An ethical architecture for creative exchange

The question for Sangam 3: How can the user be creatively engaged to sustain ethical partnerships?

Creative products involve a supply chain that connects a wide variety of functions, including production, design, retail and consumption. Each link has a potentially creative contribution to make. The designer/artist develops a concept and gathers capital necessary for its realisation. The producer provides the skilled labour that gives the idea material form. And finally the user gathers the capital necessary to exchange for the product, then finds a place for it in their everyday life.

In industrial capitalism, the process of commodification tends to fragment this supply chain so there is little connection between those involved. The problems with this has become evident after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, exposing the hidden exploitation necessary to provide access to cheap clothing in the developed world.

The response to the death of 1227 garment workers has been to call for greater transparency in the textile industry. Newspaper features like ‘Right now we have nothing’ help consumers understand the experience of those who make their clothes. Is an ethical way forward therefore to make more visible the identities of workers in foreign factories?

We might begin with crafted products. While the names of those who make a mobile phone is seen by most as irrelevant, handmade products carry visible traces of those who made them. The connection they offer between the user and craftspersons gives value to the product, beyond its other properties as a thing in itself.

The traditional retail platform does not readily facilitate the user-producer connection. Few swing tags provide any information about production, beyond country of origin. On occasion, the shop assistant might tell the shopper a story about the origins of a product they are considering purchasing, but it does not lead to a reciprocal connection.

Online platforms offer a potentially more open space in which users can learn more about where products come from, and even make contact with individuals involved. ebay have had great success in enabling buyers to contact sellers and rate them for reliability and value. Amazon’s customer reviews provide a social network that connects users with each other. And Facebook’s ubiquitous ‘like’ button enables consumers to identify themselves publicly with particular products.

These corporations are now moving into the world craft sector. In 2010, ebay acquired World of Good and developed its ‘trustology’ system to market ethical handmade goods to consumers. In 2012, Amazon created Equal Craft, a ‘socially conscious marketplace’ that offered consumers an opportunity to leave messages for artisans they profile. In the meantime, other online craft platforms are proliferating with alternative products, styles, and modes of exchange.

There seems much potential in these developments. Like other online retailing, it offers consumers a greater range of goods and reduces the overheads of bricks and mortar stores. For handmade products, it potentially enhances the meaning of the product by providing the user with not only more information about the circumstances of their creation, but also a potential connection with the craftsperson. This is especially meaningful when it connects people from different worlds, such as the traditional village workshop and the modern city.

But there are questions. How do we know that the producer profiles are real, and not a clever marketing ploy? From a broader geopolitical perspective, does ethical consumption simply put a smiling face on the otherwise inequitable relationship between the rich and poor worlds? How comfortable are producers with having their identities exposed online to strangers? In order for these platforms to have a long-term value, it is important to have issues like these raised. But this should not deter us from making use of these platforms for an incremental improvement—as long as we keep key values as a horizon towards which future development can be oriented.

But is the opportunity broader than simply changing the platform on which crafted goods are exchanged. These questions presume that while the market platform might change, the products will remain the same. Can these online platforms provide a space for new products to emerge, which focus more on the stories behind and in front of them?

This question of how we distribute creative products informs the culmination of the three-year Sangam Project journey. The aim of the journey is to promote long-term partnerships between designers and craftspersons from Australia and India. Key to this is understanding each other’s interests. The first year concerned the issue of production, and considered the respect for making through practices such as attribution. The second year focused on design, in particular the issue of copying and need to honour the creative work. The final year moves to the interests of the user, without whom the products emerging from these partnerships would have no place in the world.

During the year, these new models will be explored in a number of roundtables in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Bangalore. If you are interested in participating in these, please send an email to [email protected]. The first will be in Brisbane on 9 July – see brisbaneroundtable4sangam.eventbrite.com.au.

Other ways of contributing will include:

  • Comments on this website
  • Comments on the Facebook group
  • Google Hangout meeting (to be announced)