I went to a gathering at a friend's apartment this afternoon where an artisan was having a small showing of her hand-crafted jewelry, an artistic medium she had only recently discovered. It was beautiful, ornate beaded work that clearly showed the loving care put into its creation. The artisan was eager to talk about her process and delighted by the positive response she was receiving. At one point she commented to me that she had been surprised by much of the low quality jewelry that is being sold at very steep prices in many high-end stores and boutiques here in Los Angeles. Her work is certainly not inexpensive, and her profit will be cut at least by half should she decide to sell through retail outlets, but she plans to try to make her living doing something she loves. I find that admirable and bold. With hard work and good fortune, eventually she could find herself competing at the end of the jewelry spectrum reserved for exclusive "designer names."
But way down at the other end of the spectrum are the little trinkets that can be found at chain stores like Forever 21 and their jewelry-only branch, For Love 21. Referred to as "The Tiffany of Thrift" in today's LA Times article by Melissa Magsaysay, these shops sell style knock-offs ("homages?") that offer the budget-conscious shopper a chance to replicate the look of fashion mavens who sport the designs of Chanel, Hermes, and Cartier. For under ten bucks, you, too, can own the hottest, trendiest accessories, if only in their scaled-down versions.
How do they do it? How can so much jewelry be manufactured so cheaply for sale there and at so many other stores? I have absolutely no idea specifically where Forever 21, or any of the other large number of stores that sell cheap jewelry, get their products made or what the conditions of manufacture may be (legal disclaimer!), but I doubt that they come from women like the one I met earlier today at my friend's home. No, if I were a betting gal, I'd put my money on imports. And once we start talking about imports, we've entered the messy and complicated area of "fair trade."
According to a well-written explanation on Wikipedia, fair trade "is an organized social movement which promotes standards for international labour, environmentalism, and social policy in areas related to production of fair trade labelled and unlabelled goods. The movement focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries. Fair trade's strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalised producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency. It also aims at empowering them to become stakeholders in their own organizations and actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade."
Fair trade promotes, among other things, fair prices for producers, gender equity, and decent working conditions. Most of us have heard about garment manufacturing in sweatshops in this country and around the world that resulted in cries of outrage over the shocking conditions that workers tolerated, but what about that cheap jewelry? What are the conditions workers endure who create it? Someone has to paste on those little crystals. Someone has to polish those less-than-gem-quality stones.
World of Good is a non-profit organization that actively promotes fair trade through various economic development projects. They offer internship opportunities and their website also offers a blog. One intern, Emily, recently posted her experience visiting a sweatshop in New Delhi. If you have the stomach to read it, it's quite an astounding report. The conditions in which these impoverished people, including young children and the elderly, create jewelry and decorative embellished items are appalling and, in fact, almost unbelievable.
In its article about child labor, Wikipedia surprisingly offers a defense of the practice, bolstered by the thoughts of the late economist, Milton Friedman, and research by UNICEF. Although naturally we're inclined to respond to the horror of the situation and may want to boycott companies that support such practices, the article points out that there are other considerations. "Poor families often rely on the labours of their children for survival, and sometimes it is their only source of income. . . . [A] UNICEF study found that 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese children turned to prostitution after the United States banned that country's carpet exports in the 1990s. Also, after the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as 'stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution,' -- all of them, according to a UNICEF study  more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.'"
The complexity of this issue demands thoughtful action, but what exactly should that action be? I can't even begin to fathom a solution for such an insidious, worldwide problem, but I can think of small choices to make as an individual who is concerned about it. You may wish to consider these choices, too: (1) support local artisans when it's feasible and affordable, or (2) purchase fair trade items when that's a better decision financially or aesthetically.
Of course, we've already discussed in other posts the fact that it's not possible to know the source of every item we buy, or avoid buying some items that come from less-than-impeccable manufacturers. Obviously, you can easily drive yourself crazy simply trying to be informed. But because so many of the items that are produced under completely unacceptable conditions are decorative rather than necessary for our survival, maybe sometimes it's simply better not to purchase anything at all. Instead, you could try being creative -- make your own jewelry and decorative things. Or just send that money to UNICEF or another organization that's trying to work on solutions to free all the world's citizens from such desperate poverty and intolerable working conditions.
(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob