Socially responsible design and production is something I'm passionate about. I'm a partner in a textile design company called Stitch by Stitch that works with embroiderers and weavers in some of the poorest regions of India and Nepal. Our products are ethically produced, our artisans are paid fairly, and our business helps to preserve unique handicraft skills which are the life-blood of many local villages.
In a market where mass-production and big brands are ubiquitous, but can't always deliver quality or beauty, there is a growing interest in the hand-made. Customers want to own things that have a story, and are produced in a way that benefits the producer as well as the buyer. A growing number of designers are enjoying the challenge of meeting this demand head-on. It's not the easiest way to produce a product, but the end result is something unique, with intrinsic value.
Brooklyn-based ceramicist Daina Platis is currently on sabbatical in Nicaragua working with a cooperative of artisans who produce ceramics in the town of San Juan de Oriente. Since arriving in February, she has immersed herself in the culture, and got to know the artisan community and their work. ‘There is a lot of history to learn and understand,’ she says.
Ceramics by Daina Platis
Her plan is to develop an exclusive collection of ceramics for export to the USA which she will launch in 2013. She divides her time between volunteering with the cooperative - advising on their own marketing and selling, and holding workshops in mould-making (a technique new to the artisans) - and developing her own collection. ‘The overall goal is to collaborate with artisans to produce items that can be sold abroad as well as locally thus providing them with economic opportunities which previously they might not have had a chance to access,’ she explains.
A graduate of Parsons School of Design, the idea of using her design skills for social good came about during a project in her final year at college. After graduation, she worked for some time as a product designer in the home furnishings industry: ‘But I always wondered how the skills I have learned can make an impact in a community abroad, how design can be used for a social cause.’
UK textile design company Mumo was founded by Kirstin Samuel in 2010. Kirstin gave up her lucrative job with an investment bank in London to work and travel in Brazil. ‘If I was going to kill myself working, I wanted to do it for a good cause,’ she says. She was affected by the scale of poverty in the cities, and learnt how the lack of local employment was driving people into the big cities, endangering the Amazonian rain forest. ‘It was my first exposure to extreme poverty,’ she explains. ‘I'd travelled before but the shanty town I was working in broke my heart.’
Cushions by Mumo
Mumo's outward emphasis is on producing a luxury interior product. Cushions in striking geometric designs, inspired by the vibrant Brazilian culture, are digitally printed in the UK. But it is in the supply chain of textiles that Mumo's serious ethical credentials are realised. The company sources a diverse selection of sustainably produced textiles such as recycled hake skin leather, a bi-product of the fishing industry, which is tanned using non-toxic vegetal tanning agents (instead of toxic chrome), and ‘peace’ silk, farmed on pesticide-free land and harvested only once the silk worm has left the cocoon. A major recycling project in South America enables the production of a canvas textile made from recycled plastic bottles which Mumo uses for some of its cushions. The company has invested in a cooperative of 300 cotton farmers in northeast Brazil, and ships the cotton plume to a cooperative in Sao Paulo where it is spun into thread.
Danish textile designer Bess Nielsen launched Khadi & Co five years ago. "Khadi" means hand-spun and hand-woven cotton in India, and it is also the name of Gandhi's movement to improve India's economy and independence. Khadi & Co creates employment for whole villages in Kerala, Penjab and Bengal.
Cotton bags by Khadi & Co
Wicker is a material widely used in Chilean interiors. Young Chilean design company madeinMIMBRE produce a line of contemporary products in collaboration with a community of wicker growers and weavers in Chimbarongo in Chile. The company is known for reinterpreting this traditional material with its quirky furniture and lighting designs. Their latest collection is a line of six wicker lamps made in two parts which can be interchanged to produce 18 different funky designs.
Wicker lamps from madeinMIMBRE
Producing well-designed products is the main focus for all these companies, but their production values may gradually permeate the mainstream. Ethical production is becoming more accessible, with powerful organisations such as SEWA in Asia, which provides banking and business support for thousands of self-employed homeworkers, helping to bring this about. In the meantime, it's worth seeking out these small companies striving to design for social good.
Karen Sear Shimali studied textile design and followed a career in sales and marketing in the designer furniture industry for twenty years. She has also written articles for interior design trade publications such as FX Magazine. Karen recently set up textile design company Stitch by Stitch along with art college colleague Graham Hollick. She writes a regular blog at stitchbystitch.eu.