Cooperatives Panel Discussion: Shari Keller for Mehera Shaw at the EFF Source Expo, October 2011
As several people have commented on the value of the Source Expo panel discussions and I myself also found them to be incredibly fabulous resources, I thought I'd post some of my "pre-answers" that I had formulated in preparation for speaking on the panel about Cooperative Producers in developing countries who produce in a sustainable manner. I would like to thank Tamsin LeJeune and all those at EFF who made the Source Expo possible and hope that my thoughts can contribute to developing the network of people who believe in ethical fashion.
Shari Keller - Mehera Shaw
How is Mehera Shaw championing marginalized producer groups?
We work with artisan block and screen printers who are considered marginalized in the sense that they have a finished product but limited access to the western market. We work directly with them, allowing them to set the price based on the current market. We make a point of including prints in a very prominent way in every collection we make and of seeking out clients who also want to use artisan prints in their collections. When using prints, we also seek to incorporate traditional Indian design elements into our collections in a manner that brings about a positive blend of East and West. We use both traditional print motifs commonly seen in the market as well as developing our own prints. In this way we work to bring new ideas into the printing community, discuss what market trends are there. We also work with printers to plan ahead to print on organic cotton which takes special consideration as the width is different and the grade of dyestuff is, in this case, certified organic. When working with artisan producer groups, we are seeking a cultural connection as expressed through the final design. The design should take into consideration the nature of the art or craft and use it to it’s best ability so that it becomes inherently valuable in the market, rather than being seen as a lower quality craft item that perhaps does not have lasting value. Part of the mission of Mehera Shaw is to uphold Gandhi’s principle of decentralized, rural production which allows a more traditional way of life and reduces city over population and the degradation of the family structure.
In our website and with our customers, we also tell the story of the printers, in photos, in words, in descriptions of the how the prints and clothes are made. Our clothing is not an industrial product divorced from it’s place of production. It is imbued with the lives and stories of the people who made it. The look and feel of the final product, especially when done to it’s finest level, tells a story of beauty, artistry and regard.
What were the challenges involved and how have you overcome them?
Communication is always the greatest challenge. Real communication is two-way, it is not simply a matter of getting the producer to understand the needs of the buyer. It is also incumbent on the buyer to understand the constraints and skills of the producer. Communication is a long-term relationship--a commitment to people. When a designer or buyer sees something of beauty that they would like to include in their collection, it is important to realize it may take time to work out the details of the look, the quality standard, the necessary lead times. All too often, details and quality control issues are assumed on both sides, creating the potential for misunderstanding. It take patience, listening, support and respect to communicate effectively. Many times producer groups have a very high degree of skill but are missing the understanding of how to finish a product so it appears packaged for the western market. It takes effort on the part of the designer or buyer then to demonstrate how the finished product should look--to give similar examples, to show a range of what is acceptable, to train people in the quality standard. none of these things can be taken for granted.
How have you worked with groups to preserve artisanal techniques?
We always start with something simple so as to have the best chance as success and thereby build a rapport. We see what a group is already doing, find an example that suits our needs and make as few changes as possible. We discuss at length the quality standard, the lead times, who does the work, in what setting (at work or in the home), what variations can we expect in the product, both within one order and across orders at different times of year. then we go one round of ordering and see what things work and what don’t without placing too much expectation on the first round. Only gradually do we make more design changes as we learn their skills and time frame. We learn how a group thinks, how they see things. Not everyone can express the constraints within which they work verbally, so much of the process is understood through observation. On my side, it is also a matter of education and skill development. If the artisan skill can be integrated into a design suitable for the western market, and the quality control and links along the supply chain can be connected, the artisan work will be valued and preserved. Artisan work is almost always admired, it is finding the specific ways to work to get the product into a final product suitable for the western market that is the challenge. The preservation of the techniques in the process of integrating them into the marketable design and in improving the quality so it has lasting value.
It takes more effort, but when the product is really something of value to the end consumer rather than just a feel-good hang tag, the market will also continue to support artisan made products.
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