Often when we purchase anything made in a developing country, we expect those products to be on the affordable end of the spectrum. For decades developed countries have exploited and taken advantage of the developing world by undervaluing their work.
Yet the hands of artisans in developing countries are just as skilled, often with cultural traditional practices. So why does their work get undervalued so much?
In this article, I’ll talk about the issues with undervaluing artisans from developing countries; and I’ll introduce you to a brand that is elevating Latina culture through their artisan bath and body product line.
Exploitation in the Developing World
It’s been no big secret over the years that Western civilization has exploited developing countries (1). We see it in just about every industry. Companies choose to manufacture their products in developing countries to save money on labor and materials; while brands carelessly overharvest native ingredients to the point of extinction.
There are a number of issues that arise from exploitation. Here are a few: (3,4)
- Child labor
- Forced overtime
- Grossly underpaid
- Unsafe working conditions
- Discrimination against women
- Abuse and worker mistreatment
- Overharvesting of ingredients
- Environmental damage
In 2013, you may remember, the Rana Plaza collapse (5). This was an eight-storey building in Bangladesh that contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several shops. Cracks were discovered in the building’s structure, so the bank and shops closed. However, the clothing factory workers were instructed to continue to attend work. The building collapsed that week, killing 1134 people, and injuring around 2500.
This incident is not the first of its kind, although it is the deadliest on record. Every year, it’s estimated around 1.4 million injuries occur just in the fashion industry alone due to poor working conditions in garment factories (10).
It’s not only the fashion industry that is a cause for concern. Any industry where chemicals are used, such as agriculture and beauty, has long been an issue for developing countries. The chemicals used in these industries are known to cause health problems for workers and for surrounding towns and villages.
Take cotton, for example. For cotton to grow, pesticides and fertilizers are required, but many plantations are unregulated. Particularly non-organic cotton farms, the pesticides affect air quality, and many workers can suffer respiratory conditions and lung disease (12).
For factories with loud machinery, proper PPE—like earplugs—is often not supplied to workers, leaving their hearing exposed and vulnerable. Health problems arise for workers who sit or stand all day when they are not provided with ergonomic seating or solutions. And medical benefits or mental health support is not considered in any way for workers in developing countries (10).
The beauty industry is also guilty of unethical and unsustainable practices. Many ingredients used in the beauty industry are derived from nature in unique parts of the world—often they are plants that are found only in areas of developing countries. The farmers of these plantations are often subjected to exploitation, and the demand for natural ingredients has led to overharvesting.
Artisans are defined as workers in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand. Art is so subjective, yet we put a monetary value on people’s art, and often that price is low unless you’re a well-known artist.
And if you’re an artisan from a developing country, the price is even lower. But one would argue that artisans from developing countries are often more skilled than those from developed countries. This is due to two reasons:
- Cultural craftsmanship
- Overworked means more experience
Often the skills that artisans learn have been passed on through generations. For example, the hand painted Talavera tiles made from a specific clay found in Puebla, Mexico (13). What started as Spanish influence in the 1500s, has become one of Mexico's most recognizable artisanal products.
Then there’s African weaving, a traditional craft that involves spinning and looming fabric. This is a craft that is passed on through families. Being recognized as an accomplished weaver is often a source of family pride in Africa (14).
In America, mostly white people with money tend to be the founders of creative new businesses. This is known as craft culture, where they open a microbrewery, or a traditional butcher, or a small batch whiskey business. As stated in an article by Lauren Michele Jackson in Eater, “This craft culture tells mostly white stories for mostly white consumers and they always sound the same… it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful.”
She basically talks about the cultural appropriation of traditional skills that people of color created or brought to America. “—the America of the 1700s and 1800s was literally crafted by people of color.”. It’s an interesting and insightful piece, I recommend you read it.
Overworked Means More Experience
The fact that artisans in developing countries are exploited for their craftsmanship—although ethically immoral—means that they have more experience to refine and hone those skills.
One thing we’re seeing more of as of late are brands taking a stand against this culture of exploitation. The Artisan Alliance is just one company that is leading the charge (15). Founded in 2012, it has:
… cultivated a learning community of more than 200 artisan businesses and support organizations, increased access to finance through a first-of-its-kind small loan program for artisan entrepreneurs, and provided targeted technical assistance and training to artisan business owners across the globe.
Other brands that are doing their part to create a more inclusive and empowering future for artisans in developing countries are sustainable beauty brand Axiology, who have partnered with female paper recycling collective in Bali to produce all of their paper packaging; African female collective Soko, who connect African jewelry artisans to the world; or Jaline, a sustainable fashion brand who employs the traditional weaving skills of women in Oaxaca, Mexico to manufacture an entire collection in honor of their culture.
Another brand that’s paving the way to elevate people of color, namely Mexico, is Nopalera. It is a bath and body product line that was handcrafted by Mexican-American Sandra Lilia Velasquez. The concept behind the brand came to Sandra when she realized that Mexican products were undervalued and considered cheap, particularly in the US. Yet consumers will happily pay top dollar for similar products that were manufactured in countries like France.
“People don’t appreciate the level of artistry from Mexico. They want cheap Mexican products… I want to make high-end products that play in that space and show Mexican products are just as good and high-end as products from France.”
Nopalera is considered a “clean beauty” brand, as the formulations contain minimal and high quality naturally-derived ingredients. Rice bran oil, coconut oil, shea butter, cocoa seed butter, and castor seed oil are a few of the ingredients used in Nopalera’s formulas.
One of the key ingredients used in all of their products, which gave Nopalera its name, is nopal—or cactus. Nopal is an abundant and renewable resource that can be found in the southern States of the USA, and throughout Mexico. Regardless of its abundance, Sandra sources nopal through wildcrafting, a technique of farming where the ingredient is sourced from its natural habitat, without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. Wildcrafting is done with integrity, so the plant is never overharvested, and is able to thrive in future seasons.
Traditional Mexican cultures have used nopal for centuries for things like food, skincare, textiles, and even building materials. Sandra was surprised that beauty brands were not utilizing this botanical to its greatest potential.
Nopalera products consist of three different soaps, an exfoliating scrub, and a moisturizing body bar. Everything comes in low or zero-waste packaging, and is nourishing and hydrating; perfect for the change in weather.
All three soaps are formulated with the same core ingredients of Rice Bran Oil, Coconut Oil, Water, Shea Butter, Cocoa Seed Butter, Castor Seed Oil, and Nopal, for hydration and nourishment.
Flor de Mayo: Kaolin White Clay and Iron Oxide, and Jasmine Flower Extract. This soap is great for all skin types, gives skin a deep and luxurious clean.
Noche Clara: Charcoal Powder, Eucalyptus Globulus Leaf Oil, and Sage Oil. This soap is deeply cleansing, draws out impurities and exfoliates skin gently.
Planta Futura: Mica, Titanium dioxide, Chromium oxide green, and Lemongrass Oil. My favorite of the three soaps, this leaves skin nourished and gives skin a slight exfoliation.
This exfoliant is the perfect addition to the cooler months. It’s formulated using sugar and a blend of oils to slough away dead skin, and perfectly hydrate. It comes in a glass jar.
The most unique of Nopalera’s range is their waterless moisturizing body bar. It’s a lotion bar that comes in a tin, so it’s plastic-free and lightweight, perfect for travel. The formula is hydrating and nourishing, and it smells absolutely divine.
The beauty industry has a long way to go, but with founders like Sandra leading the way and bringing to light the importance of elevation and inclusion of minority groups, it’s only a matter of time before we see some real improvements in the industry as a whole.
Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.
Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition