Thoughts on fair trade from Alleson

We've been back in Canada one month now. We've had a booth at 2 local shows and are planning 2 large textile events in Halifax and Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia to coincide with World Fair Trade Weeks (May 1-15, 2008). We've had a chance to reflect and I want to share some of my thoughts with you about some of the challenges of this work.

Most challenging is the wide variety of producers, locations and conditions associated with the pieces. Classification or certification, whether for fair trade, organic or Canada Customs, always involves standardization; and the artisans we meet and the textiles we trade defy standardization.

There are so many steps involved in handmade textile products that a dozen or more farmers and craftspeople are usually involved in making a single item. Take, for example, a baby’s sunhat. There are a number of people involved with the production:
  • the farmer who grew the cotton, organically but without certification
  • the group of grandmothers who fluffed and spun the yarn by hand
  • their neighbour and or daughter who wove the cloth
  • the artist who designed the hat and made the pattern
  • the tailor who cut the cloth and sewed the machine stitching
  • the natural dyers who dyed the cloth for decoration
  • the embroiderers who made and assembled the appliqué detail
And, to make matters more complicated, these people don’t all live in the same province well enough village, few of them speak English nor know how to effectively market their work internationally and few are online.

So, first of all there are the logistical problems of all those people working together. Luckily we’ve met some incredibly connected and dedicated Thai community development workers who do knit these production “chains” together. With patience, flexibility and a lot of lead time, those challenges can and have been met.

But whether these complex production networks can be examined, analyzed and certified is another matter. Very likely their way of working doesn’t fit any of the existing models. Perhaps to do so, one would have to sacrifice the conditions and traditions that created the product.

Consequently, we prefer to meet the producers and, when possible, visit the villages where they live and work. That’s the best part of this work but also the most unpredictable.

We have sometimes travelled all day, introduced ourselves in our halting Thai and explained our intentions to incredulous villagers, who of course want us to buy their work, regardless of whether it meets our criteria. When it doesn’t, we usually buy a few pieces anyway to soften their disappointment and, more importantly, to avoid their loss of face, which in Southeast Asian cultures is something always to keep in mind.

We’ve also had crazy situations, like when our rented motorcycle, fully laden with us and our overflowing shopping bags, gasped to a halt as sunset approached. We were nowhere close to a bus, well enough a hotel, and we ended up hitching a ride in the back of a truck.

These challenges are worth overcoming though – especially as we begin to build stronger relationships both with the women artisans we buy from and with women here in Canada (and elsewhere) who also love and appreciate textiles like these and who like what we're doing. It's a good direction for us.