As artisan made, eco-friendly, and sustainability became trending phrases in the conscious fashion sphere, it unbridled major discrepancies in the language used by the brands who want to be relevant and (falsely) market themselves as green. While we can recognise the $20 “organic cotton” shirt as false marketing, we have to ask ourselves how to make sure the brands and businesses who “support” or “empower” artisan made craft are trying to positively impact the community.
We started a conversation about cultural appropriation and understanding intent – but what if brands working with artisans, with the noble intention to underpin their community, are actually inflicting damage instead? What if their work’s unintended consequence exploits the very artisans they seek to empower? We have to address the elephant in the room by acknowledging the invisible privileges we are entitled to, and the problematic tendencies that stem from a rose-tinted western perspective.
Dissecting Internalised Colonialism
Fashion does not exist in a vacuum, so we cannot ignore the western socio-political and economic influences that sway our decisions and viewpoints. As we unknowingly adopt western standards, styles, and even definitions of what sustainability and empowerment mean, we tumble into a sea of neocolonialism. By placing those in power on a pedestal for having the ability to provide support, we give them a false sense of supremacy. However, when businesses try to falsely help artisans to prioritise their own image concerning sustainability, without doing research or due diligence, they often do more harm than good.
The issue here isn’t misplaced philanthropy but ignorance. It is about asking the artisans what their needs are, and how they can be fulfilled. Philanthropy does not end with donating money, and businesses can actively be part of the solution. It was through our visits to our artisan partners in India that made us realise how the value of artisan-made craft is intrinsically interwoven into the lives of the community.
Artisan Made Tradition Over Trends
Artisan made is inherently slow, using techniques passed through generations of craftsmen with the emphasis on sharing the community’s tradition and stories. These handmade crafts are no match to the precision and quantity churned out by the beast of industrialised manufacturing the fast fashion industry depends on, and neither should they be compared to that standard.
Artisan made craft values quality over quantity and understands the importance of using the resources best available to them, such as using locally found natural materials and generating employment within their community. When working with artisans, it is crucial to adhere to their traditional ways, and not subject them to produce unimaginable quantities under unlikely timelines for the purpose of following trends.
It is also important to have common goals and perspectives between the artisans and the supporting businesses, especially about the values that define artisan-made. Longevity and quality in products exist within artisan-made produce because they practice traditional methods that have existed since the time people relied on their products to last a lifetime. Bolstering artisans today remind consumers about mindful consumption over mass consumption, quality over quantity.
Even as businesses generate an upsurge of demand for artisan goods, it cannot and perhaps should not be met by increased production, as it only feeds into mass production. By increasing awareness about the limitations of artisan-made, such as limited quantities and slight imperfections, consumers better understand the bigger picture of how their clothes will last if they are made and taken care of well.
The System of Exploitation
The term “artisan” should technically correspond to “ethical”, but because of the lack of transparency and policies protecting craftspeople, there is a cloud of doubt whether the artisans are provided with living wages and working conditions. With industrialisation attracting consumers with fast and new products, artisans carrying forward countless generations of traditions, such as weavers, dyers, or embroiderers are not able to sustain their work financially. Especially in developing countries, if artisans do find themselves employed to practice their craft, they are in danger of working incredibly low wages.
While higher price points and nominal information about where the clothes are made denote better-paid artisans and better quality, customers should still demand transparency. Especially if the objectives of these brands are to promote and support artisan craft.
That is why conversation determines where these boundaries lie. We need to overcome the nuances of complicated terms and loopholes in language. As a business, there has to be a lot of thought and discussion with the artisans about their craft before commercialisation. This births a dialogue infused with mutual respect and emphasises the weight of the stories and tradition hanging from every hand-made product.
The privileged ones partaking in ethical fashion have to understand the onus on them to stand up for those without the same advantages. Be it a business, social enterprise or a consumer, we have to be conscious of our actions and repercussions. With privilege comes the power to have our opinions heard, and we can choose to uplift those marginalised voices and challenge the system that continuously depends on exploitation and oppression.
Read more about our relationships with our artisan partners.