Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

How buying artisan-direct bucks economic trends

Amongst the suggestions made for sustainable travel, one I always repeat is to buy souvenirs from local artisans. But when travel itself is down, and travel spending is too, artisans suffer along with other businesses. In comes the trend for buying artisan-made objects of any sort online. In recent years, led by the multivendor craft market Etsy (like EBay but for crafts and vintage), plenty of other websites have grown up, making it possible for artisans, crafters and makers to reach a wider public online. A number have been founded in Italy, spreading specific declinations of Made in Italy to homes around the world – I’ve written about one such website, MakeTank, and Italy’s new artisans here. Other projects focus on artists in the developing world, allowing local traditions to continue and grow.

I completed my first purchase on Novica, an ethical world marketplace, the other day. I received this message: “You are now part of the growing movement to choose handmade over mass produced items, and create a world where talented artisans are treated with dignity, and respect.”

One hopes that handmade is indeed a growing movement, though I think a lot of people out there are perfectly happy with cookie-cutter décor. But in terms of numbers, Novica seems to be successful. It was founded in 1999, though they just recently revamped their website and are making a push in online promotion, including contacting bloggers like me to test the website. Over the years, it has listed products by 10,000 artisans around the world and sent 46 million dollars back to them.

Novica stands out for the way the operation is set up in an intensely capillary manner. They have offices set up in various areas of the world, to which artisans deliver their products. A small stock is kept, though order number trends allow artisans to best determine which products to make more of, based on sales popularity. Novica is the only middleman, taking a much smaller percentage than wholesalers normally take. They also handle packaging (with some lovely handmade touches) and shipping, leaving the artists – who list their products for free – to concentrate on making.

NPR reports on just one example of a Novica artisan in rural Mexico. The family in question had been making carpets since the 16th century, but their sales basin was limited by their location. Novica donated a computer, taught them how to use it, and opened up the world as their market. In Peru, another family who makes tapestries had in part given up and gone to work in the mines, but thanks to the increased sales through Novica, they’ve intensified their traditional tapestry business and are even raising workers’ pay.

Knowing that I’ve made an ethical choice that supports two artisan families far across the planet makes the wrap bracelet and alpaca blanket I purchased on Novica rather more rewarding than had I picked them up in an anonymous manner. People whose names and stories I now know have benefited directly from this choice, and I would have never been able to support them through travel since I haven’t been to those areas. I was also able to make an optional donation to the artists’ fund managed by Novica, which also offers microcredit loans to which users can contribute.

I’m pleased with my purchases – I don’t normally go for an ethnic look in my house or in the way I dress, but I picked out some of the more contemporary pieces on offer. Check out the alpaca queen sized blanket I got on my couch – technically for a bed, but I am always cold watching tv in the wintertime, and average sized throws don’t cover both my feet and my shoulders, let alone my husband at the same time! (The blanket turned out rather nicer than in the product photo, where it seemed to be a much darker grey.)

The website and system works well, with very fast handling and shipping of orders – I got mine sent directly from Peru and Thailand 3 days after ordering. For US residents, it’s a great deal, since orders go through an American warehouse, keeping shipping costs very low and eliminating any customs fees. For residents of the EU, this is a problem they will hopefully soon resolve: shipping fees were high on my order and unfortunately Italian customs charged 21% iva on the stated purchase price in dollars (without converting it into Euros – dummies!).

Ethical does not necessarily mean world market. There are equally ethical ways of purchasing from and supporting Italian artisans through various websites that work on similar artisan-direct models that, like with Novica, strongly benefit the crafter by providing a new market or in some cases, creating the opportunity for sale where it did not exist before. This is the case with MakeTank, touted as the marketplace for makers, on which people who make contemporary items using new technologies (like 3D printing) sell their products directly to an international market. These designers and makers can receive payment directly from the purchaser before even making an item, as long as they specify an accurate lead time, so there is no stocking cost associated with listing on MakeTank, which is also free. Like Novica, they also provide free consultancy and marketing to help artisans develop their business. Another website, Zanoby, also pays manufacturers before they actually have to produce items, selling lovely Italian leather bags and similar traditional artisan items with a modern, rather hipster look. Where the local market may not value Made in Italy as much as it ought to, the international market does, and websites like these open up the world to people who didn’t have the ability or foresight to do so on their own.

Do you like buying objects with stories and people behind them? How have you supported artisans through travel or online?

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.