From adversity to beauty

Oct 14, 2012

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It’s probably not good form to launch a website with a blog post criticising one of the biggest players in the field you are entering. But using MADE as an example highlights one of the reasons M&T was founded so we’re going to jump right in anyway.

MADE are one of the UK’s most successful ‘ethical’ fashion brands. With concessions in Topshop, John Lewis, Jigsaw, and many other high street retailers, they provide employment for artisans living in Nairobi’s largest slum through selling their handmade jewellery and leather goods to a UK market. So far, so good.

However, dig a little deeper into their marketing, and buried beneath the beautiful jewellery is a marketing message that disempowers and perpetuates stereotypes about people living in Africa.

This sequence of stills is taken from their promotional film.

If this leaves you wanting more you can watch the film in full.

There are several issues about this marketing that immediately jump out and hit me in the face.

The poor Africans

Let’s start with the word adversity, meaning difficulties or misfortune. Kibera is reputably Africa’s largest slum, and  there are definitely many difficulties faced by the 170,000 strong population there including a lack of access to electricity and running water.

However, there is much more to Kibera than this ‘adversity’ and the film clips of ramshackle housing, dirty children and rubbish dumps. Reinforcing this image further perpetuates the stereotype of needy, powerless, nameless ‘Africans’ looking to their white superiors for assistance.

There are stories of joy, hope, endurance and achievement from Kibera, which much better reflect the people who live there and the complexity of their ‘adversity’. An organisation trying to show this complexity is Hot Sun Foundation, a youth-led non-profit that trains young people in Kibera to tell their own stories through film in the way they want them to be told. Their trailer for the first ever Kibera Film School paints a different picture of life in the slum to that painted by MADE.

Beauty is white, thin and partially naked

After presenting the adversity of those living in Kibera, the scene is set for the white Western humanitarians to come and  generously donate their superior knowledge in order to help the poor Africans to improve their lives. Beauty comes from this adversity, in the form of a thin, white, woman, naked but for a large necklace.

Is this really the only type of beauty that can be found in Kibera? Is this the type of beauty that people living in Kibera want? This sequence suggests at best that beauty can only be found through making Western designs of jewellery, and at worst, that beauty is possessed only by women who are thin and white.

Of course, there is beauty in the fact that those who work in MADE’s workshop have employment, but I question the basis for which beauty is only found because they are adapting to Western needs and selling to a Western market.

The value of traditional handicrafts

In this age of globalisation when everyone wants to buy McDonalds and wear Ray Bans, we have a responsibility in the West to ensure that we put effort into supporting local communities and cultures to preserve their traditions and crafts rather than subsuming their culture for the sake of making items that fit within our cultures.

I was encouraged to see that MADE are selling some products based on the traditions of their artisans, including this Maasai beaded friendship bracelet. They even include a small paragraph telling you about the Maasai people.

In a business model so focused on making products that appeal to a Western market, I hope that MADE can develop a way of placing value on the traditional crafts and traditions of the people they are employing, and discover a beauty that is not dependent on Western input or white thin models.

Our approach

We love MADE’s ‘Trade not Aid’ philosophy, and the fact that they are bringing employment and economic opportunity to Kibera. Likewise, we believe that working with local artisans to help them access Western markets will improve their economic situations and can in many situations be much more effective than large aid programmes where little of the huge sums invested trickles down to grassroots communities.

However, one of our key values is to emphasise local traditions and techniques and to place value on the cultures that they represent. In Central Asia, the region we are focusing on, years of Soviet rule practically destroyed many local crafts traditions, and only twenty years later are artisan communities in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan beginning to thrive once more.

All of our products are designed by local artisans based on traditional designs and techniques. We have worked with some of our producers to help them improve the quality of their products, while with others we have simply suggested a few minor adaptations in order to better adapt to a Western market. With all the artisans we work with we have listened to their stories of the techniques they are using, and our aim is that through selling to a wider audience a sense of pride and value will be imparted.

Some might say that what we are doing isn’t unique enough- we are on one level simply buying products from artisans and selling them in the UK. We’re not paying them to design Western products that we can make a larger profit on due to the cheap labour involved.

What we are doing is sharing the traditions, cultures and crafts of an incredible part of the world with people in the UK – and empowering the artisans we work with through giving them the chance to show how their crafts are made. We’re also providing them with the opportunity to gain valuable additional income, and we’re donating at least 50% of our profits directly back to organisations in Central Asia working in microfinance and to improve people’s livelihoods.

If that isn’t unique enough- we guarantee that you won’t find any half-naked thin white girls marketing our products.

PS For some more tips on how to write about Africa, see this helpful article.


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