Is Artisan-Made Ethical?

In the Cambridge Dictionary, we can read that artisanal means: “made in a traditional way by someone who is skilled with their hands”. Ok, that sounds like a fair definition to me but no mention here is made of ethos. A skilled shoemaker could make beautiful footwear in rural Africa in a traditional way while being underpaid, right?

However, when I start looking for artisanal products online and encounter beautiful “artisan-made” fashion marketplaces, they all claim to be ethical. I notice here a first dissonance. That point was already raised by the Peahen who explained that in 2018 that there was a lack of clarity in what was labelled “artisan-made” and that it was a great opportunity for greenwashing.

In that article, I will try to understand if Artisan-made is ethical, why it became so trendy and share with you some tips on how to avoid what I call “ethicalwashing”.

Definition of artisan made by artisans (real or not)

I already defined artisanal officially and expressed my concern about it being ethical. Now I would like to look at artisan brands (really ethical or not) to understand what is means to them. After reading a lot, I came up not with a definition of artisan-made, but with some criteria that a brand must fill to call itself artisan. Here is the checklist. To be an artisan-made brand, you must:

  • Have no intention to use an industrial process to make your goods
  • Produce all your goods manually
  • Make them in a small workshop
  • Produce small scale and slowly
  • Use raw materials
  • Use local materials
  • Produce under traditional guidelines and with a sense of legacy

So, I love that list because it sounds so exciting to buy a product that seems so special, unique and made with extra care. However, I still do not see a mention of ethical here. Except maybe the use of local materials that reduce your footprint.

So why could artisan-made be ethical?

I do believe that by branding themselves as artisan-made, and they do it successfully because we believe them, companies expect people to think they are ethical.

Ideally, if you buy from a real artisan, your product last longer so you reduce your waste.

You also support local communities and workers which is indeed ethical because by creating a relation with them, you can tell if they work safely and fairly.

Finally, if you buy from the artisan, you have more visibility and transparency along the supply chain. You reduce the numbers of actors as well. So yes, buying artisanal sounds like a great idea and indeed seems ethical.

However, you must be careful because not all “artisan-made” products are really artisanal. And all artisans are not ethically treated!

Beware of ethicalwashing

Unfortunately, you must question artisan-made, artisan and artisanal labels because brands implemented a strong strategy of greenwashing. I call it here ethicalwashing because I believe green refers more to an eco-topic.

Indeed, companies understood well that artisan-made sounds like ethical so they took that opportunity to push sales! As that label is absolutely not regulated, it is easy for them to use it as much as they want.

 In 2012, the Times was already denouncing “The Artisan Hoax”. Domino’s pizza were branding themselves as artisanal at the time. Funny, right? The New-York times also raised the issue when it points out that “handmade business aren’t indefinitely scalable, just by the definition of the term”. It is crystal clear! When we look at the check list, you cannot be an artisan who produces massively. So, there is no way that big corporates produce artisan-made goods. See the contradiction here?

How can artisan-made not be ethical?

Let’s take three concrete examples here to make it very obvious that artisanal is not equivalent to ethical. First, I want to focus on artisanal food. A big corporate that produces food industrially could add one or two steps that are handmade. Let’s be clear, it happens because those tasks could not be accomplished manually. That big food company could then brand itself as artisanal even if it is not at all.

Second example: let’s look at the mining industry. It is a very hard work, done by hand at small scale, taught from a dad to his son. It does match the definition of artisanal work. However, those people are working in very dangerous conditions, where they have no rights and no other choice than doing what they do, underpaid, to feed their family. See artisan-made does not have to be ethical!

Last but not least, the fashion industry! I remember interning for free for a small independent brand that claimed to be handmade in Europe, surfing on the ethical and green wave. Well guess what, none of the interns were paid. I believe that it would be acceptable as long as you get a huge amount of knowledge in exchange of your time. But, in that case we learnt very little!

How can you avoid ethicalwashing?

Let’s face it, it is hard to be 100% sure that the brand you buy is truly artisanal, unless they make the piece you purchase in front of you. But I still have a few tips that you can use. Some of them are borrowed from a blog post published on Eco Warrior Princess.

  • See if you can read the stories of the makers.
  • When a brand alleges that it is Artisan-made, make sure it not only mentions it but explains why. One thing you can be sure about is that if a brand really is ethical, it will shout it out!
  • Do the products look artisan-made?
  • Ask the brand questions and see if someone responds to you. You could ask to the brand if they pay artisan the living wage. Ask where the products are made and where the artisans are based. Question the brand about how many hours artisans work and if you can contact them directly.

Of course, they can still lie but there is nothing more you can do. I hope that article brought you a little more clarity about what artisan-made means. I also trust that in the future you will avoid all the ethicalwashing traps. Comment all your questions, I will make sure I answer them personally.

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Written by Marine Leclerc, founder of Attitude Organic