Imports and Exportmania

"The industrial revolution promised us richness and variety. What do we have now? Wash and wear." These wry words from the designer-craftsman of a major U.S. importer of exotic crafts sum up the disillusionment of the Western world with the deadening predictability of mass-produced merchandise.

In the past twenty-five years, crafts have become an emblem of enlightenment, a last-ditch defense against high technology. Ironically the West is hungry for what many nations are keen to abandon in their struggle towards industrialization, progress and stature in the modern world. To ensure their, survival Third World artisans must turn to distant rather than indigenous markets, their lives and products changing in the process. The future of crafts are now dependent on their consumption as adornment in alien life styles where they represent a modish rebuttal to established values.

The ever-growing demand for exotic crafts in the Western world has led to a commercial bonanza. The economic potential of crafts has led some major sources, such as India, to offer incentives to exporters, creating another commercial bonanza on the producing end of the continuum.

What are called crafts or handicrafts encompasses as wide a range of objects as there are markets for them. First, there are objects made for use within a culture, sometimes for distant markets, but with a common understanding between producer and consumer as to specifications and use, e.g. basketry, pottery and textiles. Others, either sumptuary goods or certain religious and ritual objects, are made in limited quantities. Then there is what many countries regard as junk or rubbish, used or old-fashioned objects that find a ready market in the West; depletion usually propels this material into the realm of "art."

A second class of goods includes those traditionally produced for an external market. Souvenir or arts are not entirely a phenomenon of the 20th century; many of India's export industries in wood, brass and paper mache were begun in the nineteenth century. The goods were not necessarily cheap, although cheaper than equivalents in the West. Most crafts geared towards a foreign market are made with some intention to convey local flavour by employing easily identifiable symbols or motifs such as the Taj Mahal.

Yet a third category of objects bears all the earmarks of what buyers perceive as authentic but which are actually fabrications, clever facsimiles of "folk" art. In time, however, these forms acquire their own traditions and a place for themselves in the producers' culture.

The crafts import industry can be divided into three main categories (A.D. Little for the World Crafts Council 1974). These are the straightforward commercial enterprises, where profits dominate; the alternative marketing organizations (AMOs), where profit to the producer is a paramount concern, and lastly, Starkey and Dulansey term "compassionate importers" who look out for themselves and their suppliers (Starkey and Dulansey 1976). Of the three, commercial ventures monopolize 95 percent of the market (estimated in 1975 to be $250 million and rapidly growing) and exert a great deal of leverage over the producers they buy from. Although large importers are not usually concerned with increasing returns to artisans, this is not always the case. One finds compassion in this sector and rapacity among the compassionate importers."

Commercial importers may be wholesalers or direct importers: they are usually independent firms dominated by a family business mentality (Little 1974). They are located in major metropolitan areas, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, although their representatives travel throughout the U.S. Many have showrooms, and most importers large or small are represented at various trade shows - gift, boutique, jewelry, and so forth.

There is no set pattern for operations in exporting countries. Some established firms work through agents with whom they maintain strong ties of loyalty and trust.

Direct importing on a large scale is a more recent phenomenon, typified by Cost Plus of San Francisco, Pier I, Azuma, India Imports, and World Bazaar, some of which are retail outlets supplied by direct importers/wholesalers. Of these Cost Plus is the most noteworthy since in the late 1950s it promoted "self-service" marketing in a warehouse atmosphere, now commonplace in hundreds of import stores in the U.S. and Europe. The rapid popularity of this type of store prompted Pier I, a spin-off of Cost Plus, to expand nationwide and abroad. Cost Plus, however, has remained a family business, surviving imitators and competitors.

Major direct importers maintain offices abroad or work through agents. In some instances, not always successful, the company initiates craft schemes by providing capital, equipment and technical advice. Nowadays, even stores like Woolworth's carry imported crafts, a testimonial to their incorporation into mainstream American life.

Even more of a testimonial is when department stores act not only as direct importers but as purveyors of culture alongside shirts and bedsheets. Recognizing how thoroughly captivated the public has become by the exotic, department stores now stage promotions of handicrafts of countries such as India (the Ultimate Fantasy at Bloomingdale's in 1979) or glorify cultures dramatically different from urban America, such as Macy's excursions into the Amazon.

In some instances, lip-service is given to what such exhibits do for the countries involved, but the most important concern is to draw customers into the store with novelty and theatre. It does not matter why the cash register rings.

Most department stores are parts of chains; some have permanent offices in exporting countries. These are usually staffed by cosmopolitan nationals who can work very well with department store buyers but often lack either the knowledge or the stamina necessary for sustained collaboration with artisans who often work in unattractive surroundings. Of commercial importers, department stores can be the most ruthless in dealing with suppliers. Fashion retailing demands projections at least a year ahead, leaving little tolerance for the inevitable vagaries of production by hand. Furthermore, fashion is capricious. Artisans are ordered to change the form or surface decoration of an object in quick succession; art deco one year, Tantric motifs the next. The traditional look of a piece is less important than what is fleetingly modish.

AMOs, many of which resulted from missionary endeavours, focus on the producer. In the U.S. the most important AMO is SERRV, (Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocations) which works in over 60 countries. Goods are sold through shops, more than 1000 church and women's groups, and a catalogue, similar to England's OXFAM. Among other AMOs are the International Program for Human Resources Development, UNICEF shops. Starkey and Dulansey conclude that the non-profit nature of AMOs and their small share of the market makes their task more one of helping producers match their products to the appropriate buyer, organize new ways of doing business and understand and cope with the rigors of sizing uniformity and timely delivery.

Compassionate importers, sometimes referred to as hippie capitalists, fall between the first two categories. They may buy directly from producers, Peace Corps or AMO projects, or local markets. Objects are often imported with little or no modification; compassionate importers usually have an intimate and precise knowledge of their markets. Authenticity, marks of age or use, and natural materials, are all characteristics of imports in this group. The price range varies tremendously even in a single importer's inventory. Occasionally, importers innovate within the possibilities of a craft, but let the craftsman work out new forms, taking care that artisans are justly compensated for exacting work which is later sold at extremely high prices.

Consumers are either amazed that crafts can be sold as cheaply as they are, or if they have been to the countries involved, complain about the markups. The highest markups, at department store and interior decorator showrooms, range from 300-700% of the price paid to producers. If these stores act as direct importers, the margin of profit is quite high; otherwise, the retail price is double the price paid to the wholesaler. When goods arrive in the U.S. the wholesaler's cost is 150-180% of the original price. Direct importers of the Cost Plus variety usually sell at a 300% markup, actually a low margin, compensated for in volume, turnover, and low overheads. Although craft exports are assumed to improve the lot of the individual artisan, high markups do not mean that producers will receive much money unless they become middlemen or entrepreneurs, sub-contracting export orders to others.

The place of crafts in modern life is a fascinating issue on ideological, cultural, and economic grounds. Some argue that since artisans never make much money, what right have we to insist on the continuation of handicrafts. If we want crafts to conform to our vision of tradition and authenticity, we will eventually have to say farewell to them. Many artisans have inherited skills imbibed and practiced from childhood, and are not able to switch occupations as readily. Their children, however, are reluctant to pursue what seem to be unprofitable enterprises; thus, many crafts are dying out.

One interesting development over the last twenty-five years, is a new appreciation of indigenous crafts in their countries of origin. This appreciation is more economic than cultural, however. In India, at the high point of export-fever in the mid-1970s, crafts were assessed in terms of their export potential, but even so, people involved in the crafts saw the need for expanding indigenous markets. In India the craft export question is a hotly debated issue among the public and private organizations devoted to the enterprise.

While one Indian authority on crafts contends that as a result of exports, crafts flourish now as they have not in centuries. Others equally emphatically state that the abuses induced by export mean that "fragile" crafts will collapse with the artisan the greatest victim.

Some crafts can be adapted better to external markets than others, especially those tied to fashion. In India, these are the semi-automated craft industries such as shisham wood objects from Saharanpur, or brass from Moradabad, which along with bedspreads are the two main categories of Indian volume exports to the U.S. The textile industries have long supplied internal and external markets, so adaptation does not bring about undesirable consequences.

Far more vulnerable are crafts which have been "discovered" for their decorative potential. Often two or three dimensional religious images, these crafts are made from a variety of materials. There is an accelerated demand for pichvais, temple hangings. Bronze casters in South India are sometimes exhorted to omit disturbing iconographic details; some have refused. Potters, who live closer to the edge, have little choice but to go along with schemes even if it means assembly-line production of religious images now made in parts for easy packing and export. Makers of printed and painted temple hangings demanding a mastery of iconographic detail are asked to produce cushion covers. In most of these instances, discomfiture and dissonance are over-ridden. However, foreign buyers are not always as villainous or uninformed as many Indian counterparts may be, and furthermore, both Indian and foreign markets may have the buying power and the patience to commission work of greater importance in the traditional vein.

The examples are endless, but the lesson is that adaptation is going to bring about changes, and that tragic losses such as the collapse of the Kashmir shawl industry in the 19th century must be kept in mind when crafts are tied too closely to fashion. The loss of some forms is accompanied by the generation of others, such as some energetically marketed fabricated folk arts, an instance of transfer of appropriate technology in a culturally sympathetic context. In time everything takes on the patina of use and tradition so that now nineteenth century export wares and tourist pieces appeal to us.

It is interesting to note that Birdwood, writing in 1880 and Watt in 1903 were in despair over the future of Indian crafts, what they termed industrial arts, they were seen as crowded with mongrel art forms as a result of European society and education, the mindless copying of British models, the over-elaborate application of stereotypic surface decoration and an over-all tendency to the cheap and nasty. Saharanpur wood carving and the export brassware, then of Benares, were particularly singled out by Watt, but were by no means the only affected crafts.

The message is clearly one of hope rather than despair. For even if as Edmund Carpenter says, "When we walk through the cobwebs, we destroy them", we must not underestimate the ingenuity of the spider.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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