Is Your Artisan Made Item *Really* Ethical? 5 Things to Look For

is artisan made ethical? matter prints

This piece was written by me with compensation and support from MATTER Prints

What Does Artisan Made Mean?

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 categorized 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 organization 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 industrialized consumer product manufacturing, which typically takes place in designated facilities outside of town centers, 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.

is artisan made ethical? matter prints

3 | Materials are eco-conscious and locally derived

Because craft tradition is reliant on the physical location of a community, it is impacted by the holistic needs of the community and available natural resources. 

For this reason, a majority of artisan-made products that fit the “generational transfer” designation will be made with materials indigenous to the region: things like cotton, silk, and various types of plant ingredients. Occasionally, items are also made with locally recycled materials, such as scrap metal and old tires. As demand for artisan goods has increased, and the world has modernized, more craftspeople are incorporating synthetic dyes into their goods, but traditionally dyes would have been plant-derived (you can read more about plant-based dyes here). 

4 | Imperfections are apparent, but not distracting

A handmade item cannot, and should not, look like a factory-made item. Individual artisan taste and technique will impact the final product, which is part of what makes artisan work so meaningful. 

Artisan craft, especially when it becomes available to a global marketplace via brands like Ten Thousand Villages and MATTER, is taken on as a collaborative process between the artisan, their community’s tradition, designers, and merchandisers, and the final product is a testament to successful coalition-building. It is never merely a fashion statement.

5 | Artisans are artists

The artists out there will get in a fight with me for comparing craftsmanship to fine art (it’s happened to me before), but I stand by this statement: artisanship was the first type of art and it’s certainly the most meaningful. 

This is because artisan goods tend to be purposeful goods. They often derive from basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter, but they expand on this need. They beautify it, ritualize it, culturally embed it, and make it good.

For this reason, it is imperative that those of us who appreciate and collect artisan-made goods do so with a knowledge of which motifs are culturally and religiously sacred versus those that are intended for multi-cultural enjoyment. It is also important that we take an interest in the people behind the products. Nameless, faceless “artisans” used as a marketing angle quite literally erase the artisans themselves. 

What Now?

If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, I encourage you to explore your favorite ethical websites and see what they say about their makers. How do they write about them? Can they speak to the intricacies of the craftsmanship? Do they understand the motifs and symbols? 

A few examples of very transparent brands are MATTER and Ten Thousand Villages.

Artisans do extraordinarily time consuming, skilled, creative work, increasingly to appeal to the whims of a global market content to condone a throwaway culture. But this misses the point.

When you touch the raised embroidery on a cotton dress, examine the dotted paint patterning on a Oaxacan mythological figure, or trace your fingers across intricately woven ikat, the experience is akin to beholding a miracle. 

It’s a reminder that humans are capable of more than arguing on Twitter, to more than oppression and greed. That maybe, given enough time and support, we could craft something beautiful together, too. All is not lost, and we have artisans to thank for it.

Learn more about MATTER here

P.S. I think it is very difficult for Western and white brands to use images of artisans in their marketing and brand storytelling without inadvertently turning them into objects for the public gaze. This is due to the long history of imperialism and colonialism enacted by much of Europe and the United States over the last several hundred years. I generally avoid using images of non-Western artisans on StyleWise because I am wary of creating a power dynamic in which my reader, filtering through my own framing, sees them as novelties rather than equals. I am still trying to find a way to appropriately convey artisan stories in a way that reduces that power differential and I welcome your thoughts.

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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