Sunil Chitrakar
CEO, Mahaguthi Craft with Conscience

Nepal, like most nations, has its own distinct cultural, ethnic, and bio-diverse makeup. The richness of Nepal’s centuries old art, crafts, and culture abounds the alleys and courtyards of Kathmandu. Arts and crafts have long been a part of Nepalese livelihoods and lifestyles. Today these arts and crafts have become precious commodities—souvenirs and antiquities for collectors. Still hundreds of thousands of people create masterpieces as part of their livelihood. Acknowledging the importance of arts and crafts in Nepal, many Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs) have been working to preserve and promote art, crafts, and culture as a means of sustainable livelihood for people practicing fair trade (FT).

FT is a trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes in sustainable development by offering better trading conditions and securing the rights of marginalized producers and workers, especially in the south. FT provides greater justice in world trade and advocates changing the rules of trade to promote inclusion to fight against poverty, climate change, and economic crisis.

FT is a sustainable business model that helps reduce poverty among millions of farmers and artisans in least developed countries. FT empowers people economically by paying fair wages, providing good working conditions, providing inclusive business approaches, securing the rights of marginalized producers, and reducing environmental degradation through sustainable production and consumption practices. The overall purpose of FT is to create a just and sustainable global trading system that gives opportunities to marginalized producers to access global market and be part of the global trading system.

FT in Nepal started in the early 1980s as income generation initiative for women, where women were trained in different skills through the then Women Skill Development Project. Later, organizations such as Mahaguthi Craft with Conscience, Bhaktapur Craft Printers, and Association for Crafts Producers emerged with the aim of empowering women. These FTOs were pioneers in reviving culture, art, and crafts by giving artisans livelihood options based on their indigenous skills and knowledge, providing market access, and paying fairly. Later, many other organizations also started working in traditional weaving, dyeing, woodcarving, etching, and many other areas in arts and crafts.

Fair Trade Contributes to the 2030SDGs

FT has been contributing to sustainable development as its ten principles cohere with the United Nations’ 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs). FT works for people as it adopts people-centered business practices, honors cultural values, and respects indigenous craftspeople. The business terms are defined and practiced, giving preference to underprivileged indigenous artisans and producers. FT principle of reaching the poor contributes to SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). The SDGs aim to increase income for people living under $1.25 per day, which can be achieved by successfully practicing FT principles of paying fairly.

Products developed by women through fair trade processes © Mahaguthi Craft With Conscience

The importance of paying artisans fairly cannot be overstated. In the past, many artisans left their profession because factors such as social discrimination, exploitation, or religion led to them not being paid living wages. Furthermore, paying fairly is important for not only economic reasons but also cultural significance. Fair pay helps artisans continue practicing age-old traditions and live decent lives in today’s competitive market economy.

FTOs in Nepal have contributed to preserving and promoting indigenous skills and knowledge of different ethnic groups by sourcing crafts products from different ethnic communities. Each group has its own unique arts and crafts. For example, the Rai of Eastern Nepal are master bamboo weavers, where they learn the skill at home since their childhood; the Maithali of Janakpur are noted for their colorful paintings; and the Prajapati of Thimi, Bhaktapur, are master potters and clay artists. The adopted business model provides a sustainable value chain linking artisans to the complex global markets, which helps with realizing SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). Over 35,000 households are benefiting from the FTO’s activities.

Market access is one of FT’s fundamental codes of practice because business sustainability depends on the marketability of the arts and crafts products. In absence of market linkages, creative industries cannot be sustained. The integrated and embedded value chain approach adopted by FTOs help ensure that products from indigenous artists can reach the global markets. Continuous market research and knowledge sharing from Northern trading partners help southern FTOs better understand changing tastes and preferences of customers. The products are designed and developed to match the market. Rigorous marketing strategies and activities have made successful market entry for the products produced in remote parts of Nepal. Efforts are being made to ensure the identity of the producers and the source of products as well as guarantee the quality and uniqueness of the products in the entire value chain.

In the process of making marketable products, sustainable production practices have been used, which help improve product quality and the quality of life of producers and artisans. Many FTOs have been using eco-friendly dyes and chemicals along with practicing ecologically friendly waste disposal. Likewise, using natural raw materials also helps keep indigenous skills preserved. This practice is based on FTG’s principle of ensuring that the FTOs remain mindful of the social, economic, and environmental well-being of marginalized small producers and do not maximize profit at the producers’ expense. This principle also contributes to SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) as employment, sustainable production, access to social security, and reorganization of artisans and producers are maintained.

Furthermore, SDG 5 (Gender Equality) is related to FT’s principle that FTOs must ensure non-discrimination in policies, promote gender equity, women’s economic empowerment, and freedom of association. In practice, among FTOs in Nepal 85 percent of artisans and producers are women. One good example of women empowerment is from Janakpur, where women practice Mithila painting. The indigenous artwork of the Mithila can be seen on the walls of many households of the Mithila territory in Southern Terai of Nepal. Now these products can be found in market abroad, which gives employment to hundreds of women artisans. In the past, these women never came out of their homes; now they are traveling around the world painting galleries and selling their crafts. From the beginning, FTOs have been involved with promoting these products thus providing fair price, design support, and other professional service to Janakpur women.

Story telling has been effective marketing tool, where stories of the artisans and their lives and skills are shared with customers helps with not only selling the products but also promoting the culture, community, and the people who made those crafts.

Fair Trade Promoting ICH

In Nepal, most FTOs are based on handicrafts, which are based on traditional skills and knowhow. According to Federation of Handicraft Association of Nepal (FHAN) over a million people are engaged in this creative industry and contributing to economic and social development of Nepal. FT business model adds value to this creative industry by ensuring the artisans’ well-being and promoting them in a fair and just manner. To conserve and promote traditional skills and ICH, sustainable business should be built where artisans can live their lives with dignity and the new generation can see their future secured in their vocation. FT provides needed capacity building; market promotion, and business development services that help sustain these creative industries. FTOs are engaged in research and development, skill transfer, capacity development, and entrepreneurship development, which are fundamental in promoting and rejuvenating this sector. Recent trade data from FHAN shows that contributions from FTOs have contributed about 18.77 percent of Nepal’s exports. FT labeling initiative helps promote products in the global market while also assuring that fairness is maintained in entire value chain, from producers to the consumers.

The impact of FT can be seen in the changing lives of hundreds of artisans and producers in terms economic well-being, improvement in roles and status, and a better quality of life.