An Amazing Fair Trade Women’s Cooperative: Bamboo Scarves
On a recent trip to Guatemala while driving up a winding road through the stunning Lake Atitlan area, our driver stopped in a tiny village to let us off at a fair trade cooperative. Who would ever dream that inside is a thriving business, run by entirely by women with very little formal education? The first thing that struck me was the colors, as is often the case in Guatemala. I love color and Guatemala is the most colorful place I’ve ever been.! The building was covered with hanging bamboo scarves of every color combination imaginable, all woven by hand through an ancient, intricate, labor-intensive process.
This women’s cooperative was founded in 1987 during the genocide that was occurring in Guatemala, leaving thousands of women as widows with no income to support their families. It was founded by a man from Vancouver who was looking for a source of income for 17 widows, all of whom were backstrap weavers. Over the years, the cooperative has grown into a large organization, with a Board of Directors, a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and full time bookkeeper! Of the 180 women, most are able to work from home, although some do weave in the shop so we were able to see the process in action.
And it is quite a process! The bamboo is spun, dyed (using non-toxic dyes), dried in the sun, wound for proper scarf length, and then woven on the backstrap loom. Backstrap weaving is the oldest method of making cloth in the world, and it originated with the Maya people! It is very hard on the body, as the women are generally kneeling, so it is painful to the knees and back. (However, the women we saw were sitting on chairs especially created for them that were donated by NGO’s). The loom is literally strapped around the woman’s back while she weaves. It was fascinating to watch the process, and I was in awe of the incredible beauty and intricacy of the weaving.
Many people are surprised that bamboo can feel so good, but I promise you, it is one of the softest fibers around. It is absolutely as soft as silk, and you cannot help but say, “ooooooh” when you feel it! And the colors are truly, truly gorgeous!
Best of all, the women are earning two to four times what they would make selling their wares in the market! And due to increased earnings the families are eating healthier foods, have access to medicine, the children are able to stay in school longer, and the status of women in the society has improved. And preserving the ancient culture of backstrap weaving is a gift to the world!
Yet again, this is why I am so passionate about fair trade, and seeing it in action firsthand was an experience I will remember my whole life.
Happy International Women’s Day!
I love this holiday! What a great way to honor and acknowledge women all over the world. IWD celebrates women and girls, no matter their religion, nationality, income level or marital status. Many countries have declared it a national holiday (not the United States, although we have designated the whole month of March as Women’s History Month). In some countries it has gained the status of Mother’s Day, where children give small gifts to their mothers and grandmothers and men honor the women in their lives with flowers and gifts of appreciation.
International Women’s Day has a long history. It was originally organized by the Socialist Party of America to commemorate the strike of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union in 1908. That year 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, higher wages and voting rights. You go girls! The United Nations has declared it a holiday that promotes women’s rights, global peace and gender equality. Every year on March 8 there are thousands of events worldwide to inspire women, celebrate their achievements, and continue to fight for gender equality.
International Women’s Day fits in perfectly with the mission of the Women’s Peace Collection. As I pondered how to celebrate this day in our own small way I decided to donate a percentage of our sales to one of my all time favorite organizations that helps women across the globe: Dining for Women. In my small town in Western Massachusetts we have a very active chapter of DFW. Here’s how it works: each month DFW features an international program that supports a women’s issue. Chapters all over the country hold potluck gatherings and the idea is that each participant donates roughly what they would spend going out to dinner to the featured program. The featured programs work with educating girls, teaching women skills, helping develop a market for artisan products, fighting gender inequality, providing access to better healthcare, and much, much more!
Dining for Women’s motto is this: “Changing the world, one woman, one girl, one dinner at time.” Please help us change the world - your children, mothers and grandmothers across the globe will be so grateful!
(Read more about Dining for Women at: www.diningforwomen.org).
Happy New Year!
As I reflect on the past year with the Women’s Peace Collection I am in awe of the amazing work that the businesses and non-profits we work with are doing all over the world. The passion, commitment and perseverance of these individuals who have devoted their lives to helping others is what gives me hope for a better world.
I’d like to personally thank all of you for supporting these important initiatives through socially conscious shopping! I thought it would be nice to start the New Year by highlighting some of the work that these organizations and businesses are doing through their fair trade practices, thus shedding some light on the impact the Women’s Peace Collection was part of in 2014!
Our Kenya mobiles were one of the most popular products this year. They are handcrafted by a group of mothers who use the money they earn to send their children to school since Kenya has no public school system. This community is seeing the impact of the sales of the products they make. We all know that educating children is the clearest path out of poverty!
We carry many products from Guatemala not only because they are colorful and beautiful but because it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is estimated that 54% of Guatemalans live in poverty! There are an increasing number of fair trade cooperatives all over Guatemala that are doing amazing work to help alleviate poverty, educate children, and provide much needed healthcare. We are slowly seeing an improvement in the quality of life there – fair trade really is impactful!
The company working with the Colombian artisans who make our tagua and agave jewelry is supporting an organization called CerMujer, a service in Cali that embraces and houses girls ages 9-18 who are pregnant as a result of prostitution or sexual violence.
The non-profit that oversees the production of our popular Freedom Collection, made by survivors of human trafficking in Asia, gives 100% of the profits from the jewelry sales back to supporting the women in their transition to a life of freedom!
Our Gaza evening bags from Palestine are made by talented women at the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Women and Children. The sale of the bags have enabled these women to not only break the barrier of silence but support their families!
The company that works with the artisans in Bolivia who make our alpaca hats and gloves donates a percentage of their profits to Solidarity Bridge, an organization that provides high-complexity surgery and other healthcare for those living in poverty. In fact, one of the artisans recently had a tumor in her uterus that was successfully treated with 100% recovery! The artisan was also proud that she was able to contribute to the cost of the surgery from her income through the fair trade cooperative.
The group that works with the producers of our jewelry from India not only help the artisans find their way out of poverty through fair wages, but they donate a percentage of sales to the Girl’s Education Fund, which provides educational scholarships to girls in the most marginalized families they serve. In India, 64% of young adolescent girls drop out of school to help take care of siblings, run the household or for arranged marriages. Through an increase in sales from the products they handcraft, the organization was able to send three times as many girls to school last year!
And this is just a sampling of many more projects that are going on around the world, benefitting the artisans and their families who make our gorgeous products! All I can say is this: WOW – fair trade rocks!
Last weekend we had the privilege of having a booth at the Saratoga Springs, NY, Fair Trade Marketplace. The excitement in the air was palpable among both vendors and customers, as everyone there was supporting fair trade. Normally at shows I say something like this to customers as they browse: “everything is fair trade and hand made by artisans in villages all over the world,” so people know they are buying something special and meaningful. In Saratoga, however, customer after customer asked ME about the products – “tell me the story behind this,” “where is it made?”, “how are the artisans paid?”, etc. It was truly thrilling to be among knowledgeable people who understand what fair trade is about and who are shopping consciously! I kept saying to myself, “yes, more and more people get it!”
So the holidays are approaching fast and we all have choices as to how we shop. I thought I’d share just a handful of reasons why buying fair trade is so beneficial and meaningful. (I am focusing here on fair trade crafts, not edibles).
These reasons and many more are what fuel my passion for this work. What a great way to shop consciously and purposefully while making a powerful difference in someone’s life – I call that a true win-win!
As Thanksgiving approaches I like to focus on what I am grateful for, as so many Americans do at this time of year. There is what’s right in front of me - my wonderful husband, amazing kids, incredible friends and relatives, and the home in which I live. But as I reflect deeper, I take a look at the things I take for granted every single day: enough food on the table, plenty of clothes to wear, clean water, modern plumbing, heat in the winter, a car, a comfortable bed, a roof over my head, access to quality healthcare…….I could go on and on!
Then I think about the artisans whose beautiful handiwork the Women’s Peace Collection is featuring. They live in the most impoverished conditions, many without the basic living conditions I mention above. We carry so many products from Guatemala not only because they are beautiful, but because Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world and without access to American markets many of the artisans could not survive, and would not have enough food on the table (many still don’t!).
And then there’s Kenya, which has no public school system, so parents have to pay if they want their children to be educated! A group of talented mothers has gotten together to craft beautiful mobiles made out of banana fiber, as well as stunning jewelry. We hope that by contributing in our small way by selling their products more kids in Kenya can receive a basic education.
Even more horrific are the thousands of women and girls who are victims of human trafficking all over the world. So we do our part to support the ones who have escaped or been rescued, selling the stunning Live Free and Freebird jewelry they handcraft as their way of supporting themselves.
I will be spending this Thanksgiving with relatives who live in Plymouth, MA, of all places, home of Plymouth Rock. I am ever so grateful for the feast we will have in a warm, cozy home. But I also have incredible gratitude for having the privilege to help artisans across the globe, many of whom may never have such a feast. And I am grateful for the artisans themselves, who share their incredible talents with us. This is why I do this work – because I know in my heart of hearts that we are all in this life together and that every human being deserves what we in this country take for granted.
One of my fondest childhood memories is when my Peruvian relatives came to visit, bringing stuffed llamas, ethnic dolls, and soft-as-silk llama rugs as gifts. Even though I knew nothing about where they came from, my fascination with all things Peru was born!
Fast forward to 1982. As a recent college graduate all I wanted to do was go to Peru, so off I went, alone, with only my backpack and a one-way ticket. I spent several months traveling to exotic places; hiking in the Andes, getting deathly ill in the jungle, visiting Macchu Picchu, and venturing off to Ecuador with it’s stunning beaches and mountains. All along the way I met the warmest, kindest people in the world, my Spanish getting better by the day so I could communicate with them in their language (although for many indigenous people Spanish was also their second language).
What struck me then was that these people had “nothing” by U.S. standards, yet they were the most welcoming people I’d ever met, inviting me into their homes, offering me food and friendship. And then there were the artisans! From the stunning array of hand woven articles in Cuzco to the mindboggling, colorful Otavalo market in Ecuador, I was awestruck by the talent of these “poor, uneducated” people.
Thus my interest in fair trade business was sprouted, although I had never heard of fair trade at the time. My dream was to have an import-export business, selling beautiful, handmade products from Latin America, while helping artisans earn a living and improving their quality of life. Sure sounds like fair trade! I dabbled in it for a while, selling jewelry to friends that I had made out of hand painted beads from Peru, but my path led me elsewhere, as I entered graduate school in social work a couple of years later.
Fast forward again to 2013. After 28 years as a social worker/psychotherapist, my dream to have a fair trade business was still gnawing at me, a calling that I could no longer ignore. While I love my career as a social worker, which over the years has included working with female victims of domestic violence, refugees from all over the world, hospice patients, and wonderful clients from all walks of life, I knew that I wanted to expand my work.
Knowing that there were millions of people living in extreme poverty all over the world, that young girls were victims of human trafficking, that there were people living in refugee camps, displaced from their homes forever, haunted me. And I knew that many of these people had incredible talents that I, as a privileged North American, could help translate into income for them.
Serendipitously I met Amber Chand, the founder of the Women’s Peace Collection, and in the fall of 2013 I started the Latin American Collection on the WPC website. I was in my element, and Amber and I hit it off instantly. One thing led to another and as Amber was moving on to other passions of hers, I was stepping into my dream.
Alas, I am the new owner of this wonderful, inspiring business and am happy beyond belief about bringing my customers the most exquisite, hand made products I can find and doing my small part in enhancing the quality of the lives of talented artisans throughout the world.
June 13, 2014
We all know the saying, but what does it really mean?
People sometimes ask me why they should buy artisan products instead of just giving a financial donation to a cause. It’s a good question, of course, so I’d like to shed some light on the answer.
I decided to purchase the Women’s Peace Collection because of my passion to help marginalized, yet talented, women from around the world. All over the globe there are women and families who are starving, in refugee camps, victims of human trafficking and a whole host of other financial and social problems. While making financial contributions or volunteering in developing countries are both extremely valuable, I know deep down that the way to really make a lasting difference in peoples’ lives is to empower them to support themselves.
Research shows that investing in women is most often the key to success in a family and community. Women are committed to raising families, ensuring the well-being of the children, and making sure everyone is safe, fed, has adequate health care and whenever possible, educated. This is not at all to say that men don’t have similar interests and values, but it has been shown time and again that if you empower women with a way to support themselves they will do it and will save money and re-invest it in their businesses and their families.
So the time has come to teach these women to fish! They already have the skills as talented weavers, jewelers, basket makers, embroiderers and seamstresses. Teaching them to fish involves helping them with business skills, marketing, financial planning and saving. They often need to be shown what types of products men and women in the United States and other developed countries will buy. They then use their skills to produce contemporary styles that people will buy, hence creating more income to make more products and lo and behold, they are in business!
In comes the Fair Trade movement. I will write about Fair Trade in more detail in future blogs, but the essence of it is to pay artisans and farmers in third world countries fair wages in order to ensure that they have a sustainable livelihood. There are NGO’s and fair trade businesses worldwide helping women out of poverty through social enterprise. They are not only helping women set up viable businesses, but are creating health clinics, schools and libraries in communities worldwide. Some women entrepreneurs are even getting microloans and are re-investing and growing their businesses, which they then pass down to their children. They are working in artisan cooperatives all across the globe, finally able to support themselves and their families. These women have clearly learned to fish and are fishing their way out of poverty!
How great is that???