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Moving to China

Selling Yarns 2: Innovation for sustainability – March 2009

Dr. Kevin Murray's presentation from the Selling Yarns 2 conference examining ethical steps towards a sustainable world craft.

 
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A few years ago, at my desk in Craft Victoria, a friend rang up in disbelief. He had heard that the organisation was re-locating to China! When I looked at the newspaper later that day I identified the source of this strange rumour. Kraft Victoria, the local supplier of Vegemite and plastic cheese slices, had finally done the maths and decided the savings of operating in China outweighed the loss of brand value in deserting Australia. The mistake was understandable. Our front of desk would begin her phone calls to office suppliers by identifying the organisation as 'craft with a c', lest it be confused with the iconic brand.

But reflecting on the current situation of craft in Australia, this rumour becomes a little less ridiculous. More and more craftspersons are having their products made in Asia. Janet deBoos is working through a ceramics factory in Zibo to access the very well-heeled new Chinese middle class. Karl Millard finds an Indian silverware workshop capable of realising and selling designs that would be impossible in Australia. Sara Thorn is working with some of the new craft factories in Delhi to produce homewares for the Australian market. Polly & Me are having their accessories embroidered in Pakistan. And now in Latin America, Jonathan Baskett is at an epicentre of glass capacity in Mexico where he can experiment with new designs as well as reach new markets in the states.

While there may be some sadness that the making is becoming divorced from the designing, this outsourcing opens new horizons. While not overt, it is implicit in many of these operations that the quality of the Australian products benefit from the involvement of artisans close to the cultural sources of their craft - ceramics in China and embroidery in India.

But there are other ways of adding value through outsourcing. Not many Australian craftspersons have pursued the ethical path in designing their products. This has been mostly the business of entrepeneurs like Carol Douglas, working with weavers in Kutch or Cheryl Adam engaged with the 'bat people' of the Philippines.

Last week, I found through Twitter a Melbourne-based ceramicist, Andrew Widdis, who had just started having his ceramics made in Vietnam. He told me that he regretted having to outsource his making, but there just weren't the prices in Australia for ceramics to pay for his own time. He really enjoyed working with the Vietnamese and wanted to find out if he could get Fair Trade accreditation for his work, as he believed his makers received a fair wage.

It's a good question. Fair Trade has problems when applied to the crafts. Compared to coffee, there are more links in the chain between the artisan and the consumer. It's not impossible. There are signs that Fair Trade is diversifying its reach, even including business management practices. But at the moment, there don't seem to be alternative structures that help consumers be confident in buying craft designed in Australia and made by artisans elsewhere. It helps if the designer can show the level of their engagement through displays such as labelling and websites. But consumers are still going to look for some independent perspective as ultimate guarantee that what they are buying is more than clever marketing?

So what exactly are they buying? In most cases, they will be purchasing something for more money than they would need to spend to find an object that would satisfy an equivalent function. A $25 scarf from Target may potentially keep someone just as warm, and look just as elegant, as a $100 silk scarf from India. So what do you get for the extra $75? In part, it's the knowledge that you are helping to support an endangered craft. Less tangibly, you carry around with you the aura of tradition, evoking the village life surrounding its production. And importantly the handcrafted dimension makes it more suitable as a potential gift-it carries the long-term commitment that symbolises what you value in the relationship.

But then a cynical friend undermines your investment by saying that you are indeed complicit in the subjugation of rural women. Why can't they be learning computer skills in the city rather than living a life of drudgery at home? At this point, you wish you had some evidence to show that you were wearing something that carried the good will and pride of the maker. It's certainly the case that we need to better understand the life of artisans. Organisations like UNESCO are working on that.

This affects Indigenous craft and design too. It is rarely the case that Australian Aboriginal craftspersons are commissioned to make products by designers. What usually happens is that their designs are licensed to manufacturers. But the more remote this relationship, such as boomerangs manufactured in China, the less value the outcome is seen to have. But there's an alternative model looming.

Better World Arts has partnered with Kaljiti Arts to commission artisans in India and Peru to produce goods for Australian consumers. Their skills provide the capacity to make merchandise such as rugs and silver jewellery beyond the scope and interest of those in Indigenous communities. But they can carry their designs with great pride into the homes of Australians.

The key component in this is solidarity. Good ethical product development brings together people from a wide range of social backgrounds in common support for the future of the world we live in. This is a future with practical challenges, as climate change affects our capacity to still find shelter and put bread on the table. But it is also a future were we can still locate our own position in this world, using the inheritance of language and skills to define our own place in its history.

As the Jewish proverb goes, 'Make your days new as of old'.

 

Kevin Murray is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University, Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University. Projects discussed in this article can be found at www.craftunbound.net