The World’s Artisans Made This Year’s Agenda at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford

Oxford University, England, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Skoll Foundation.

Last week, members of the Mela team attended the annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. This is a gathering of the world’s mavericks — individuals who see the world as a more equitable place and are restless to reform it.

Photos Courtesy of the Skoll Foundation.

This year’s theme was quite apt: fierce compassion. Compassion alone is not enough; yet coupled with drive, ambition, hunger and conviction, it transforms into fierce compassion and is intrinsic amongst this group of mavericks.

Al Gore, a pioneer in making the environment a priority, exemplified the theme. He launched the Forum with a compelling presentation, reminding us that climate change is very much a reality. 2016, he said, is already one of the hottest years on record and we’re only four months in.

Jeff Skoll and Al Gore share a special connection: they came together over 10 years ago to produce Inconvenient Truth, a hard-hitting documentary on climate change that revolutionized how we look at the environment. Al is bringing that message back to the forefront, except this time with some practical solutions that he outlined in his talk.

It’s clear, however, that the solutions to this massive problem exist at the cross-section of government, private sector, and civil society. In fact, be it social change, poverty, inequity, or the environment, these three forces have to sync up to shift economies, to transform policies, and create thunderous momentum amongst the masses.

Mela Artisans as a business with a strong mission couldn’t agree more. While the artisan sector might be the second largest employing sector in the world, it often goes unnoticed. Only when the three forces — public, private, and civil — collide can it grow and meet its potential.

At the Forum, we sat down for lunch with friends and colleagues at the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, a nonprofit that’s trying to flesh out, legitimize, and bolster this informal economy. Peggy Clark who runs this project at the Aspen Institute asked us a poignant question:

What more needs to be done to build the infrastructure for this massive informal sector? What’s still missing? What will help?
Peggy Clark of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise at the Skoll World Forum. Photo Courtesy of the Skoll Foundation.

A few straightforward answers emerged:

  1. Nonprofits or organizations focused on social change don’t always understand the nuances of business. And yet, many organizations that work with artisans are nonprofits. So the two have to come together to help each other: nonprofits can do trainings and help artisans improve their skill sets while businesses can create markets.
  2. Design is powerful. Products have to sell themselves. The story is an added perk. Can this mission-driven product compete with what’s in the market? It may have a better story, a more powerful impact in the supply chain, but if the design is dated, or unappealing, it will not sell. So invest in designers.
  3. Coalitions are needed. Alone one company can only create limited impact. A coalition of companies and nonprofits can be much more forceful.
  4. No more charity buys. The era of buying stuff because it made you “feel good” is over. Customers want to buy products because they’re useful, practical, and fit into their decor or lifestyle. The t-shirt for a “good cause” is dead. Encourage companies to build viable products, not charity buys.
  5. Market tactfully. Much like design, the marketing has to compete with conventional brands. Is it alluring, tasteful, exciting? Ethical brands can’t be preachy. They have to show, not tell, that their products are better — or worth purchasing.

While these were clear takeaways of what the artisan sector knows, and can work towards, other areas are murkier.

  1. Could artisans be compared to coffee farmers? No. The comparison between handmade goods and commodities such as coffee and chocolate are hard to justify. While coalitions, international organizations, and certification bodies have helped small-scale farmers connect to larger marketplaces, the artisan sector isn’t one global commodity. It can’t be treated with a homogenous approach.
  2. An Etsy for the developing world? This seems like a long shot. While it may seem romantic (and ideal) to foresee a world where artisans in the developing world can sell directly to customers globally, the logistics of this are overwhelming and challenging. Many artisans don’t speak English, struggle with digital platforms, and don’t have any way of accepting payments. Plus, their designs need development. Thus, intermediaries will be necessary to help them connect to markets.
  3. Capitalism will eek out injustices. The room was divided on this: can capitalism create markets and help alleviate inequalities? Historically, capitalism hasn’t been able to solve inequalities by itself. However, some argued the delicate balance of supply and demand can uplift the artisan sector in the coming years.

What do you think? Comment below and let us know what you think the artisan sector needs to advance forward.