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Blog posts of '2014' 'May'

Reducing Impact, Recycling Inspiration

In today’s struggle to preserve the earth for future generations, the inclusion of people in developing countries is more important than ever. Not only are those in developing countries more at risk for health problems caused by environmental factors, without their participation in taking measures to combat environmental problems, there is little chance of seeing real change. As fair trade producers operating within the principles of fair trade as defined by the World Fair Trade Organization, Unique Batik is committed to using materials sourced sustainably, minimizing waste, and using production techniques that reduce environmental impact.

Environmental risk factors across the globe are “greatest for the poor and vulnerable populations in developing countries,” says the WHO’s Health and Environment Linkages Initiative. This brings an even greater sense of urgency to our need to not only stop environmental impact but to reverse it. For example, deforestation, one of the greatest environmental issues in Guatemala, is both exacerbated by the poor rural populations who must make use of whatever resources they can find, and puts them at risk for further tragedy such as the 2005 landslides that killed more than 1500 people. In order to prevent the continued disappearance of Guatemala’s forest, there must be other employment options for its people.

Fair trade seeks to create employment opportunities that offer not only the financial means to preserve the environment, but to do it in a way that is intentional in reducing the impact of productions. Outside of the production of our crafts, Unique Batik also participates in other environmental initiatives. There is the everyday, such as recycling at our home office in Raleigh, NC, and riding our bikes to work. There is also the truly inspired, such as a project in Guatemala that takes mundane trash such as the plastic bags and wrappers and the ubiquitous plastic water bottle, and turns them into eco bricks that are donated to build homes for the poor. With little infrastructure in the rural area of Lake Atitlan, there is trash but nowhere to put it other than scattered about the ground in otherwise picturesque villages (at worst) or in a giant pile on the mountainside (at best). By stuffing the bags and wrappers into the plastic bottles until they become sturdy and solid, the bottles can then be used as “bricks” in building adobe homes and other structures.

Despite the many challenges to environmental sustainability in developing countries, in some ways their people could teach those in the Global North a lot about reducing, repurposing, and recycling. The people with whom we work are masters of recycling -- wasting almost nothing. Some of the recycled materials they use include: textiles, metal, plastic, and glass. These recycling techniques may be as straightforward as using recycled glass bottles to make glass beads or as whimsical as making bangles out of broken guitar strings. We at Unique Batik are proud to work with artisans whose creativity and ingenuity can rescue items that would otherwise go to waste and instead transform them into beautiful and useful products. Somehow, it seems appropriate that in a fair trading relationship, inspiration and knowledge are not a one-way thing. It is through working together that we can make an impact for good, both on the lives of producers and on this world we all share.

Tres Estrellas: A Story of Transformation

One of the most beautiful things about fair trade is the way it transforms things. It transforms people who have oppression into people who have opportunity. It transforms beggars into businessmen. It transforms kids on the street into kids in the classroom. And sometimes, with a little creativity, it turns trash into treasure.

Take the humble guitar string. People have been playing guitars (or guitar-like instruments) for over three thousand years, and steel strings have been in use since around 1900. If you’ve ever played a guitar, you know how frequently the strings break or have to be replaced, but have you ever thought about what happens to those strings when they are discarded? Are they recycled, do they end up in a landfill, or what? One Unique Batik artisan group is transforming recycled guitar strings into fun bracelets, bangles, and rings, and in the process, they are creating not just jewelry, but jobs.

Tres Estrellas, located in the Canton Pujujil region on the edge of Lake Atitlán, was founded in 1995 in response to the dire poverty of the people in the region. Or, as co-founder, Juan Par, put it, “so that people would not die of hunger.” The Guatemalan Civil War, which began in 1960, plagued the country for more than thirty years. The Maya people were particularly targeted by government death squads, forced disappearances, and a scorched earth policy. After decades of war and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it is no surprise that rebuilding has been a long and arduous process.

Many Maya women were left widowed by the war, desperate to find ways to feed and care for their families. Today, most of the young women in the Tres Estrellas artisan group are children of widows. The group is made up of thirteen women, ages 22 - 45 years old. When there is not enough work making jewelry, the women supplement their income making traditional baskets, but because there is so much competition in the basket market, their income from selling baskets is about half of what they can earn making jewelry with the group. Group leader Juan and his wife, Maria, design and develop the products and provide training and technical assistance to the other group members. Juan has been a hard worker since he was a child working in the coffee and cotton fields with his father, and is grateful that this employment has allowed him to provide for his family and educate his eight children.


The biggest challenge for the group is to create enough work for the artisans, who are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their community in the aftermath of such a long and brutal war. With each unique guitar ring and bracelet that they make, they get a little closer to that long awaited dream. We hope that you will love our Unique Batik guitar jewelry not only because it is funky and cool and old-into-new, but because you want to be a part of transforming struggle into success. Together, we can do it - one string at a time.

Artisan Spotlight: Carmelita Ramos

Sparkling beads dance across her hands as Carmelita Ramos creates earrings and bracelets to sell to customers in the distant land of the United States. Her dreams of earning a living and educating her children were once just as distant, but through her work and creativity and her connection with fair trade, those dreams have become a reality. Carmelita’s story did not begin so differently from that of many, many other women in Guatemala. Being able to sell her handicrafts to a fair trade company like Unique Batik has given her the hand up -- not handout -- that changed the course of her life.

Born into a family of thirteen children in the rural mountain village of San Jorge in the department of Solola, Carmelita’s challenges in life started early. None of the girls in her family were sent to school. This is still true for many girls in Guatemala; of the two million children who do not attend school, most are indigenous girls living in rural areas. In fact, 90% of these girls do not attend secondary school. Carmelita was no exception.

With no education, Carmelita’s options were few. She became a maid at a young age, which is a typical path, with 98% of domestic workers being women and 70% of domestic workers being indigenous Maya. However, Carmelita’s story took a turn when, through her employers, she began making jewelry to sell for export. She immediately showed promise as a designer, creating an original bracelet featuring bamboo and making oven mitts out of scrap fabric. For her first significant order, she received a paycheck of Q1200 (the equivalent of $150 US dollars).  It brought tears to her eyes because she had never seen a Q100 note.

Carmelita’s creativity and ingenuity have been a big factor in her success as an artisan. Now part of a jewelry making cooperative of eleven people, all family members, Carmelita sources the beading materials herself and trains co-op members how to make new jewelry designs. Unlike many other artisans in the area, when Carmelita’s group creates exclusive new designs for a customer, they do not sell them to anyone else. The group members work from their own homes, but confer on pricing, production, and any other issues that might come up.

Today, not only has Carmelita’s story defied expectations, but her leadership of the artisan co-op has influenced the lives of many others. Her own daughter, Maria, has graduated with a degree in business administration.  She has partially paid for her education and transportation to school through part-time work making beaded jewelry with the artisan co-op. Another group member, Marta, has five children, for whom Marta desperately wanted an education. Her husband did not support her dream, but through her earnings as an artisan, all of Marta’s children have gone to school.  Since the time her jewelry work began, Carmelita and her husband, Juan, have gone from living with her mother-in-law to buying their own land and building a two-story cement block house -- an extraordinary accomplishment for a woman who started with no education and no means.

The journey has not been without its challenges. Competition in the area is fierce for beaders, keeping their wages low. There is even a “bead mafia” which controls the availability of beads, so Carmelita’s group is not always able to source the colors they need. US buyers are not always reliable, and it is the long-term, fair trade relationship with Unique Batik that has made a difference in the success of Carmelita’s group. Ten years ago, a US buyer placed a big order for beaded jewelry from women in Carmelita’s village, then pulled out without paying the women for their work. A mutual acquaintance gave Carmelita Unique Batik owner Sharon Gale’s phone number. Carmelita called Sharon for help, and that began the relationship between Unique Batik and Carmelita’s cooperative.

Carmelita’s talent as a designer is special, but without the opportunities created by fair trade purchases, even with all her hard work and creativity, the story might not have such a happy ending. Given the opportunity to be treated with integrity and turn her gifts into a secure life for her family, Carmelita has transformed her own narrative. Thanks for being part of her happy ending!