One of my goals for Style Context is to spotlight fair trade, ethical, and sustainable brands. Since the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April, consumers and designers have become more conscientious about the cost of fast fashion on workers and the environment. Last week, I discovered fair trade jewelry brand, Artisans in the Andes, on Twitter and had the opportunity to interview founder, Tracey Krause. Tracey discusses the process of designing the beautiful, hand-crafted jewelry and gives advice to designers considering the fair trade route. Whether you’re a designer or a consumer seeking to make more ethical purchases, read on for inspiration.
1. What was the inspiration for moving to Ecuador to work with local artisans?
It has been a long-time dream of mine to help women rising out of poverty through their own business. Just a little bit of help can lift a family out of poverty. I am a charted accountant from Canada with a business background. We moved to Ecuador to follow my dream and to have an adventure as a family.
In Ecuador we live in the Andes mountains in a unique area. The surrounding towns and villages are each devoted to a specific craft where the craft is passed along from parent to child. The town we live in is a leather town with many leather artisans (Yes, the purses and boots are awesome!). Other towns are dedicated to weaving cloth, making jewelry, sewing clothes, weaving straw, carving wood, throwing pottery, there is even a town dedicated to making cookies. The artisans work with local raw materials, cutting, shaping, dying, softening, grinding, whatever needs to be done to the wood, straw, fibers, nuts, or wheat. It is incredibly inspiring to meet these hardworking artisans and learn the process of their craft. The artisans are also using locally grown, sustainable items in their work, they have a strong interest in preserving the earth, being eco friendly, and honoring the rainforest, jungle and mountains that surround them.
2. Why did you decide to make your brand fair trade?
Fair trade is the only way to go for new businesses these days. Consumers are seeing the underlying cost of exploitative goods, they want goods that are good for other people, good for the planet and good for themselves and their family. People are getting smarter about their choices as they recognize the impact that they have, they are voting with their dollars for a fairer, more sustainable world. People want to feel good about their purchases and its getting easier to find out the story, like with the blood diamonds coming out of Sierre Leone.
In Ecuador, often times a family’s poverty can be easily resolved through fair pay for work done. I was recently introduced to artisan woman who makes many hundreds of small weavings a month. For her monthly work she makes $131 dollars to support her family of 5. She doesn’t have enough money to send her children to high school. She is poor, uneducated, fearful of hunger and easy to exploit. She won’t be able to break the cycle of poverty for her family. If she made a little more a month, just a few pennies more per weaving, she could afford to send her children to school, they would graduate from high school and expand their choices in life. They could still choose to weave, but they would be able to negotiate their prices from a position of knowledge and craftsmanship, not desperation.
In my business, my goal is to have everyone who intersects with my business to have a good experience. I want to pay the artisan a fair price for their work, one that covers life essentials, including education for the children of the family. I want the people who buy from me to know that they are uplifting others through their purchase, and receiving high quality handmade goods that reflect the values and traditions of Ecuador.
3. What advice would you give to other designers seeking to create a fair trade brand?
My number one piece of advice is to make sure you find the people that are actually making the goods and buy from them. It can be difficult to fully understand the economics and supply chains of a foreign country, its easy to be misled and end up paying a middle man who turns around and exploits the very artisans you are trying to support and encourage.
4. What is the story behind the beautiful jewelry designs?
At this point as I am growing my business, I only work with a few artisans as I want my orders to be significant enough to make a difference in the lives of the artisans. I look for designs and patterns that look bold, fashionable, eco-friendly and interesting. Personally, I love dramatic colors, but I try to have some more subtle looks in the store as well. Sometimes the artisans will make suggestions and show me new patterns and designs that they are working on. I look for artisans whose work reflects a unique, Ecuadorian feel.
5. Do you think fair trade will ever become a mainstream part of the fashion industry?
I think that fashion reflects our values, our ambitions, our hopes, dreams and inner self. When we get dressed in the morning, we are telling the world something about ourselves. Through the economic and ecological issues we have been facing over the last few years, our values and ambitions as a society have been shifting to place a higher value on inherent worth rather than sheer volume. As consumers we are more educated and more aware of the impact our choices have. We are looking for meaning and real joy in life. Altogether this ends up being a shift towards fair trade.