About two weeks ago, I moved to Santiago, Chile, on a quest to work closely with fair trade artisans and develop some new designs for our Fair Anita customers. This is a stunningly beautiful country; Andes mountains, beautiful beaches, glacial lakes—it's all here! As with any Latin country I've ever been to, there's also the amazing street food, catchy music and celebrations, and those tempting markets. You know the ones; they have brightly colored fabrics, stall after stall of jewelry, tourist knick-knacks, and you-can't-beat-these-prices.
When I go to a new country to work with artisans, I always like to stroll through these markets. It's helpful to see what sorts of designs are being made nationally, especially which products they're looking to market to foreigners. I can start understanding what materials are commonly used, the price range products usually sell for, and how things are being made. Here in Santiago, there is a lot of sterling silver and copper jewelry, and they use lapis and malachite stones, which are found in the area. They also have a lot of woven scarves and crocheted items. Knowing this is crucial to working with artisan groups—we can build our designs after we have a better idea of resources and skillsets. Also, who can deny that these markets are super fun to wander around in?!
Today, I did my first stroll through the market. There were about 40 vendors there, all claiming handmade artisan products sourced locally in Chile. That always gets me—handmade? artisan? I could buy the exact same product in one booth as the booth across the street. It's hard to believe all of these people are "hand-making" identical products.
So, I did what I always do: I start asking a lot of questions:
"These earrings are beautiful—who made them?"
"I love the scarf—do you know where it was made?"
"Are you and your family jewelers?"
"How are you able to sell this necklace so cheap?"
etc. etc. etc.
I probably talked to 20+ vendors this afternoon. Not a single one could (would?) tell me where their products were made, or by whom. I got a lot of "they're made in Chile" and "I think they're made in Santiago." One woman told me the products were made by her family, but when I asked about the process, she quickly ran out of answers.
This is because the reality is that these things aren't being made in the vendors' homes or by someone they know. They're being made in big factories where wages are never anywhere close to what they should be, and working conditions are likely inhumane. Have I been there to know this for sure? No, not in Chile. But I've seen this time and time again, which is why I spend so much time intentionally seeking fair trade products.
I can't say these prices aren't tempting. $2 for lapiz and sterling silver earrings? That's insane! But with the cost of living as high as it is in Chile, there's no way anyone is being paid fairly in that process. I couldn't feel good about wearing them, no matter how pretty they are!
Now, this is not to say that anyone is a bad person for participating in these markets: vendors or customers alike. As a tourist buying from these vendors, you're still supporting a small business and the local economy. Many times, you might be the only sale of the day. I give props to the vendors too-- they're entrepreneurs who have figured out how to make profit margins work for them. Not a bad thing! Just not what we're looking for at Fair Anita.
Finding high-quality, handmade (like, actually handmade!) products is surprisingly challenging. Finding cooperatives that abide by fair trade principles is even harder. But it's worth it, knowing we're buying directly from the source, directly from the talented women who created the jewelry for our customers. Plus, this way we have the opportunity to work with them on design, meaning there's higher potential to increase sales and job opportunities for these groups of women.
All ranting about production methods aside, we have found 3 amazing groups to meet with here in Santiago. I met with one this week who we will be working with to create brass and copper jewelry. The other two groups I'll meet with next week, and we'll see if we're a good fit. There is SO much talent and SO much beauty in this country—I can't wait to share it with you all! Prepare to see fair trade Chilean designs coming your way soon :)
PS: While we might not find artisan partners in these markets, we did find one spectacular thing—CHURROS! Filled with manjar (similar to dulce de leche)... yummm.