NEW YORK — Guatemalan women skilled in traditional Mayan beadwork technique have made chic pillows and pouches for West Elm. Hand-dyers in India, using petals collected from discarded Hindu temple floral offerings, help craft scarves for Eileen Fisher and Anthropologie. Baskets hand-woven in Rwanda are part of the home decor collection at Macy’s.
Craftspeople in some of the poorest places on Earth are making unexpected inroads into the U.S. retail market, expanding their clientele beyond museum shops and craft markets. A trend that started decades ago with the rise of fair trade-minded entrepreneurs has accelerated as growing international tourism creates demand for cultural products. Exports of artistic crafts from developing countries surged from $9 billion in 2002 to $23 billion in 2011, according to the most recent UNESCO report on the global creative economy.
The digital age has given rise to a growing number of ventures designed to create online markets for global crafts. More recently, exotic craftwork has piqued the interest of major fashion and home decor retailers striving to compete in the age of Amazon. Many are betting craftsmanship rooted in ancient traditions, combined with stories of social impact on artisan communities, will lure shoppers increasingly concerned about where and how products are made.
“We believe it is one of the elements that sets us apart and does well, and there is a demand for it,” said Doug Guiley, West Elm’s senior vice president of global sourcing at West Elm, where 20 percent of products are handmade.
For shoppers, it is not always easy to know if something is truly handcrafted, or how much of their money is getting back to artisans across the globe. In an era of mass production and online shopping, here is some guidance for buying handmade.
Know how “fair trade” relates to handicrafts
There is no “fair trade” certification process for handicrafts as a category because the production processes vary widely. Organizations like Fair Trade U.S.A. certify some products that may be handcrafted, such as clothing and rugs. But safety and labor standards used for those items might be irrelevant for an individual basket weaver in a rural village.
More commonly, some retailers will label a handcrafted product as fair trade because it is sourced from a member of an organization such as the Fair Trade Federation.
Macy’s partners with Global Goods Partners , a Fair Trade Federation member that sells crafts online and to retailers nationwide. Target last spring offered specially designed crafts from India, Kenya, Ecuador and Guatemala through a partnership with Accompany, an online venture does not belong to any fair trade organization but works with many enterprises that are.
A growing number of trade organizations are dedicated to maximizing profits for artisans, though tactics vary. Seek details on how artisans are compensated and how an organization monitors the labor and safety practices of their artisan partners.
Novica , a company partnered with National Geographic, allows artisans to set their own prices and maximizes profits for them with an integrated logistics system that cuts out intermediaries.
Ten Thousand Villages , a nonprofit retailer and wholesaler founded in 1946, pays 50 percent to artisans upfront and the rest upon shipment, taking much of the risk away from the maker. Many newer online ventures have replicated that model.
Look for the story behind the beauty
How do you know if something is truly handmade?
Some retailers label products handcrafted based on UNESCO’s definition, which states that the “manual contribution of the artisan” must be “the most substantial component of the finished product.” If there is no label, look for the story of the artisan who made the product. Online shopping has made this easier than ever.
Novica prides itself on its in-depth personal stories from a single mother in Ghana who makes jewelry to a Balinese artisan who went from selling door-to-door to owning a workshop that employs 28 people.
Some major brands have made storytelling a central part of their marketing effort, trying to stand out in the increasingly crowded universe of online shopping.
Eileen Fisher offers stories about Ethiopian knitters and hand-dyers in the Japanese village of Narumi. West Elm invites shoppers to watch videos about Filipino seagrass basket weavers and Peruvian carvers that craft mirrors using colonial-era techniques.
At boutiques, ask what is known about the maker of a product sold as handcrafted.
“There is no substitute for asking the person you are buying from questions: How much does the artist get, where does this come from? Have you visited the place?” said Keith Recker, a member of the board of directors of the International Folk Art Alliance, whose flagship annual market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, lures top designers from brands including Donna Karan to explore crafts from more than 50 countries.
Be prepared for a complicated tale
Stories behind handmade crafts don’t always involve just one maker, or even just one country, in an age when artisans are striving to adapt to contemporary tastes and expectations for production and delivery.
Among West Elm’s core products are silk hand-loomed pillows from India. The process begins with rural women in the region of Bihar spinning silk cocoons into yarn and ends with the cutting and sewing at a production facility in New Delhi. Spreading out the production chain allows for faster work that helped turn the pillows into one of West Elm’s core products, Guiley said.
Similarly, Global Goods Partners found a solution for women in Afghanistan’s Kandahar region who are skilled at embroidery but where fabric is scarce, said Joan Shifrin, company’s co-founder. The women make small embroidered pieces that are shipped to Colombia, where artisans attach it to gold-plated cuffs internally designed by Global Goods Partners.
Modern deal seeking for handmade
Handicrafts might come at a premium in the U.S. because of shipping costs but with more retailers getting in the game it is possible to shop around, compare prices and look for deals.
Exploring online selections is a good way to get an idea of the value of traditional crafts. Find a list of reputable vendors at Accompany ‘s website or among the members of the Artisan Alliance , an initiative of the Aspen Institute to support artisan enterprise.
Look for sales and deals on shipping around the holidays. Some sites offer free shipping on orders above a certain price.
Novica has an extensive loyalty program that includes rewards, lower shipping costs for frequent buyers and regular updates on special sales. Customers can also put a favorite artisan on a “watchlist” to stay updated on new offers and deals on particular items.