mitra bali: fair trade reflections, part one

One thing that I hope to do at the end of this year is compile a list of best practices for craft producers—in other words, the best strategies and approaches for building craft enterprises that are financially viable, democratically and responsibly governed, environmentally friendly, innovative and sustainable—based on the examples of groups that I’ve encountered along my way. In Indonesia, I’ve been lucky enough to interview artisans and organizers affiliated with several different fair trade organizations as part of a documentation project I’m undertaking with Forum Fair Trade Indonesia, the umbrella network for fair trade groups in Indonesia.

I’ll start with some thoughts on my visits and interviews with artisans at Mitra Bali, a wonderful and very successful fair trade organization working with hundreds of artisans in Bali. Their products include wood and bone carvings, silver jewelry, ceramics, items made from coconut shells and bamboo… Click here to see some of the products that Mitra Bali exports to Ten Thousand Villages. 95% of Mitra Bali’s production is for export.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) identifies ten Principles of Fair Trade that fair trade organizations/companies are expected to strive for. Commitment to these principles distinguishes fair trade enterprises from other for-profit companies. You can find more detailed explanations of each of these principles on the WFTO’s website. Briefly, they are:

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers
2. Transparency & accountability
3. Trade practices that function with concern for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of marginalized small producers and do not maximize profit at their expense
4. Payment of a fair price
5. No child labor or forced labor
6. Promoting gender equity, freedom of association, and generally non-discrimination
7. Healthy working conditions
8. Capacity building
9. Promotion of fair trade
10. Friendly to the environment

Things I Learned from Mitra Bali

-Standing behind principles. Mitra Bali provides placards listing the ten principles of fair trade for each artisan to post in their workspace. This seemingly small measure speaks volumes to me: most Mitra Bali artisans’ workspaces are within their homes, and having those ten affirmations about the right to a better life strikes me as a powerful statement about artisans’ ownership of the fair trade movement. Not only that, but it shows a commitment to building an organization in which every member and employee, from the wood-carver to the people packing boxes to be shipped, are invested in fair trade principles and serve as checkpoints making sure that Mitra Bali lives up to its ideals.

-Sometimes craft production is not enough. Mitra Bali understands something that I have been reminded of over and over this year: even if artisans are given a fair price for their work, their prosperity is still dependent on the whims of consumer desires, the unpredictability of the American and European appetite for painted cat figurines or batik scarves or decorative baskets. These are not inelastic goods; craft producers suffer and thrive in direct relation with the highs and lows of Western economies.

In order to help its artisans achieve economic security, Mitra Bali implemented a sort of mini-Heifer International project. Artisans are given a cow, which is kept as a sort of buffer– if someone in the family suffers an illness, or if orders lag, or if the artisan wants to undertake an expansion project or build a new home, they can sell the cow. The program is self-sustaining, because each artisan who receives a cow donates its first calf back to Mitra Bali to be given to another artisan.

For the World Fair Trade Day celebration in May, the cows were temporarily painted with fair trade slogans! Bovine stars of the show with the Mitra Bali staff (who seem very much like a family– complete with family-style lunches for the whole staff and exercises after work on Fridays ).

-Fair trade is about humanizing economic transactions. Mitra Bali and most fair trade organizations I encountered in Indonesia do an especially good job of emphasizing this point.  Nearly every artisan I interviewed spoke about the importance of direct, honest communication between producers and buyers in their relationship with fair trade marketing organizations. Many even said that this is a more important positive aspect of fair trade than the higher price they receive for their craft. Simply being able to openly express their needs, issues, and desires to producers is empowering. It’s an important reminder, I think, that in an ideal fair trade situation, both the producer and consumer (and all the other people playing roles in between) should be treated like human beings, not economic cogs, and hopefully can even gain some sense of meaningful global connection from the exchange of goods from one person’s hands to another through the big, sometimes impersonal networks of our global economy.

Unrelated: A couple weeks ago I attended a discussion/presentation by noted Canadian designer David Berman, author of the book Do Good Design and an outspoken proponent of design thinking as an important way of improving the world. Cool project: he re-designed Canada’s unemployment law– with clear language, diagrams, etc– so that it’s easily understood by anyone, without the need for a lawyer’s interpretation. Social design/human-centered design keeps popping up everywhere this year! I think I kind of want to be a social designer.

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3 responses to “mitra bali: fair trade reflections, part one

  1. This post is really great, MKC. And it made me recall the few days I spent hanging around with aka “doing research on” MitraBali back when I was there. Good luck in Mongolia!

  2. I really appreciate your updates, Madeline! They provide wonderful insight into local cultures but also broader global issues. A social designer? — go for it!

  3. wonderful ideas–i love how you connect thoughts so cohesively with such insight into the things you’ve learned this year. whatever you do, we can anticipate great things from you!

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