This guest post is written by Mallory Whitfield, a proud resident of New Orleans, Louisiana. She has been blogging at MissMalaprop.com since 2006 and also runs an online shop dedicated to the very best in handmade and eco-friendly gifts.
I’ve been following fashionable fair trade brand The Andean Collection since very early on. They work with native artisans in the Andean mountain regions of South America to create beautiful and sustainable jewelry and accessories.
The Andean Collection recently became the spotlight of an in-depth article in GOOD magazine titled “Buy the Right Thing: Following Your Ethical Jewelry All the Way to Ecuador”. The article raised some important questions that we as consumers need to be thinking about, such as what exactly constitutes “ethical shopping” and how do we determine exactly how ethical it is?
The folks at Andean Collection have already posted a couple of thoughtful responses to the GOOD article, both at their own blog and at Ecouterre, but when the company offered up Amanda Judge, founder of Andean Collection, for comment, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to have a few of my own questions answered.
Can you give us a little background on Andean Collection? What types of things do you sell and what is your company’s mission?
Andean Collection is a fair trade accessories brand, designed in NYC and handcrafted by artisans in Ecuador. Our jewelry is made from sustainable materials, such as tagua, acai and pambil seed. We also sell hats, belts and scarves. Andean Collection was founded to bring sustainable change to impoverished communities in South America by offering local artisans the opportunity to participate in the global market. We also have a non-profit arm, Andean Project, to ensure that this change is productive and healthy and to address other poverty related social issues, all funded through our sales and private donations.
Do you think that “ethical consumerism” is just a way for companies to sell more products and make customers feel like they’re doing something good, or do you think that it can really make a difference in the long run?
There’s definitely a movement toward ethical consumerism, but if a company only uses it as a marketing tool, it won’t make any difference. Potentially, it could do more harm than good. If it’s done well, than it can absolutely make a difference. We’ve seen it work first hand. Many of the artisans we partner with have significantly transformed their lives. They’re able to lead a solid, comfortable middle class existence because of ethical consumerism. They can work normal hours and spend time with their families. I mean, just on a tangible level, their homes have expanded, their workshops have expanded, there’s more food on the table, all of these factors will have a profound effect on future generations.
How can companies provide transparency to consumers about their ethical practices? As consumers, how can we know if they’re telling the truth? How does Andean Collection put this into practice?
Companies can provide transparency by giving as much information as they can to the consumer, from information on where the products are sourced to background information about the people making the products. A company should provide photos and videos from their workshops, interviews with their employees, essays about their social mission. It’s also important to be completely honest and include the good AND the bad. Patagonia is a prime example of this sort of transparency. “The Footprint Chronicles” tracks the global footprint of the item the consumer is buying and weighs the pros and cons. Pro: it’s made in humane working conditions, Con: it has to travel across the world which isn’t environmentally sound. So, they acknowledge that ethical consumerism can be murky.
As a consumer it’s fairly easy to tell if a company is being honest, you just have to go in with a skeptical eye. Check to see if the company invites interaction with its consumers, check to see how much information they make available on their website. Do they post photos and videos from the workshops? How often? For international companies, do they have a committed staff on the ground? In terms of information, how wide do they cast the net? If a company is only interested in pulling the wool over a consumer’s eyes, they’re not going to invest time and resources into a daily blog, face book account newsletter etc.
Transparency is extremely important to Andean Collection. Not only transparency with consumers, but with the artisans we partner with. In Ecuador, we have regular meetings with the artisans to go over things like mark ups, so they have a complete picture of how pricing works in Ecuador and the US. We invite them to visit the website, comment on the blog. We also have quarterly newsletters distributed among the NYC and Quito offices so everyone is up to date. In addition we have a grad student visit the workshops once year to conduct an intensive Well-Being Survey with the artisans, and we often change programming based on the results of that survey.
We’ve invited journalists to join us on our design trips to observe our operations, and we are deeply committed to providing information on our website, Facebook and blog. All of those efforts trickle down to the consumer, to ensure they can wear our accessories with confidence in its production.
Do you find that customers are willing to pay a little extra for products deemed “ethical” or “eco-friendly”?
Some customers may be willing, but we also want to stay within the same price points as non-ethical brands. I mean, you have to be realistic in this economy. Often it’s not a matter of whether a person is willing to pay a little extra for “eco-friendly” products, but a matter of it they can pay a little extra.
As consumers, what can we do to encourage more companies to include ethical practices in their manufacturing process?
First, if you can, buy ethical products. Second, ask questions and demand answers. Once a company sees that its customers are demanding ethical production, they’ll have to become more ethical if they want to stay in business. Third, if you believe in a company, be more than a customer – be a brand ambassador. Let the brand know you like them, share the good news with your friends and family, support them on Facebook. Often people only contact a company with complaints, it’s ok to contact a company with compliments too!