Discussing problems of accessibility, and particularly of size inclusion, in the ethical fashion industry, and what we imply when we tell people that “ethical” fashion is better.
This piece was written by me with compensation and support from MATTER Prints
Artisan made was the buzzword that triggered my exploration of ethical consumerism.
In 2011, while undertaking a routine shelf-tidying during my shift at Hobby Lobby, a privately held "Christian" craft and home decor chain, I came across a little metal frog, the kind of random object you buy for a friend's housewarming party without considering what they're actually going to do with it.
The tag said something along the lines of "made by skilled artisans in Haiti." The price? $3.99.
Holding that little frog in my hands, I was puzzled. Here was an item being marketed as a kind of art, intricately cut and crafted by skilled hands, and yet it was nestled onto a retail shelf containing dozens of like items. And yet it was the same price as a latte at Starbucks, less expensive than a Hallmark greeting card.
It hadn't occurred to me until that moment that there must have been hundreds of other items in that store that were made by human hands. The frames in the frame shop, cut to size before shipping to my store. The decorative vinegar bottles containing bright red peppers. These invisible hands were not even given the dignity of "artisanship," and yet they touched and crafted the things that bored grandmothers bought on a whim with their 50% off coupons.
This story might tell us lots of things - for one, it woke me up to the exploitative realities of the global consumer goods industry - but today I want to focus on something too often overlooked:
Artisan-made does not mean much without context.
What the designation does tell us is that a person, or group of people, made a product, likely with minimal high-tech tools.
But the phrase is thrown around to imply that these "artisans" are known entities - people with whom the company or boutique owner may have a relationship. But, as was the case with Hobby Lobby, more often than not these nameless, faceless craftspeople are anonymous even to the ones who've categorized them as artisans and subsequently exploited that label for marketing purposes.
The fair trade market is chock full of items designated as artisan-made, but even the best intentioned "ethical" advocates can get lazy when tracing these niche supply chains. Instead, they will tell a secondhand story passed down from middle men or co-op managers, not ever knowing how the artisan groups function, or whether they're receiving a living wage.
I have to admit that not even *I* was committed to doing this work until a reader asked me, point blank, if I knew how a fair trade organization I had promoted was linked to their artisan producers. So when
MATTER Prints reached out with the same conversation - themselves puzzled by the way other purportedly ethical producers were using the term - I was anxious to do a deep dive. I spoke with MATTER team member, Farisia, about how they derive greater, more transparent meaning from the artisan-made distinction.
How to Tell If Your Item is Artisan-Made and Honestly Made
1 | Artisans Live and Work in Multi-Generational Craft Communities
Unlike industrialized consumer product manufacturing, which typically takes place in designated facilities outside of town centers, artisans typically live in small communities or extended families that support and uphold multi-generational craft traditions.
To ensure authenticity, MATTER specifically partners with artisans that exhibit "skill in a craft acquired through generational transfer." This creates greater accountability between the brand/marketer and artisan because it makes it impossible for a Fortune 500 company to march into a community, half-heartedly "teach" a skill, then slap the artisan-made designation on their tags and websites.
2 | Local production is run by the same locals
Many well-intentioned fair trade business owners enter an artisan community with a plan to build something from scratch. On its surface, this is understandable. If you've been dreaming up your business from a far-removed location, it's easy to get wrapped up in an inaccurate idea of what products will be available to you, how you want them to look, and who your customer is.
But this is inappropriate, not only because it often perpetuates Colonialist ideas of "progress," but because it takes the power out of the hands of the people who hold all the skill. Artisan co-ops, when they are thriving, are run by locals, thereby keeping the heritage and financial success of the community in the community, where it belongs. Artisanship, by definition, resists outside forces that would place the burden of aggressive Capitalism on its shoulders.
3 | Materials are eco-conscious and locally derived
Because craft tradition is reliant on the physical location of a community, it is impacted by the holistic needs of the community and available natural resources.
For this reason, a majority of artisan-made products that fit the "generational transfer" designation will be made with materials indigenous to the region: things like cotton, silk, and various types of plant ingredients. Occasionally, items are also made with locally recycled materials, such as scrap metal and old tires. As demand for artisan goods has increased, and the world has modernized, more craftspeople are incorporating synthetic dyes into their goods, but traditionally dyes would have been plant-derived (you can read more about plant-based dyes here).
4 | Imperfections are apparent, but not distracting
A handmade item cannot, and should not, look like a factory-made item. Individual artisan taste and technique will impact the final product, which is part of what makes artisan work so meaningful.
Artisan craft, especially when it becomes available to a global marketplace via brands like Ten Thousand Villages and MATTER, is taken on as a collaborative process between the artisan, their community's tradition, designers, and merchandisers, and the final product is a testament to successful coalition-building. It is never merely a fashion statement.
5 | Artisans are artists
The artists out there will get in a fight with me for comparing craftsmanship to fine art (it's happened to me before), but I stand by this statement: artisanship was the first type of art and it's certainly the most meaningful.
This is because artisan goods tend to be purposeful goods. They often derive from basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter, but they expand on this need. They beautify it, ritualize it, culturally embed it, and make it good.
For this reason, it is imperative that those of us who appreciate and collect artisan-made goods do so with a knowledge of which motifs are culturally and religiously sacred versus those that are intended for multi-cultural enjoyment. It is also important that we take an interest in the people behind the products. Nameless, faceless "artisans" used as a marketing angle quite literally erase the artisans themselves.
If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, I encourage you to explore your favorite ethical websites and see what they say about their makers. How do they write about them? Can they speak to the intricacies of the craftsmanship? Do they understand the motifs and symbols?
Artisans do extraordinarily time consuming, skilled, creative work, increasingly to appeal to the whims of a global market content to condone a throwaway culture. But this misses the point.
When you touch the raised embroidery on a cotton dress, examine the dotted paint patterning on a Oaxacan mythological figure, or trace your fingers across intricately woven ikat, the experience is akin to beholding a miracle.
It's a reminder that humans are capable of more than arguing on Twitter, to more than oppression and greed. That maybe, given enough time and support, we could craft something beautiful together, too. All is not lost, and we have artisans to thank for it.
P.S. I think it is very difficult for Western and white brands to use images of artisans in their marketing and brand storytelling without inadvertently turning them into objects for the public gaze. This is due to the long history of imperialism and colonialism enacted by much of Europe and the United States over the last several hundred years. I generally avoid using images of non-Western artisans on StyleWise because I am wary of creating a power dynamic in which my reader, filtering through my own framing, sees them as novelties rather than equals. I am still trying to find a way to appropriately convey artisan stories in a way that reduces that power differential and I welcome your thoughts.
Lately I've stopped using the word "sustainable" as often and have started thinking in terms of
abundance. Where sustainability requires a minimum standard, abundance allows for a re-imagining of what's possible. Sure, there are limited resources and it can feel like the house is on fire, but we have the tools, in accountable community, to build more than a bunker.
A model of abundance isn't about sacrifice. It's about re-appropriation of resources we already have to better serve ourselves and our neighbors.
Thinking in terms of abundance requires that we have a healthy relationship to ourselves and our authentic needs.
The below suggestions are meant to remind us of what we have to work with already, and to give us a jumpstart on re-wiring our brains to be able to think in imaginative terms instead of through the lens of scarcity.
This is also how I'm framing Lent. I didn't come from a Christian tradition that practiced the season of Lent, so at first it felt like a meaningless exercise in self-flagellation, like we were punishing ourselves for being sinners. But now I see it as a way to reset, as an intentional period of letting go of habits that demean, inhibit, and isolate us in order to let more light in. It's fitting that this season takes place as the days lengthen into spring. By Easter, we're ready to fly out of our little chrysalises into the morning sun.
5 Abundance-Minded Activities to Practice During Lent
1 | Establish creative meal solutions that aren't meat-focused.
Beef is one of the largest agricultural contributors to climate change and deforestation globally. Raising cows is not efficient, not to mention that factory farming is inhumane. Consider giving up all beef and leather products throughout Lent.
Place only the limitations on yourself that you know you are capable of maintaining. You can go full vegetarian or continue to eat fish and poultry depending on your dietary needs.
2 | Shop secondhand, or not at all.
It's tempting to over-shop as the weather warms up in the Northern Hemisphere - I confess to doing quite a bit of pre-shopping myself. Consider either ceasing all unnecessary/fashion-related purchases or committing to buy only secondhand.
3 | Start and maintain a daily prayer practice.
Even if you don't identify with a particular religious tradition, creating a habit around meditation, quiet time, and/or prayer has amazing health and psychological effects. Get up just a bit earlier each day to sit in silence, read a prayer from your religious tradition, or do some light stretches. Stay away from podcasts, videos, and other external voices. I'll be attending a local morning prayer service 2-3 times per week as part of my Lenten practice.
If you're interested in an Episcopal practice, you can access the Book of Common Prayer online here.
4 | Read a book that inspires ethical exploration.
Read a memoir, guide, or work of theology that challenges and inspires you toward holistic justice. I'll be reading Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela's autobiography. There are lots of used copies available online.
I also recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X; The Sacredness of Human Life by David Gushee, a reflection on Christianity's call for universal human dignity; and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a bioethics perspective on death.
5 | Be intentional about your relationships.
This one is a bit amorphous compared to the other suggestions because it's not something you can track as effectively. But I have become convinced, especially over the last few months, that a weekly commitment to seeing friends - meeting for lunch, having a phone call, going on a mini-date with your partner, even taking a walk - does a world of good.
Healthy relationships have a positive impact on mental health and give us the accountability and clarity we need to make good choices. If you're having trouble making local friends, try a meet-up group, local dance gathering (we have square, contra, and swing dancing in my area), religious service, or community center. Or invite a work acquaintance out for drinks.
Part of the Complexity Series
Charity Navigator advertises itself as the authoritative source on responsible nonprofits. By combing financial data and assigning a score for things like fundraising, administrative, and marketing costs, along with transparency standards, it ranks nonprofits in order of best to worst.
This sounds really good on its surface, and it is a useful way to compare the efficacy of large scale nonprofits. After all, if you're donating your hard earned money to a charity, you want to know that it's going to programs that support the stated goals of that charity, not to CEOs and fancy business cards.
But there's a big problem with the way that Charity Navigator calculates financial health, and it perpetuates a damaging misconception about charities at large: nonprofits receive a better score the less they spend on management, labor, and advertising costs.
While differences in industry are accounted for (food banks, for example, are thought to require less overhead than nonprofit radio, and the 1-10 scale accounts for this to some extent), you will always receive a higher score if you have less overhead than competing nonprofits.
And while this makes sense if you're comparing apples and apples (two food banks with similar outputs but drastically different overhead costs, for instance), it gets weird when you, a site user not familiar with the inner working of nonprofits in general, peruses nonprofits across categories or clicks through one of Charity Navigator's multi-category lists.
How Charity Navigator Penalizes Small Nonprofits
When the primary metric ingrained in your head is "lowest possible administrative costs," you're simply not going to see the big picture.
One reason is that, if the nonprofit in question is small enough, it's very likely that they'll be penalized by Charity Navigator for having "high" overhead costs even if they're only paying a modest salary for a single employee. I'll use myself as an example. My salary makes up almost half of annual sales at the thrift shop where I work, and this isn't because I'm making bank. In fact, I make at least $5,000 less than the average, lowest paid nonprofit worker in my area, according to a recent report by the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville.
Now, it might be a fair assessment that our charity model is, holistically, not healthy. But in many ways, we're more like a food bank - dealing in goods more than monetary funds - than a big nonprofit like the ACLU. So every dollar we bring in after expenses is donated to local agencies and we're able to completely support ourselves without outside funds. We also give away thousands of dollars in goods to low income families each quarter. According to Charity Navigator's assessment, we should be running with administrative costs making up only 3% of our budget in order to receive a perfect score. This would mean that we'd need to be almost 100% volunteer-managed, and that would be ok in the short term, but it gets really hard to create a consistent environment running on multiple, overworked volunteers.
"Administrative Costs" are People
You might be thinking, "Yeah, Leah, but your nonprofit isn't going to be listed on Charity Navigator, so why does this matter?"
It matters because this mindset that administrative and marketing costs are bad affects all nonprofits, big and small, and potentially gets in the way of raising more funds and effecting more change.
According to an article published in 2016, changes to overtime pay requirements under the Obama administration left nonprofits scrambling because it meant they were no longer able to pressure their salaried employees into working long hours without pay. The reason? Due to oversight agencies like Charity Navigator and larger individual and corporate donors, nonprofits can't simply put more funds into overhead, and this means they actually had to reduce staff, rather than hire more employees, to make ends meet. If you're a Republican, you may be shaking your fist and saying, "Thanks Obama," but if you're at all interested in fair trade standards, you'll recognize this as a travesty. Nonprofit employees should not have been working for free in the first place.
A few years ago, I read a blog post written by a nonprofit employee about another barrier to fair pay in nonprofits (the whole site is a great resource). The author said that donors, across the board, don't want to hear that their funds are going to hire staff. Instead, they want to hear that it's benefiting a special project or going "directly to [insert person in need here]." But you can't run an organization without competent, knowledgeable, engaged staff. Not to mention that the organization is significantly more likely to mishandle funds or even fail if it has high turnover or incompetent employees.
This is all to say that an "administrative costs" line item on a transparency report is really just code for people, the people who make things happen, sign your donor letters, and write effective advertising. Insisting on the lowest possible cost puts all nonprofits at risk of grossly underpaying their employees, and that goes directly against fair trade principles.
To their credit, Charity Navigator is aware of the issue. In collaboration with GuideStar and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, the organization wrote an open letter on the "Overhead Myth" in 2014, but the public bias against overhead costs persists.
"We Don't Advertise Because We're a Nonprofit"
I hear this all the time from well-meaning fair trade agencies and social enterprises looking for some coverage on my blog. They've been convinced by the predominant rhetoric around charity - further legitimized by sites like Charity Navigator - that it would be irresponsible to monetarily promote their goods or services.
Charity Navigator penalizes organizations that dedicate a large part of their budget to advertising when, in fact, advertising is really the sole vehicle by which funds and other donations are generated.
Whether that advertising is word-of-mouth, slapped on a flyer, or paid for in a marketing campaign, it all counts. Again, comparing apples and apples, the organization that can most effectively garner funds without major advertising costs is more responsible. But it's easy, if you're not considering scale, to think that 1 million dollars, for example, is too much advertising even if the dividends are double or triple that.
Especially when you're growing a nonprofit, you need to invest heavily in both advertising and labor. As the structure stabilizes, hopefully you'll be able to build more efficiencies into the system so that your actual programs receive a higher and higher proportion of donated funds.
Nonprofit social enterprises need to understand that part of running a healthy organization is strategically investing in skilled labor and appropriate advertising mediums to ensure that the organization can thrive. That means that it's not always important to meet rigid budgeting criteria. Instead, nonprofits should be measured both individually and in comparison only to similar size, similar mission organizations. When internal structures and goals differ, as they do across every well-meaning organization, it's hard to build a one-size-fits-all assessment system.
Ultimately, this post is not meant to deter people from using Charity Navigator when deciding to whom they should donate. Because the site primarily compares large, multi-national NGOs and nonprofits that have the resources to ensure sustainability in their financial goals and budgets, the standards are, in most cases, fair.
But it would be a mistake to hold every organization to the same rigid metrics, especially if that comes at a cost to providing living wage jobs to overworked nonprofit workers or using advertising dollars to achieve exponential growth.
Potential donors should consider the holistic story of the organization before taking the easy way out, and remember that the long term viability of any business or nonprofit has to do with taking on the right investments, never sacrificing worker welfare for the sake of an impressive financial report.
Nonprofits and social enterprises who create and/or sell physical goods should consider that they're a hybrid business-charity and thus their business model must be adapted to compete in a crowded retail marketplace. Without investing in advertising, they won't be able to sustain the business for the benefit of their artisan partners. And there are few things worse than promising a marginalized community you can change their lives and then not following through.
I'm curious to hear from other nonprofit workers or social enterprise owners on this topic. Anything you would add?
Well, I did it. I deleted Instagram off my phone and deleted the private account I've been halfheartedly maintaining since I deleted my public account in November.
And I'm feeling good. I feel like I'm getting a big picture perspective back. I feel like I'm getting myself back.
Because of this recent lifestyle change - that admittedly still feels fragile - I've been consuming studies, podcasts, and articles about social media and tech addition that steady me in my decision and (hopefully) will keep me removed from a platform that was exacerbating mental health issues for at least the past year.
And just a note on the potential "privilege" of leaving: as someone very interested in restorative justice and the necessary, hard conversations that entails, I do not believe that we can comprehensively do the work on these platforms without eventually taking these conversations and relationships offline. And the below links indicate that we simply aren't psychologically capable of tackling high stakes issues through media that preys upon the primal parts of our brains. (I would also note that it's a privilege to own the technology that supports Instagram, from a relatively new smartphone to a longterm cell phone plan.)
That's not to discount the work that regularly is done through social media, or the profound way global access to social justice communities has positively changed people's lives.
But we need to continually assess our relationships to the devices and platforms that exist primarily as data mining and advertising tools. They aren't here to help us, so we must remain vigilant.
It’s an unnerving sensation, being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019. Catherine had warned me that I might feel existential malaise when I wasn’t distracting myself with my phone. She also said paying more attention to my surroundings would make me realize how many other people used their phones to cope with boredom and anxiety.
Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.
Cal Newport Has An Answer for Digital Burnout, Ezra Klein Show Podcast
When I was a blogger, it never read as social rejection to me. Now I’ll tweet something and people attack it on social networks - 2,000 likes on how I’m an idiot - and I feel it much more as social rejection, like being bullied in elementary school…when this is moving into a context of approval and rejection, there’s a lot more danger in it.
Girls’ much-higher rate of depression than boys is closely linked to the greater time they spend on social media, and online bullying and poor sleep are the main culprits for their low mood, new research reveals.
What was most interesting to researchers was that this link only revealed itself during the last 20 times people completed the IGT. At this point in the game, risk became much higher. The findings therefore demonstrated that excessive social media use was associated with an inability to make good decisions in high-risk situations. Those who are addicted to drugs also show signs of this kind of behaviour.
Like a pitchfork, Twitter is an imperfect tool. Its brevity suppresses nuance; its virtuality opens the door for insincerity; it incentivizes people with no true investment in a controversy to weigh in anyway. And the internet has primed us to demand instantaneous results: When everything we want to know or buy can be accessed with a few clicks, perhaps we expect that justice be served just as swiftly. Members of some crowds acknowledge that these conditions are less than ideal. But for disingenuous outrage trolls, the blunt instrument of outrage is an end in itself: The crude result of getting someone fired is the entire point.
My post from last year:
The film is, above all, a critique of the way social media compels all of us - stalkers and glamorous influencers alike - to pretend we're something we're not for the sake of digital fame, or at least being liked.
Have you said goodbye to social media or your smartphone? What helped you stay away?
This post is not sponsored, but Retrospecced sent try-on items free of charge, which I will be sending back after review. Since glasses are a medical item, I decided I wanted to purchase frames myself rather than request free product.
I first reached out to Retrospecced nearly two years ago, but I had purchased new glasses the year before and ultimately couldn't justify acquiring another pair just yet.
I almost threw sustainability to the wind because I was so excited about their business model. As you probably know, there's really only one prescription glasses company marketed as "ethical," and that's Warby Parker (affiliate link). The main thing going for them is their one-for-one business model through which they donate vision care services to people in need based on their sales numbers. Charity is a good thing, but it's not always an effective long term strategy. And as I mention in this post, it can often disguise production, environmental, and labor issues in the company's supply chain. I don't know much about Warby Parker's factories, but at the very least, they're not prioritizing a more eco-friendly option.
Warby Parker (like Bonlook, where I got the pinkish glasses you'll see in three years' worth of personal style posts) produces in China using acetate, a type of plastic, in most of their frames. People need glasses - they're a medical device - and so I'm not going to tell anyone not to purchase new glasses if that's what suits their needs, but I found it puzzling that there were seemingly no alternatives in the ethical marketplace.
Retrospecced is the solution, at least for me. That's because they purchase used (vintage and contemporary styles) glasses from the charity, Vision Aid Overseas - who receive up to 70,000 donated glasses a week! - and offer a custom prescription service through their website. The ordering process is just like any other glasses site, but you receive a final product that is inherently more sustainable because it's secondhand.
Retrospecced explains that this arrangement works well for vision charities, because the clients they assist are in need of more than just a pair of old glasses. They need routine exams, surgery, and other comprehensive care that well-meaning donors can't provide through donated goods alone. Not to mention that cat eyes and '80s jumbo frames aren't everyone's cup of tea.
I'll discuss the home try-on program more below, but first, take a look at the frames I sampled, ranked from my favorite to least favorite...
About the Home Try-On Program
Because each frame at Retrospecced is a one-off, they have to be a bit more cautious about what they send out for try-ons. While companies like Warby Parker will send you five free frames to try for a week before sending back, Retrospecced's program requires that you purchase the frame for try-on, make your selection, then send them back for purchase or a full refund. When you opt into the home try-on, they also offer £5 off lenses if you decide to purchase a pair.
Retrospecced is based in the UK, so there are a few added costs for US-based and other international customers. Here's the cost breakdown:
Frame: Most frames run £29-35 ($37-45)
Cost of Shipping for the Home Try-On: ~$35
Prescription Lenses with scratch-resistant and anti-reflective coating: £45 ($58)
Flat Rate Shipping: £15 ($19)
Total Without Try-On:
Even with the exchange rate, Retrospecced glasses are roughly equivalent in price to Warby Parker and Bonlook, which makes them a competitive choice (and if you have eye insurance, you can submit your receipts for reimbursement). The hard thing is narrowing down your selection (I kind of want three pairs!).
I am really excited to be able to purchase high quality vintage frames with my prescription. As an international customer, the process is slightly more tedious, but I think it will be worth it to receive some upcycled glasses I love.