by Dana Geffner

Recently, myself, along with Jocelyn Boreta, the Global Exchange San Francisco Store Manager, were invited by Craftmark with financial help by Aid to Artisans to visit India and see firsthand how new and existing fair trade groups are transforming the workplace culture in rural India. Craftmark is an initiative by the All India Artisans and Workers Association (AIACA) which helps to promote genuine Indian handmade crafts, develop sector-wide minimum standards and norms for labeling a product as a handmade product, and increase consumer awareness of distinct handicraft traditions.

Our 17-day trip to India was filled with inspirational moments. We visited several different types of groups from small family businesses that have been making mud block prints for five generations, to a family that has been making threaded jewelry for over 1000 years, to a slum project making recycled newspaper bags, to an NGO that is working with 360 men & women displaced by the creation of a tiger reserve.

All of the groups we visited were inspirational in their own way but the one that was working with green energy alternatives and supporting them with Fair Trade practices really caught our attention. Avani, which took an overnight train and a 7-hour car ride through the Himalayas to reach, could be considered the role model for how NGOs can become sustainable entities. They also prove that supporting Fair Trade can move mountains. Through their Fair Trade craft program, Avani is working to revive, preserve and promote traditional weaving craft and to incorporate contemporary input for market exposure and income generation. With an all-local team of weavers, working out of their homes and Avani community centers in over 90 communities, they have successfully created a sustainable village-based enterprise managed by the community. In 23 extremely remote villages, Avani has provided solar panels for electricity and have educated the villagers on installation and maintenance.

Avani also works to promote rain water harvesting for drinking water and grey-water systems for irrigation and domestic use. The Avani center collects 2,700,000 litres of roof run off rainwater and recycles 100% of their water through grey-water filtration systems. In a region where water shortage is a huge problem this practice is revolutionary.

Sales of Avani’s fair trade products have been life-changing to the remote, rural villages where they operate and have allowed their green projects to be completely sustainable. The women weavers produce hand-spun fabrics from all-natural organic fibers including wool, mulberry, eri, munga, pashmina, angora, linen and a variety of non-violent locally cultivated silks. The result is a huge selection of scarves, stoles, blankets, and clothing. Their range of organic color, texture and design is amazing. One can feel the organic process and grass-root level commitment to excellence in each textile.

The Avani center is a vibrant, thriving work and living space where families raise each others children, share home-grown meals, work for shared income, educate visitors and spend nights drumming, singing and dancing together. As Avani grows, this vibrancy is systematically being spread through the organization of self sustaining village centers throughout this region of the Himalaya.

Avani is just one of many great stories of fair trade groups making a difference in the communities where they exist. But they can’t be successful if they can’t market their products. We feel without our support and consumer’s support, these communities cannot continue to grow and move towards self-sustainability.

Dana Geffner is the Fair Trade Wholesale and Online Store Program Director for Global Exchange