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13 December, 2021
It can be hard to maintain ethical values during the festive months. Christmas - that season of generosity and cheer - is also notorious for its culture of consumerism and overconsumption. Yet, as we come to the end of a year that has witnessed one of the most severe global public health crises in living history, as well as the escalation of conflict in countries including Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan and Myanmar, the need to support and uphold cultures around the world through conscious consumption has never been greater.
Our guide is a celebration of craft, human endeavour and the gift of giving, flying the flag for the social collectives and impact brands that work in collaboration with skilled makers in some of the most challenged contexts around the world. Trading in goods ranging from Burmese baskets to handblown Afghan glassware, these ethical brands support traditional artistry while empowering communities to build thriving businesses of their own.
When photographer Nora Lorek and writer Nina Strochlic met in the sprawling South Sudanese refugee camp of Bidibidi in Uganda while on assignment for National Geographic, they had no idea that they would leave the settlement as co-founders of a new non-profit project supporting a women's traditional sewing collective.
Having asked several women what they'd brought from home when they'd been forced to flee South Sudan, Lorek had been surprised to hear the same answer from many: "Nothing, except for some clothes wrapped in my bedsheet." Curious to learn more about the significance of these sheets, she asked around and was soon shown her first "milaya" - an ornate bedsheet intricately decorated with hand-embroidered birds, flowers and other delicately rendered designs. The tradition of sewing milayas had been passed down from the women's mothers and grandmothers, with the sheets hung on walls, included in marriage dowries and used in funeral ceremonies. They were also the only thing that many of the refugees now had left with them from home.
As the second-largest refugee camp in the world, Bidibidi is home to almost 300,000 displaced people, more than 80 per cent of whom are women who have lost their husbands, brothers or sons to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. Work is scarce and most mothers now support their children alone, as well as, in many cases, the orphans of their friends and relatives.
Rose Jaun is one of these mothers. Arriving in Bidibidi with six children and two bedsheets, she set up a collective for women to sew and sell their milayas as a way to supplement their ever-dwindling food rations. "It gives us time to talk and share thoughts, and an income," she told Lorek. But without a decent market for the bedsheets in Uganda, where milayas are often machine-made and sold at a much cheaper price, many women were putting themselves in danger by returning to South Sudan just to sell their work.
Captivated by the women's incredible craftsmanship and determined to share their designs with the rest of the world, Lorek and Strochlic created The Milaya Project, a non-profit organisation that supports Bidibidi collectives, including Rose Jaun's, by giving their work a platform and connecting the makers to customers around the world. Founded to preserve the culture of milaya-making, the project now sells throw pillows, wall hangings and milayas through its online shop, with each item featuring traditional designs embroidered by a woman in Bidibidi.
London-based collective Ishkar is another brand working with artisans to preserve the traditional craftsmanship of war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Mali. Set up by Edmund Le Brun and Flore de Taisne, after they had been living in Afghanistan for three years, the platform works to uphold artisanal skills and heritage techniques that are otherwise in danger of being lost altogether.
"Our work is primarily about providing a framework for economic opportunity," says creative director Electra Simon. Although numerous good charity workshops and training programmes exist for artisans in countries at war, there are many barriers - both real and imagined - that make it incredibly hard for makers to get their products out to the rest of the world. "Our artisans are empowered by being able to sell traditional craftsmanship from their country to the rest of the world," Simon continues, explaining that Ishkar's work is also about moving past the one-sided narratives so often associated with countries in conflict.
In Africa, meanwhile, Yewo is a socially minded enterprise based in the village of Manchewe, a small, close-knit community in the mountains of Malawi's Northern Region. Founded by couple Maddy McAllister and Kyle Snell, the jewellery brand creates ethical employment for one of the most remote and impoverished communities in the country; providing in-house job training and reliable salaries for unemployed villagers, most of whom had never had a formal job or stable income before starting work at Yewo.
"Manchewe is a very rural village. We're at least three hours away from any kind of town," McAllister explains. "We only hire local people, so it's incredibly rewarding to see how the jobs we've created have transformed the area. Grass roofs have now been upgraded to tin, and the economy has really grown," she says.
Being a people-first company is one of Yewo's key principles: all of its makers receive access to individual healthcare funds, savings accounts and interest-free loans, as well as 26 days of annual paid leave and two daily meals in the initiative's solar- powered warehouse. "We want to make sure we create stable, sustainable incomes," McAllister explains, "so we pay our artisans a fixed salary each month, rather than simply buying individual pieces."
In Myanmar, however, buying individual crafts from artisans around the country is how Kalinko believes it can make a real impact. Founded by Sophie Garnier in 2016, with a mission to connect talented Burmese artisans to the rest of the world, Kalinko trades in handmade homewares made by Burmese craftspeople.
"In a country where so many people live on hand-to-mouth incomes, buying as much stock as we can from our artisans allows them to keep making the traditional crafts they are so proud of," says Garnier.
It has long been understood that the act of giving feels better than receiving. The Milaya Project, Ishkar, Yewo and Kalinko prove this adage in spades, while taking it one step further: they pay it forward.
The Colombia Collective works in collaboration with artisan entrepreneurs in Colombia to create homewares and accessories that fuse traditional techniques with modern design. With a vision to develop sustainable economic growth for indigenous communities, the collective aims to preserve diverse ancestral craft cultures for generations to come.
Set up by photojournalist Thomas James Parrish and his photographer father Mark Parrish, Prints for Afghanistan raises money for Kabul-based charity AfghanAid while preserving, through photography, a memory of Afghanistan free from war.
Conceived to challenge perceptions and move understanding beyond the headlines, Ishkar trades in craftsmanship from countries at war, preserving traditional artisanship and providing a platform for economic opportunity, even in the most challenging of environments.
The Milaya Project is a non-profit working with female artists living in Uganda's Bidibidi refugee settlement to sell their embroidered throw pillows, wall hangings and bedsheets, known as milayas. Supporting Bidibidi refugees, the project is also helping to preserve the tradition of milaya-making.
Based in the mountains of northern Malawi, Yewo supports ethical employment for local makers through the design and creation of thoughtfully made jewellery. With a strong focus on environmental sustainability, Yewo produces its jewellery through responsible, low-impact production methods.
Showcasing handicrafts created by Burmese makers, Kalinko connects artisans with customers around the globe. Providing skilled work for talented craftsmen, the collective's vision is to fill homes across the world with handmade homewares with a difference that will make a difference.