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Sourcing Roadmap

This is an article to describe Ethnotek’s internal ethical guidelines for working with artisans and is to provide suggestions to designers & business owners who are looking to practice Cultural Inclusion in their supply chain. We in no way claim to be experts in this department and are still learning, but we do have over 10 years of first-hand experience and not only does our system work well, everyone is happy and having fun in the process! Hopefully you find this helpful, enjoy!

10 Key Points for Responsible Cultural Collaboration:

  1. Research
  2. Facetime
  3. Transparency
  4. Permission
  5. Commercial inclusion
  6. Repeat orders
  7. Know your limits
  8. Plan for mistakes
  9. Never copy or reproduce
  10. Track & report your impact

 Step 1: Research 

When researching traditional art to either inspire or incorporate into your designs, make sure the piece of interest has deep historical-cultural roots; that’s still some-what thriving and has a local population supporting its continuation and survival. Why? Because you want to know that it’s authentic, it has a large enough volume of demand and production to scale with you and your business and see that there’s space to make an impact. 

If all those boxes are checked, try to establish local contacts via email, social media, or phone that have an operation to support your ideas and be interested in meeting and collaborating, or at least hear your thoughts and ideas. 

If this isn’t possible, then the collaboration wasn’t meant to be, and it’s time to head back to the drawing board.

Step 2: Facetime

Show up! Whether you want to borrow a graphic symbol to make a pattern or logo or produce something physical together, facetime is everything. 

It isn’t always realistic to physically travel to the locations in which the original art is made, but using video calls to put a face to the name and personalize the interaction makes all the world’s difference. 

Step 3: Transparency

This one should be happening in parallel with all others and is incredibly important. Suppose you don’t speak the same language. In that case, it’s crucial to find a facilitator or mediator who can honestly and transparently share your vision for how the collaboration will look, both initially and in the long term. In a pinch, using a translation application can work. Still, if you are serious about working together, the most efficient and respectful way to work together is to ensure that communication is clear.

Transparency also relates to giving credit where credit is due. Naming the artisans who made it and telling their cultural story parallel with the end-product is vital. Not only does this honor the person who created it, it embeds so much more meaning into the piece which works to everyone's benefit by sharing it’s uniqueness and authenticity. 

Step 4: Permission 

After you’ve met your potential cultural collaborators face-to-face, and you share your plan with them, ask for their permission to incorporate their work into your design/product. This needs to be 100% transparent and concise to allow them to air any skepticism or terms and confirm a full understanding of what you are asking.

If they grant permission, it creates a bond and green light to move forward onto the next step. If you sense apprehension, see if you can understand the apprehension source to address it, or take it as a no and simply move on. 

Keep in mind that when dollar signs are on the table, some collaborators are inclined to say yes, even if they don’t feel it’s right. This type of arrangement can fester and later manifest itself in harmful ways.

Have enough awareness to know the difference between a full-yes and a yes-because-I-need-the-money.

Step 5: Commercial Inclusion

This one is simple, pay the artisans fairly! Agree to pay the price the artisan sets for his or her products and payment terms/timeline that supports the cash flow of all involved. We recommend offering a 50% deposit when placing your purchase order with the artisan, so they don’t have to finance materials on their own and pay the remaining balance when you receive the finished goods and approve quality. This method supports the artisan, but they also share the responsibility of delivering the promised goods per the timeline and quality standard you’ve both agreed on.

If you are not purchasing a physical product, for example, a cultural motif or design that you’d like to print onto your product, include on your website, tattoo onto your clients, etc. You need to receive their permission to use it and work out an agreeable payment to them to use their art. This should be an ongoing payment based on usage, not just a simple one-time payment that frees you to use it wherever and whenever you want after you’ve paid the first amount.

Step 6: Repeat orders

We are firm believers in sustainable supply chains as opposed to charity. What we mean by that is that repeat business sustained on an ongoing basis through repeat orders monthly, quarterly, or annually is far better than a handout. We know this because the artisans told us! They know how to distribute wealth amongst their community better than any outside 3rd party, and what they need help with is selling more of the things they make, simple!

Even if you follow all of the guidelines noted here, it’s not impactful unless it’s consistent. Repeat orders that provide a reliable revenue stream for the artisan are the most sustainable ways to maintain the relationship. It can be great for your business as well. Placing frequent small orders instead of infrequent large orders will be better for your cash flow and releases tension on the supply chain.

There are many complexities to this point, but the essence is to plan for slow and steady long-term growth instead of single orders or scaling too quickly.

Step 7: Know your limits.

It’s essential to know the cap limit of the artisans’ output. What’s the maximum amount of X they can produce monthly & annually with their current operation? Then ask if they can scale their operation if orders increase, how they will do that, and how they can ensure quality standards. It’s also important to know if scaling is something they want to do. It may cause undue stress and not of interest to them, so ask.

This is so important, so you know when you’re approaching the limit to make sure you’re not straining the artisans and not bottlenecking your own business. If you take on investors, they’ll want to know this as well. Growth can be good and bad, so know your limits.

Step 8: Plan for mistakes

The nature of working with handmade goods is that they’re always imperfect and is one of the many reasons we love them so much. We call these “signatures of handmade” and encourage their embracement. As long as you communicate in your marketing and customer service, the variations customers can expect, there shouldn’t be any unwanted surprises. That said, it’s good to set a tolerance for your design standards. What degree of imperfection are you willing to accept? Our fluctuation is roughly 10% and seems to work well. That means that if the hand-dyed or woven fabrics are 90% similar to the original and the batch before it, we’re good with that.

Everyone’s business and products are different, so just decide what works best for you and discuss this with the artisans to communicate the constraints and confirm what’s possible on their side.

Step 9: Never copy or reproduce

Artisan creations often contain deep cultural history and need to be cherished and elevated as sacred objects. Founders must promise the artisans to never copy or reproduce their creations with other artisans or manufacturers. Doing so is plagiarism and opens you up to litigation and public scrutiny. The narrative will remain positive by keeping production in the hands of their original creators. 

Step 10: Track & report your impact

People worldwide are backing your project by purchasing your products, and a great way to say thank you is to share the good vibes with them in the form of an impact report. Take a tally annually and publish the data that shows customers how their purchases have positively impacted your social enterprise and the artisan communities you collaborate with. It's a polite and motivating nod to the community that we’re all in this together, and it’s making progress.

If you see other companies out there working with artisans or perhaps you believe aren't operating with enough ethics and transparency, forward this article on to them. Lets all work together to encourage more responsible supply chains!

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