Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


At the 1998 TSA Symposium in New York City, we presented a paper that documented the work of three textile artisan enterprises. All embraced a fair trade approach to their work. Known as Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs), these enterprises are deeply committed to a mission of sustainable, people-centered development (Littrell and Dickson 1997). More specifically, this fair trade partnership between textile artisans and retailers involves joint commitment to:

• paying fair wages within a local context,

• providing healthy and safe working conditions,

• sustaining the environment,

• promoting capacity building through business and technical training, and

• honoring cultural identity as a stimulus for textile product development.

Following from that paper, in our 1999 book, Social Responsibility in the Global Market (1999), we boldly contended that as a philosophy, fair trade fosters empowerment and improved quality of life for artisans through an integrated and sustained system of trade partnerships. However, since 1999, as we became more engaged in broader issues of corporate responsibility, particularly as related to apparel sweatshops, we began to question whether goals of worker empowerment were in fact being reached among textile artisan enterprises organized under a fair trade philosophy.

With a grant from the Earthwatch Institute and the assistance of 24 Earthwatch research volunteers from around the globe, we are in the process of assessing the impacts of artisan work on women’s capabilities, livelihood, and quality of life for the textile artisans involved with MarketPlace: Handwork of India, an ATO and one of the three groups described at the 1988 TSA symposium. The insights we offer in this paper come from our initial interpretation of the interviews with approximately 100 of the women.

As a part of the research process, 30 of the MarketPlace artisans used cameras to photo-document and discuss their daily lives and work. Through many of the photos the artisans took, the women offered a pictorial perspective of their households and their work. The research tool of photoelicitation has been employed as a valuable field research tool for informants to produce images of themselves that introduce their own criteria for self-assessing their lives (Roncoli and Sendze 1997). Through photos, informants offer a voice that might not be heard in shaping how their quality of life is discussed and analyzed (Karp 1999).