Buy the Right Thing: Following Your Ethical Jewelry All the Way to Ecuador Buy the Right Thing: Following Your Ethical Jewelry All the Way to Ecuador
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The GOOD Life
Buy the Right Thing: Following Your Ethical Jewelry All the Way to Ecuador
Olga’s home, which doubles as her work- shop, is an open-air brick structure on a hill. When we arrive, Olga is wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, directing the workers she’s hired to cook us lunch. Her kids run through the house clutching fistfuls of fake money. An enormous dog gnaws on a chicken foot in the yard. Olga changes into her traditional garb—gold beads, a white blouse, a black skirt with bright embroidery around the waist—and circles the workshop, answering questions about the requested tweaks she’s made to a half-dozen Chico’s prototypes.
Meanwhile, Judge leads us on a tour of the home’s recent improvements—an Andean Collection tag brought to life. This is Olga’s new refrigerator. Here are her new stove, new room, new driveway, new windowsills, new courtyard, new walls. A new brick outhouse surrounds her first toilet, which is also new. Her nails are newly manicured. Olga and Cesar join us, unlock their new car with two beeps, and drive us down the block. We wade into their new field, freshly planted with corn. Olga and Cesar recently bought the land with the help of an Andean Collection loan; it will enable the artisans to diversify their income.
Olga begins answering questions into several voice recorders and cameras. She doesn’t like talking about her past. “My life before was really very sad,” Olga says, adding, “Things are a lot better now.” Olga credits the turn of events to God—and Amanda Judge.
Judge, who is acting as translator, deliberately mistranslates Olga’s praise, directing it to “us,” or “we,” or “the Andean Collection.” But Judge and Olga’s relationship is a direct one. Judge is not giving away a million shoes to thousands of children; she is charting sustained progress in the lives of a few dozen artisans. Whenever Judge returns to Otavalo, Olga sits her at the head of the table, brings her flowers, and doesn’t let her help in the kitchen. Cesar calls her Amandita. “They bought me a live chicken once,” Judge tells me later.
Standing in the field, I ask Olga what she thinks of the American women who buy her jewelry. Olga has been told a story about us, too. “They’re good people who want to help us,” she tells me. “People who like to help people and have good hearts.”
Most people who buy the Andean Collection do like to help. Suzette Munson runs Love 41, an online specialty boutique dedicated to charitable consumerism. (Typical product description: “HIV positive Ethiopian women, left to die on a mountain, are rescued and taught to make jewelry from melted down bullet shells.”) She has stocked the shop with more than a dozen Andean Collection designs. “I especially love stories,” Munson explains. “Through the Andean Collection and these purchases, the artisans have transformed their children’s lives and their own lives. That’s very appealing to me.”
Munson found the Andean Collection after “a lot of searching online,” she says. She typed in “handmade” and “fair trade” and “jewelry” and began paging through the results. Munson learns the stories behind everything she sells to assure customers their money is well spent.
Earlier that week, the artisans sat for a PowerPoint presentation explaining why a piece they would sell to the Andean Collection for $2 could be marked up to $22 by the time it hits the neck of the consumer, pictured in the presentation as a smiling blonde woman on a city street. The presentation is meant to teach the artisans how to correctly price the items they sell to the Andean Collection and other international retailers, to ensure they can cover the cost of the materials, workshop overhead, and minimum-wage paychecks for themselves and the apprentice artisans who work beneath them. It sounds like the bare minimum, but the Andean Collection is actually going above and beyond. Minimum wage and other labor laws in Ecuador are pretty much optional.
American ethics don’t always mesh well with developing-world economies. We confront this firsthand after our visit with Olga, when we walk up the hill to Kevin’s house. The little stone structure looks the way Olga’s house looked before. Kevin’s father works construction, when there is construction work. His mother’s only source of income is a cow. When the Andean Collection arrived in Otavalo, Kevin found a job threading beads in Olga’s workshop. He was 11.
In order to ensure the country’s child labor laws don’t push the family deeper into poverty, the Andean Collection pays Kevin a stipend not to work. But Kevin’s mother is concerned: Spending all day at school instead of in the workshop, Kevin is losing his skills. “You can see why child labor does exist sometimes in some places,” Judge tells me. The Andean Collection is obligated under Ecuadorian law to refuse work to children under 15, though the regulations are lax. “Obviously, children working is not good, but an entire family starving, in my mind, is a lot worse,” Judge says.
The person who figures out how to deal with such quandaries is Chiara Gerlich, the Andean Collection’s nonprofit and environmental resource manager. When Judge goes home to Brooklyn, Gerlich stays behind in Quito and investigates where the Andean Collection’s economic development efforts are causing unforeseen problems. She makes sure workshops are paying their workers fairly, points out sagging roofs for repair, facilitates conflict resolution among the artisans, helps administer small-business education classes, and tries to help families like Kevin’s. She traces stories back to the beginning.
Right now, Gerlich is trying to get a handle on this tagua situation. “TAGUA (tahg-wah),” the Andean Collection tag reads. “This piece is handmade from tagua nut, commonly known as ‘vegetable ivory,’ which grows from a palm tree in the lowlands of South America. It is an eco-friendly material that requires little energy to process, and its commercialization promotes forest growth.”
Sometimes. The Andean Collection makes efforts to trace its products from the artisans to the suppliers to the tree, both to vouch for the quality of the materials (“If you buy a bracelet from the market, your wrist will turn purple,” Judge tells me) and to ensure that its products are truly sustainable. But it can be difficult to lock down the supply chain. “It’s assumed in Ecuador that all the seeds used are sustainably harvested, that because it’s palm they just grow back,” Gerlich says. “But that’s actually not the case.” Some suppliers will cut the trees more than once a year, making it more and more difficult for the trees to regenerate. The tagua harvesting business is competitive, and suppliers can hold their territories and techniques very close to the vest. It takes a lot of work to really know what you’re getting.
* * *
Amanda Judge is trying on an increasingly ridiculous series of hats—a floppy straw one; a version with loose frayed edges that dips down over the eyes; and one with a brim that explodes upward into a Chiquita Banana situation. “That one is crazy,” Judge decides. But she’s serious about the middle one. She’s seen a similar hat on the Anthropologie website priced in the hundreds. “I think this would sell really well,” she decides. She’ll need samples right away for a catalog shoot in the Dominican Republic.
We’re in one of the company’s more established workshops—in addition to the Andean Collection’s line, it produces Panama hats (each one with a “Made in Ecuador” label sewn inside) for other international companies. When Judge arrives, she kisses cheeks, takes a tour of the workroom, and is briefed on the production process—cutting, molding, ironing, and ribboning the felt for a fedora. Then Judge looks directly into another employee’s handheld video camera and expertly dictates the process back to it. The videos will later be uploaded onto the Andean Collection website, where a customer can get an inside look into how her Lola hat is made.
Down in the storeroom, Judge twists her fingers around rabbit fur hats she’s considering for a limited-edition high-end line that’s in the works. “I think the rich people would buy it in this style,” she says, placing one on her head. “It’s going to be a ridiculously expensive hat.”
Though Andean Collection customers are rich in Ecuadorian terms, the target consumer (rabbit fur line aside) is a middleclass woman who usually picks up on fashion trends after they’ve trickled down from the runway and into the mainstream. In the hat shop, Andean Collection employees circulate a dog-eared copy of Vogue to demonstrate the brims and colors that are in this season; the Andean Collection will catch up by the fall. “If you’re on trend, people are just going to buy more,” Judge says.
The more they buy, the more complicated the story gets. Last year, Anthropologie commissioned the Andean Collection to produce thousands of bright woven belts loosely inspired by Ecuador’s traditional waist-cinching fajas. The Andean Collection partnered with a small belt-maker. But when demand from buyers outpaced its looms, it brought in a more established outfit to pick up the slack. The company still works with small workshops, but increasingly, they aren’t enough.
The belts weren’t a hit with consumers. Anthropologie later slashed the price of one style from $48 to $4.95. But abandoning its belt-makers would run counter to the Andean Collection’s mission. So it transitioned them to producing “infinity scarves,” loops of fabric made from the indigenous weavers’ traditional materials (acrylics). The Collection’s designers mailed color swatches from Brooklyn to explain what “neon” meant. Now, weavers and designers are rushing to integrate “pops of neon” into a new crop of scarves before the catalog shoot. The Andean Collection likes working with this workshop because “they’re really collaborative,” Gerlich says. “Not everybody wants to do that. ... Some people don’t want to change the designs, don’t want to change colors.”
Some might say that the production of neon infinity scarves is a perversion of traditional indigenous craftsmanship. But Otavalen artisans have been producing and transporting designs for tourist tastes for the better part of a century, long before fair trade practices hit the region. The artisans I speak to are proud that their designs are being sold in New York and Paris and Japan, if under the Andean Collection’s name.
But they aren’t sold in Otavalo. When the Collection drops a new design on its artisans, it has to make sure that it’s protected from the open market, where it could be cheaply copied and devalued before it even appears in the Anthropologie catalog. Once, Judge walked into an internet café and saw a group of artisans scoping out her designs to make and sell for cheap in Otavalo’s market. The competition there has grown fierce. “It’s much harder now,” says Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, a University of North Carolina anthropology professor and an expert on Andean artisan economies. “Every year there are more indigenous Otavaleños getting into this business.” Prices have been driven down to the floor. Artisans are forced to produce more and more pieces, then sell them at prices that don’t even cover their costs.
* * *
Soon, Judge may not be able to visit Olga every fashion cycle. Judge is busy scouting a new location, preparing to replicate this whole process in another needy economy. It’s not yet clear how the company's story will adapt. In each artisan community, Judge will find different materials and styles, different traditional crafts, and different economic needs. Each location will require a new narrative.
The Andean Collection has reached a turning point, not just in Otavalo. If the Collection continues to partner primarily with the neediest artisans, its output will remain limited. Bigger retailers like Anthropologie demand it produce more, faster. Scaling up means fewer Olgas will
be elevated from grain pusher to jewelry designer. Instead, more established artisans will become a little bit more established.
But it also means shoppers will be more likely to stumble across Andean Collection designs in the mall, putting a more ethical option within reach of even people who aren't reaching for it. Who knows? Maybe in five years, when an American woman sees an Andean Collection label, she’ll immediately know what it stands for, the way I instinctively react when I see Paul Newman’s smiling face on a bottle in the grocery store. But no matter how many opportunities the market offers to align our ethics with our shopping habits, the burden is still on us to resist the impulse to buy the cheapest, closest thing. Here at the top of the economic food chain, no one will hold us accountable but ourselves.
On our last day in Otavalo, Judge and I take a quick spin around the market for gifts to haul back home. As we speed through stalls of earrings and table runners and alpaca sweaters, artisans pitch lower and lower prices at our backs. Judge has volunteered to help me haggle for a trio of woven purses. I pay next to nothing for them. Judge begins driving down the price of a knit onesie, then decides not to push it.
“I think she can use the extra dollar more than I can,” she says.