhere else? I don't think so.

In a perfect world, Soul of Somanya would have already developed a wide enough market for the Krobo beads that we could buy whole batches in one design directly from the beadmakers' huts. In a perfect world we would have unlimited capital so that we could buy the beads when the artisans have them rather than when we need them. In a perfect world, we could provide a consistent, predictable demand for their beads so that these artisans could gradually adjust their production schedules and output to fit that demand. In a perfect world, the artisans of developing countries would be trading on an even playing field, and they wouldn't need our kind of help at all.

But this isn't a perfect world. This is the real world. And in the real world, these artisans need all the help they can get if their products are to become more visible and accessible to the people who can afford to buy them. And I can tell you this with perfect certainty: Soul of Somanya is helping with that. At last count, we had shipped Krobo beads to 40 different countries, including such unlikely places as Iran, Iceland, Estonia and (most recently) Latvia. In every case, these were first-time-Krobo-bead-buyers who had found out about the beads through our efforts. We are helping to grow the market for these beads.

And here's something else I can tell you: No one--and I mean no one--benefits from little organizations like ours giving up simply because, for all their striving to do so, they can't manage to adhere 100% to the letter of larger and better-funded organizations' definitions of Fair Trade. 

So. Is every bead we use or sell Fair Trade by most definitions? Nope. Does that mean that people are being exploited by us so that we can create and sell these products? Absolutely not. And does any of this mean that you shouldn't buy what we sell? That's up to you. But I can promise you this: Somanya's economy in general, and the bead industry in particular, is the better for having us there. We're trying. On a vast sub-continent where fighting poverty is like bailing out the ocean with a teaspoon, we're dipping our spoon in and out as fast as we can, and so are a lot of other little organizations like ours. We're all doing what we can with the resources that are available to us. 

I wish it were more. I wish this were a more perfect world. Since I began working on this project four years ago, I've become aware of how many people are out there trying to make things better. I suspect that they've all struggled, as Soul of Somanya has struggled, to do it "right;" to do it in accordance with principles that represent an ideal of fair trade that is absolutely worth aspiring to. And I'd be willing to bet that they, too, have become mired at times in the complexities that comprise the real world. 

I can only hope, with all my heart, that the near-impossibility of being perfect doesn't make them stop trying to be--and to do--good.

(For a more thorough--and excellent--explanation of the FTF's principles, visit their website at: http://www.fairtradefederation.org/)

FYI, the bead in the picture at the top of this post was part of a direct transaction between Soul of Somanya and the artisan who made it. We placed an order for a quantity of his beads, advanced him the money to buy the necessary materials, and paid him the full retail value of the beads when he  delivered them. If only it were always so simple!  


  1. Keep dipping those spoons Melody!

  2. I can't tell you how important your experiences are to those who are inspiring to do good through social enterprise. It's not the destination... it's the journey. Go Soul of Somanya!