Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fair Trade Calendar Results

So, the calendar competition is over with amazing photos to show for it. Not only will the 12 pics that received the most votes get featured each month, but every entry will appear throughout the 2010 calendar. I can't wait to see what this design firm, Design Action a worker-owned collective will do with the photos and Fair Trade info we're providing them.

Tex Dworkin, working for Global Exchange was the originator of this idea and has been spearheading all - from conception to finished product to sales and marketing. I'm a worker bee...and glad to be.

While I would have looked into environmentally friendly paper and soy-based ink, I don't know that I would have had sources like Consolidated Printing who coerced New Leaf paper to greatly reduce their price to make the calendars more affordable as a fundraiser. Or that I would have been astute enough to hire a design firm that is worker-owned, which translates to fair trade right here in the USA.

I also just finished a nearly 3 hour conference call with the Fair Trade Federation Board members. Phew! Talk about everything you need to know about Fair Trade! While I won't go into details about the meeting, I will say, there are varying levels of Fair Trade and many mindsets. Not a hard and fast rule, necessarily and certainly when talking about practices. Which leads me to this blog...

I am coming to the realization that we all have a place on this planet and that the die-hards can co-mingle with the novices and each can learn from the other. I find that in the shop, I tend to get defensive. Oh, you're just like 10,000 villages. No, I'm not. Sure, we have a common goal - provide a safe, secure, sustainable environment where the neediest are given some attention for their labors. With that, we also want to make sure there is some environmental stewardship for everyone's future.

But the women I work with are small groups, working from their homes, working when they can. I have come to the conclusion lately that creating a factory setting where they produce for a wide number of retail stores would do San Bushmen women in particular more harm than good. While my friend's paper bead org in Uganda has over 100 women as members, with thousands more making hundreds of pieces of jewelry from recycled materials for other orgs. Ostrich Eggshell is precious, with eggs only hatched three months out of the year. Recycled paper is in abundance. The San women live in settlements that they are happy to call home. They have many of their needs provided for them in one way of another and so don't truly NEED cash, they could use more, but they can survive with limited amounts. The women in the Acholi Quarter are relocated refugees who must live in shanti towns. They live in a cash society. They need to make money to buy food, put their children to school, live...The women have different situations and so does each wholesaler. Our jobs are to educate the public with awareness, let people know what the living conditions of people are in third world countries and through the sale, offer a way for us to help.

But I don't want the idea of charity to enter into my business. I firmly believe that a business relationship is what is needed to honor the skill and artistry of the crafter/producer and that a fair payment is what will enable artisans to sustain their skill, not a hand out. I'm not a religious person, but gotta love the "teach a man to fish" analogy. Give a woman a dollar and she'll eat for that day, provide her a means to sustain a business and earn a fair wage and you feed her and her family forever. With her elevation in financial means/status, she brings a world of hope and promise to her children and her children's children

I have a greater appreciation of what that means in terms of people like me who have small groups that we work with directly and those who work with larger groups providing products to "chain" stores. As it is, I will be opening another store this holiday season with the promise of keeping it open should there prove to be a market here in Poughkeepsie.

With Fair Trade ideals just coming to Main St America (god I hate catch phrases like that!), there's a lot of room to grow, a lot of ways to see the end results and in the end we will all be better off realizing that people live at different standards around the world and how much we can help, what we can do, and how we do it is going to change and differ depending...It all depends on us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New York Gifts

I had an amazing day at NYIGF yesterday. I helped Virginia in her Brushkins booth where there was a steady stream of buyers from Florida, California and many regionally. Several people were buying for their internet business and a few looking to start one. Sales, I am told, were small orders, but there were many. Escama's owner, Andy said that their first NY show where they introduced the line of bottle top bags was mind blowing and after six shows, this one quite nearly reached the same totals. Exciting stuff.

I left there feeling promise that the market was on an upswing. Promise that my store would again be doing well. Promise that the ostrich eggshell jewelry and our line of safari would be embraced at the show. . . my mind was racing.
I would love my own booth - the excitement of planning, the control of creating yet a new venture, the promise of sustainability for the programs I put in place in Botswana. I wanted to share the warmth of the shop, bring awareness of the women I work with, and harness and prove the viability of the products.

I couldn't wait to return today to take in more information about how other people were working the show, gain some more insight into what was missing, what people were buying, how to sell.

I wanted to find new products to make the store fresh and profitable. I wanted to make good connections for new vendors and possibly, connections for my own businesses.
I loved being in the thick of the sales, the mindset of retail, enveloped in fair trade practices and theory. I wanted another day in the buzz.

But then I took a deep breath and I stopped myself - defended myself from myself.

I keep talking about promoting the women's products, bringing awareness of their way of life, preserving the craft and their culture and making all of us a little more financially secure. Will my shop do that? Yes, to some degree. Will my wholesaling do that? Yes, a little bit. But what would do that the biggest and best way? My book.

For the past two weeks I've been obsessed with change - buy a new house, open a shop, get a job...All of those things are great distractions, great excuses, and tangible endeavors, but none of those things would accomplish the biggest and best change for all of us. The answer to my restlessness is the book.

I had entitled the book "Women's Work: My Life's Work" but that's not true. Women's Work (the store, the concept, and quite literally the meaning of the phrase) has always been a vehicle for my true life's work. I believe my greatest passion and my one and only talent is my writing.
To put my life's existence out there - to write this book, I will be fulfilling my life's work. But what if it's no good? What if no one wants to read it? What if it never gets published? Then, will my life be a failure? Reasonable Cecilia says no of course not! But Irrational Cecilia often prevails...
But not today, IC, not today. Today, I write the book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saving Fish from Drowning

My children and I were sightseeing with some friends when we found this pool of water in a rock along the Hudson River. We were surprised to find many fish stuck in the rock. The water must have receded and the fish got trapped. Macallan, quick on her feet, began to catch and release the live fish in the hopes she wasn't too late.

I uploaded the pic on my Facebook page and entitled it, "Saving Fish from Drowning". I was moved by the phrase.

Much like those fish, I see people in developing countries trapped by their situations. It wasn't their fault that they were trapped, nor mine, but if you find them and can help them, shouldn't you?

One of the fish, a catfish was struggling to stay alive. But Macallan knew from her dad that catfish have barbs that can hurt you. She tried to get a hold of it without hurting it or herself. I brought over a stick but there was no way to use it. Macallan just had to persevere attempting to capture it without it sticking her. She got it in her hand, it wriggled madly, threw itself from her grasp and landed on the hard rock before slipping into the river. "Oh!" Macallan exclaimed, afraid she had hurt it. But I reassured her it swam away as fast as it hit the water. "See?" I pointed out. "It's gone." Doubtful that she had not caused it more harm than good, it took her a good half hour to snap out of her funk.

I feel like that sometimes. Wondering if my interaction does more harm than good, if I have a hand in them hurting themselves...

In the same pool was a tiny frog clinging to the sides. Now, he didn't need saving. He could hop away, free from danger. The kids were careful to take a few pictures and then left him alone. He eventually ducked into the murky puddle and swam out of sight.

I hope I can do that with the producers. I hope I can see those that are able to hop to safety, appreciate their existence, let them alone, and acknowledge that they can care for themselves.

Frogs are indicator species. Not so long ago, frogs had been disappearing. On this trip along the Hudson, we saw many. Let's hope that is an indication of the plenty that is coming our way. May the frogs be a symbol of the self assuredness, ability, and good fortune that is hopping, better yet, that we are hoping is coming our way.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Thursdays in the Shop with Macallan

A wonderful day in the shop yesterday.

I met a woman with a store outside of Philadelphia who appreciated the fair trade aspect of the products and also the beauty and craftsmanship of the jewelry!

I met three lovely young women, two of whom had lived and worked in Uganda for four months through their universities and one who had just returned from two weeks in South Africa. One of the women lives in Fishkill and says she often brings her friends into the shop. She is leaving in a matter of weeks for a year in Egypt and upon her return she will attend Pace University for her international law degree. Wow!

Julia Frazier came by. It's been far too long since we've seen each other. She was astounded by how "big" Macallan had gotten. She leaves for England to defend her dissertation and hopes to leave within weeks of her return to take a job with a nonprofit in the Congo!

Another encounter that makes me feel the shop is vital and worthwhile is when three women (and a man) came into the store midday. "This is my all-time favorite store" a beautiful woman who was impeccably dressed said as she escorted her guests in, "we just have to go in here!" Her one friend saw a bag (basket with straps to carry on your back) and fondled it briefly. "It's a shop full of African stuff," her other friend said. "and you're looking at a bag from the Philippines." This comment was made significant because the women were African American. They explored the store a decent amount of time and left without much interaction with me or Macallan. The one woman had apparently been in many times before and basically knew the layout better than I did. She guided her friends around like an expert - which made me appreciate my store manager, Portia, that much more. When "strangers" know your store better than you do, that means the store is in good (great!) hands while you are away. They left without buying anything, but I got much from their visit. By the end of the day, we'd had something like 70 people come through the door, not a bad Thursday with an OK sales total. And out of the blue, the three (plus the gentleman who must be a saint) came in with a flurry. I heard a voice proclaim, "If it's still here when I walk by, I'm going to buy it." As soon as she walked in the door, she could see it was still hanging on the hook. "I was going to get on that train (back to NYC) and be very sorry I didn't buy this bag." She told me with the basket in hand. "I know how that is." I responded. She bought it and was very pleased with herself and her purchase. "Thanks for coming by." I said to anyone who would listen. "Next time you come up" the leader of the visit began to say, but I didn't hear the rest since they were already down the block rushing to catch their train.

A great day because of the many wonderful supportive people we met and because I get to share it with my daughter. She probably will never inherit this business since she wants to be a veterinarian, not a shop owner, but she will inherit the goodwill fair trade practices bestows on the world for the women who produce, the women who shop and the women (Macallan, Portia and myself) who bring these values to the world we encounter daily - all of us doing our part to make a difference.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Elephant Dung Prints Just In

We met Emmanuel Mukwiro in Botswana last year. He had a stand by the side of the road where he was selling baskets, wood carvings and his wonderful prints.

I spoke to him at length about his business and his artwork. He was from Zimbabwe, able to cross the border to sell his crafts. He supported his extended family, basket weavers and woodcarvers. He had a wife who stayed behind in Zimbabwe to care for his two children.
Since we were in Africa for two months, I placed an order with him and set a date when we would return to pick up the prints. We found him several weeks later, just where we met him. He was a bit flustered and upon shaking his hand hello, I realized why. He said he had been in a terrible bus accident on his way back to Zim. The bus turned on its side and he hurt his hand badly. Wanting to complete my order, he got the help of his brother and they managed to have the prints ready. His hand was bandaged and bent. I hoped he'd be fine soon. I hoped the accident, or more common, the treatment would not hurt him for good.

I've been buying from Emmanuel thorughout the year. This is the latest order, a large one with sizes as small as 3" x 4" and as large as "13"x 15". I was happy to send him the money - I know how tough it is right now in Zimbabwe.

His prints sell particularly well at the Cultural Survival Bazaars where people take the time to find genuine arts and crafts. You can't see from these pictures how the elephant dung (OK, it's not all made of elephant poop. That's just what it's called since it contains natural fibers, but there is some elephant dung in there, I guarantee.) is used within the print. Emmanuel's images are enhanced and made that much more charming with his titles. This one is called "Collecting Water for a Wedding."