On the Ground in India: Fair Trade at Work

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Upon arrival, India terrified me. A new place, with new people, and a new environment to the most polarized degree. I have traveled to many places around the globe (7 more countries than the value of my age, to be exact), and if I were to imagine a place entirely the opposite of San Francisco, my home, it would be India and Nepal.

Cultural Observations

Walking along the streets, I see littered single-use containers, bottles, cardboard and anything you could imagine. Cows browse free range around the streets, nibbling at the grasses along the paved roads, and small stray puppies grow up in the difficult 105-degree atmosphere, never knowing the comfort of a bowl of kibble.

The cars, motorbikes, and rickshaws swerve around one another, honking rather than signaling, to indicate their spontaneous merging and u-turning. And when I say honking, imagine this as a constant, almost as if there is one long honk reverberating through the entire country. People have no concern for driving within lines and even travel in the wrong direction entirely. In fact, many what-would-be 4-lane highways in The States, do not even have lines drawn to separate lanes at all. Cargo trucks have written on the back, “blow horn,” as if to encourage this behavior. I believe it is used as a warning, and people expect it—almost as if the cars merging around the traffic, or passing in the wrong direction, have the right of way over the cars obeying traffic rules (as long as you honk, that is). It is a Mario Kart free-for-all, and to add to the auditory and visual noise, all trucks, tractors and working vehicles are either painted with saturated colors, taped up into striped designs, or decorated with tassels to jazz up the otherwise stale monotony of traffic.

The population is immense, with an abundance of small children running barefoot, and entire families including babies hanging onto trucks. People are busy, a family of 4 riding one bike, soldiering on to their next destination.

More than half the edifices are partially built, by western standards—missing a wall, a roof, or electricity. Many have corrugated roofs or tarps supported by wooden logs for shade, instead of the security of concrete walls. The housing that does have walls are not updated with external paint or decoration. Clean water, fit for travelers, is mostly bottled, and many villages drink from the water that has not necessarily been verified for quality. Even some parts of the Ganges, the holiest of all the world’s rivers, regarded highly by Hindus and admired by most, have suffered the cost of humanity, riddled with plastic and natural waste.

The tropical foliage of the south is adorned in banana, coconut palm, and papaya trees. You can easily encounter thick stacks of bamboo shoots, patties of rice, wild hibiscus bushes, and expansive fields of wheat. In the north, people cultivate sugar cane in droves, harvest cotton, and manufacture steel. The Kingfisher, whose feathers are a fantastic bright blue color, fly freely around buildings and forests alike. Meanwhile, families of rhesus macaque monkeys saunter around mischievously, searching for food scraps to steal from the humans that cultivate them. One of the more surprising things I witnessed in Rajasthan is the pure quantity of marijuana growing wild along the roadsides. You could reach down and pluck an ounce without one ounce of government regulation.

But all of the above are first impressions. India is defined by its people, and the people care deeply about their traditions. Locals wear the clothes shared by thousands of years of customs. Hindu women wear conservative outfits, saris and salwar kameez, almost all across the country. Sikh men wear their never-been-trimmed hair wrapped in turbans, and Muslim men wear prayer caps and tunics. The diversity between religious groups is extensive, and all groups maintain their own traditional fashion even in the face of 21st-century globalization. Western clothes are not worn by women, and I only ever witnessed men rocking jeans and a t-shirt.

Individuals work eagerly, many work 6 days a week to make a living. They hustle, in the hopes that they or their children have the opportunity to make an economic move to the next social status. Many people I encountered even moonlight for the sake of a quick buck. All this despite the shadow of immobility leftover from the ancient caste system, and the immense competition flourishing from a gigantic (and growing) population. However, it is still a bit of a quandary to me that even with all this persistence, many residents still do not have much. For whatever reason, may it be a reflection of the political state of the country, this fact cyclically contributes to the fast-paced culture of anxiety and concern over monetary security.

In the face of such strife, many people depend on their families for comfort and direction. The culture is family focused and proud of their heritage. An entire family may live under one roof, and the expectations of one another are high to marry well, work hard, and move forward.

Although opportunities may be scarce for some, and living conditions harsh, I found an irreverent beauty in the manner in which people care for one another. Sharing food is a must, loving your in-laws (as long as the marriage is acceptable) is as easy as caring for your siblings, and welcoming a group of strangers with the hospitality two times their means is common.

If you enter someone’s home or workplace, you can expect a cup of chai, masala spiced tea, even if you do not prefer it. They will feed you until you pop, and at that moment of rupture, insist that you eat more. They prepare food fresh and hot every day and do so to bond around the comforts of home cooking. Although I suspect it is also a cultural adaptation for warding off foodborne illness in the face of less-than-optimal food and water storage conditions, this is just a positive effect of the habit. Really, they do so to foster community. Family means a lot, and people have pride in their traditions.

The friends I made in India live in the moment. They love to laugh, joke, and enjoy another’s company. After all, if you are a person born into a class system, with little possibility of social mobility, what else can you do but enjoy the moment? Life consists of taking challenges, and joys, day by day, appreciating the small things that the universe has provided for you.

And Indian people, when with their families, are deeply happy. Happiness from an outside source, like the joy I get from traveling, is temporary. But the people I have met here radiate internal happiness, and receiving happiness from an inside source is contentment. Contentment is not the sort of thing you get to see every day.


Fair Trade Observations

I saw this in the artisan groups we visited in rural villages. You can find the history in local life by knowing how things are made—why stainless steel is used in Indian culture in the tiffins they carry their lunch to work, for example, and who produces such an everyday item. Artisans are proud of contributing to this cultural heritage and are glad to receive work allowing them to contribute to the art forms their families have mastered over centuries. Life is simple, and with the perfect cocktail of a consistent income, family, and community, people are content.

And at the end of 3 (and a half) weeks of traveling, through all the heat, the sweat, and the mild stomach aches from eating a new cuisine 3 meals a day, I feel my perspective has transformed. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the big differences between the western and south Asian world: the lack of utilities, access to dependable industry, or trust in local politics. However, with more thorough observation, those big, more alarming elements fall away and are replaced by a deep appreciation for the region’s people.

In our time in India and Nepal, we spent 24 days traveling, meeting artisans, witnessing the production of handmade goods, conversing with artisan leaders, and interviewing and photographing brave individuals. In this time, we visited a total of thirty artisan groups! That is more than the number of days we spent abroad. It was tiring, but oh so worth the task. With about 5 to 10 people per group, some having many more than 10, I estimate we met about 300 artisans or more.

The most predominant feedback from artisans we received, across the board, was “please place more orders!” I wish I could report that we received more critical feedback, about how often to place orders, how to improve our payment structures, better ways to communicate with artisans, etcetera, because I was probing for constructive feedback. I felt there was little reason to fly around the world without the promise of improvement in our social business operations. However, I was surprised to hear that most artisan groups feel satisfied with the work they have completed for us. The biggest trial they have is receiving the work at all.

These groups have trained in the art of handicraft for many generations, in some cases for centuries. Their fathers and their father’s fathers, or their mothers and their mother’s mothers, worked in a specific skill set in order to provide for their families. Many Indian artisans who block-print fabrics, for example, learned from their families, and live in a rural community where block-printing is the main source of income for all people who live there.

In these rural communities, if one cannot make handicraft, individuals often choose farming as an alternative. Over 60 percent of all Indian citizens work in agriculture. Given this huge industry, the large competition that comes along with it, as well as the sometimes harsh conditions agricultural lands face in years with a weak monsoon season, many farmers are unable to turn a profit on their product, or break even at all for that matter.

This is where artisan-made products come into the equation. Many artisans are uneducated and do not have the capability to make a shift in their careers toward other more technical jobs. And some of those who do move to the cities and out of rural spaces for access to industry, often cannot find housing. The pay is greater in urban areas, but so is the cost of living, and the cost of living often outweighs the benefits of living the modern lifestyle. Therefore, some individuals end up settling in slums, and their quality of life, paired with the threat of criminality in those areas, decreases dramatically.

Therefore, giving artisans access to the only work they know how to do, is our primary task. Because many of the artisans we work with now have a taste of the globalized economy, they want more. They have seen a renewed interest in the work they do, revived by Fair Trade and ethical industry across the globe. They appreciate and depend on our buyers, customers just like you, for their livelihood. They simply want more orders, so that they may rebuild their craft and send their children to school. Perhaps in a few years, if we are successful, the artisans will experience less poverty and have more emotional space to consider more detailed questions concerning how to expand their access to other less attainable benefits like healthcare or more substantial housing. However, for now, the orders are enough.

The artisans reported feeling empowered by the ability to have a career. They are proud to provide for their family, which allows them to champion their own lives. They feel excited to make a difference for their children and their children’s children, even if they cannot have specific goals for themselves. Even despite the difficult societal structure leftover from the caste system and the high density of competition due to overpopulation, they feel hopeful for the future. And hope, as an emotion, is powerful. Hope fends off depression, it encourages independence, it empowers a belief in oneself and removes tension in a community.

Our system is not trickle-down economics, it is empowerment economics. We do not hope that by increasing revenue for ourselves, funds will eventually make it down to the producers, after cutting it in half over and over down the supply chain. At the end of such a chain, there is not much left for the people at the bottom. Instead, our system encourages the individuals in power, who are blessed with privilege and have the ability to look out for others, to take on the personal responsibility to do so. Through the growing interest in Fair Trade principles, we hope to nudge other industry leaders to take a deep look at the structure of their business plans and ask themselves if they can use their buying power to support others who need it the most.

Our system is also is not charity. It does not determine if one group needs help more than another. It does not encourage philanthropy for tax benefits or gifting money to lower income communities without also providing the education necessary to promote the positive money-saving habits that help build wealth.

Fair Trade is, at its core, about being a good leader: fostering deep, trusted relationships, supplying work to the undervalued, and providing business education to underprivileged groups through leading by example, one order at a time.

I would argue that the powers of groupthink and social pressure are more influential than one may think, and we should advocate for them. If we approach the world with only our personal gains in mind, and not giving, our decisions will reverberate with selfishness. People can sense this greed. The sensation of selfishness is degrading to other parties involved, and the opposite of empowering. However, if we are able to infuse our decision making with conscious deliberation and deep consideration for the souls who share our planet, for the health of the planet itself, as well as with love and respect for those from other countries whose culture we do not entirely understand, then our actions will radiate comfort instead of intimidation. On this trip, I have witnessed that this comfort produces empowerment and cooperation, and increases the desire for production. It is good for us, our suppliers, and it is good for them, their quality of life–a perfect symbiosis in business. After all, all relationships–friendships, marriages, and business alike–all deserve comfort, trust, and cooperation.

“Therefore, I encourage us as global citizens, to ask ourselves: are we on the trajectory towards changing the landscape of business, to remind it of what it lost? “

Does the true definition of it still ring true: the exchange of one good or service for another, of equal value? Based on this perspective, trade is, at its core, “fair.” Trade involves two people or groups agreeing consensually that the value of one good is equal to the value of another good. And even though we no longer trade one literal good for another—one gallon of milk from my community cow for your hand-forged stainless steel cooking pot, for example—can we treat a monetary exchange with the same “fair” intention? Money is symbolic trade, and we must pay for goods at the fair price that one would trade another good for in return.

Perhaps we can still consider the exchange of goods, or money, in this fashion—a consensual agreement between two people or groups who determine the value of their labor at a monetary cost that satisfies the deep human need for respectful recognition of what someone has created. This value-oriented thinking will allow us to put ourselves in a maker’s shoes and ask, “if I made this tote, how much would I value it for, what good would I take in exchange, and what amount of money, or symbolic-trade, would I accept for it.” And on the other side, giving and expecting the same mutual respect in return.

So on this World Fair Trade Day, I ask you to consider the above. Is business competition, or a partnership? Are we approaching other human beings, or our business partners, with trust, acceptance, and respect? Are we approaching negotiations with fair intentions, to find the best solution for both parties involved? Or are we self-centered and entrenched so far in our own goals, that we are willing to “defeat” the other side, in order to get what we want? If a compromise is the future of economic success, are we willing to make it?

– Angela

Director of Operations and Product Development

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Written by Angela Weinberg, Director of Operations and Product Development
As Director of Operations & Product Development at GlobeIn, Angela’s passion for art making paired with a dual degree in Art Practice and Psychology from UC Berkeley landed her jobs in the art world, before pivoting towards social business. She now facilitates design and logistics for Fair Trade artisans goods from around the world.