Creative Conversations: Discussing Design, Sustainability and Making a Difference, with Global Goods Partners

Global Goods Partners

Tigmi Bags, Large Moroccan Market Basket Global Goods Partners

[Image credit: Tigmi Bags, Large Moroccan Market Basket Global Goods Partners]

Global Goods Partners is an inspirational non-profit social enterprise that was set up by women to help women. Launched in 2005 by Catherine Lieber Shimony and Joan Shifrin, and headquartered in New York, Global Goods Partners works to provide women in some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities with the means to earn a sustainable income by providing a platform to promote and sell collaborative collections of their handmade products. The products are sold through the organisation’s website. Atelier Fifty-Five caught up with co-founder Joan Shifrin to find out more about the life-changing work Global Goods Partners is doing.

A55: For those readers who don’t know, who or what is Global Goods Partners?

JS: Global Goods Partners (GGP) is a not-for-profit social enterprise that creates economic opportunity for women in some of the world’s poorest communities by providing access to the US market for the fair trade, handmade products they produce. We work with nearly 40 associations, cooperatives and social enterprises worldwide that integrate their commitment to community development—such as improvements in education, health, women’s rights, and employment opportunities—with socially responsible income-generating programs in craft development.

Our development model centres on supporting local women leaders and democratically governed organizations; promoting empowerment through economic development; and reaching the most marginalized populations. GGP provides technical assistance, product development, operational expertise, and small capacity-building grants to our community-based partners. With this support, GGP is empowering women to create sustainable change—advancing the health and wellbeing of their families and communities.

Our merchandise line is focused on jewellery, accessories, home décor, and children’s products.  For example, our scarf collection includes hand-woven cotton scarves from Ethiopia, hand-embroidered silk scarves from Afghanistan and locally sourced alpaca shawls from Bolivia. For the home, we have a wonderful selection of contemporary bowls and trays, hand-woven in Swaziland from lutindzi grass, hand-blocked aprons from India, and silk-covered journals from Cambodia.

Catherine Shimony (GGP’s other co-founder) and I previously worked for international development organizations where we had the privilege of meeting women throughout the Global South and being invited into their homes, where much of handmade craft production still takes place. What they produced—from embroidery to weaving to felting to jewellery making—was often extraordinary but there were few if any outlets for them to sell products and earn income from their craft. The inspiration to launch GGP came from the talented and tireless women we met. We saw the opportunity to serve as the bridge between the western marketplace and the poor, often isolated communities where beautiful handmade products are made.

Sasa Designs, Bead and Leather Wrap bracelet - Global Goods Partners

[Image credit: Sasa Designs, Bead and Leather Wrap Bracelet – Global Goods Partners]

A55: Can you give an insight into the different artisans and groups Global Goods Partners works within Africa, and how the partnerships come about?

JS: When we first launched Global Goods Partners, we worked with a small number of artisan groups we’d met while working with other NGOs. As we traveled and awareness of GGP grew, colleagues in other like-minded organizations referred us to potential artisan partners. At the same time, as access to the Internet expanded, even in some of the most remote areas, artisan groups eager for international market access reached out to us. Each of the groups we work with must meet certain criteria before we enter into a partnership. Above all, they must follow fair trade practices, which means providing fair living wages and safe and healthy working conditions. In addition to offering sustainable jobs and income, we look for each of our partners to demonstrate fiduciary responsibility, high-quality standards, and effective management of their operations. Understandably, some of our partners need support in these areas and GGP provides a wide range of training targeted to our partners’ specific needs including, technical assistance, product development, operational expertise, and small capacity-building grants.  

On our first GGP trip, Catherine and I spent several weeks in South Africa and Swaziland. We knew that South Africa was rich in artisan crafts but were completely struck by the wonderful variety and quality of products in Swaziland, where we currently have three partners (Gone Rural, SWIFT and Tintsaba). I met our most recent partner in Africa, Sabahar, while visiting Ethiopia last summer and have had great success with their hand-spun, hand-woven cotton scarves, and table linen.  Sometimes, we’ve learned about artisan groups, including several in Africa, through pure serendipity. As a small organization, the net we cast and the others we get swept up in are just part of the great reward of the work we do.

Tintsaba, Sisal and Brass Circle Earrings - Global Goods Partners

[Image credit: Tintsaba, Sisal and Brass Circle Earrings – Global Goods Partners]

  Without income, without being economically empowered, women’s potential goes unrealized – Joan Shifrin, Global Goods Partners

A55: Who designs the Global Goods Partners collections, and do you collaborate with designers and other industry professionals?

JS: Design is often a collaborative process at GGP. While we want to promote and, in some cases, help revitalize, traditional artisan skill sets, we know that the products we offer will only sell if the esthetics and quality meet Western standards. Our partners’ success depends on our own success so, under the direction of GGP’s designer, Jenn Wong, we work diligently to create a line of products that meet the demands of the market. As an example, in communities around the world women have been embroidering and passing down culturally specific techniques for generations. Their works are exquisite but have traditionally been applied to products such as table linen, which requires washing and pressing. In a world where casual dining and permanent press are the norm, there’s little demand for embroidered table linen. To address this gap we often provide our partners’ product input, design direction, and new designs. One of our partners in Afghanistan, Kandahar Treasure, is recognized for the complex, geometric embroidery technique known as Khamak. For the local market, Kandahar Treasure creates traditional products such as men’s shawls, women’s head coverings, and wedding trousseaus. To expand their product line for the US market, we collaborated with a local New York designer to create a line of embroidered jewelry, cosmetic bags, and scarves, which has sold well on our site.   

one Rural Platter - Global Goods Partners

[Image credits: Gone Rural, Woven Platter – Global Goods Partners]

A55: What impact has Global Goods Partners had on the lives of the artisans you work with, and what have you learnt from working with artisanal groups that has had an impact on your own lives?

JS: Without income, without being economically empowered, women’s potential goes unrealized.  Research shows and our experience supports the well-known truism that women direct their earning power to their family’s well-being, using almost all the money they earn to advance their children’s health, nutrition, and education.

In an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of our work, we send our partners an annual survey that asks them, among other things, to report on certain social and financial indicators that affect the women artisans with whom they work. We see lots of statistics that point to real advancements in the lives of artisan families, but it is the personal stories we hear that bring to life the benefits that women gain when they have the opportunity to earn a liveable wage. In many cases, the artisans we work with are earning an income for the first time in their lives.

Just about every decision we face at GGP—both small and far-reaching—we evaluate on the basis of “what impact will this have on the women artisans we work with?” With this question always at the forefront, I am increasingly grateful for the stability in my own life, the opportunities my daughters have and our good fortune to live in a safe and peaceful environment. At the same time, I’m always reminded of the similarities that unite women and mothers, who, wherever they live, want their children to prosper and live a healthy and happy life.

SWIFT, Classic Stud Earrings - Global Goods Partners

[Image credits: SWIFT, Classic Stud Earrings – Global Goods Partners]

A55: Running a social enterprise such as this must have its fair share of challenges, what were some of the challenges you faced when you first set up Global Goods Partners, and what keeps you motivated to keep doing what you?

JS: At the beginning, we experienced the challenges that come with starting any new business. But, as a mission-driven organization dedicated to helping our partners create sustainable craft businesses, we confront two challenges on a regular basis.  The first is related to training and the second to product design. Because of the cultural realities and needs of our partners can vary greatly, we often have to design specialized training programs that can be both costly and labor-intensive. One partner may need assistance with inventory management procedures, while another with exporting, accounting practices, or purchasing. On the design side, several of our partners create fashion-forward products each and every season. But in other cases, as talented as some of our partners are, they have little or no access to trend and fashion reports. Our in-house design team works closely and collaboratively to contemporize their products so they will fit with the GGP brand and appeal to audiences in the US, Canada, and Europe.

A55: In the decade since you founded Global Goods Partners have you seen a difference towards the consumer’s view of, and understanding and interest in the areas of fair-trade, ethics, and sustainability, are these terms now accepted as the ‘norm’ or is there still more to be done?

JS: We definitely see greater awareness of fair trade among millennials today and find that more people of all ages are factoring in the positive impact that a fair trade purchase can have. But, at the same time, there is a countervailing force from fast fashion, which devalues workers, the environment, and safety.  These two realities make it even more important to expand our work and to continue to support fair trade groups like the Fair Trade Federation; the Ethical Fashion Forum and the World Trade Federation Organisation.

SWIFT, Rolled Magazine Rod Earrings - Global Goods Partners

[Image credits: SWIFT, Rolled Magazine Rod Earrings – Global Goods Partners]

A55: What are your hopes or plans for the future of Global Goods Partners, and especially with regards to your work in Africa?

JS: Our expansion into new countries and outreach to new partners is driven by market demand and an internal assessment of the potential of groups we meet. We’re looking to increase our partnerships in Ethiopia and in Rwanda, which we’ll be visiting this summer.

A55: In addition to your online shop, where else can Global Goods Partners products be found?

JS: In addition to shopping on globalgoodspartners.org, our products are available at boutiques, specialty shops, and museum stores around the US and we’ll be rolling out international shipping by the end of the summer. 

Atelier Fifty-Five thanks Joan for taking the time to share Global Goods Partners work.

Additional details:
For further information about Global Goods Partners and to purchase visit: http://globalgoodspartners.org

[Image credits: All images belong to Global Goods Partners. If downloaded and used elsewhere please credit accordingly.]

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