Fair to Trade Christmas decorations
Wednesday, 21 October 2020 | Joanna
We've been working with our Christmas decorations suppliers, Fair to Trade, since 2013. David and Mel are lovely people who work in some of the world's most challenging environments. Their two main product lines are olive wood crafts made in the West Bank in Palestine and papier mache hand painted baubles from Kashmir.
The artisans who make our paper mache decorations work in a family business run by two brothers in the gorgeous, mountainous setting of Kashmir. This is their view:
In August 2019 the Indian government shut off all phone and internet access to Kashmir. As you can imagine, getting our orders through last Christmas was a bit of a challenge. If Mel and David wanted to contact the artisans they had to send a message via a relative in Delhi, who drove to Kashmir in person to pass it on. Phone lines were restored and internet access was partially restored in January 2020 but all social media is still barred. Ostensibly this is to prevent political unrest but it is a form of population control that is unimaginable to us in Europe. When lockdown was introduced, David managed to get in touch with all their suppliers to check how they were getting on. The brothers in Kashmir shrugged and said "It's always lockdown here." The Palestinian artisans were similarly sanguine, There is nothing like a fair trade story to make you think: "We don't know we're born".
Paper mache literally means chewed or chopped paper. The skill first came from Iran to Kashmir in the 15th century, brought by Persian merchants. Originally the highly decorative traditional hand painted designs were used to decorate homewares like vases, but nowadays they come into British homes mainly in the form of Christmas decorations. Many of us will have made papier mache models at school using glue and old newspapers, but clay, starch or other agents are added to our decorations to increase plasticity and strength.
Each decoration is hand painted to order, which means I have to give the artisans lots of notice to get the Christmas order prepared. That would be the case even without local lockdown measures within India making it difficult to know when shipments can be sent. Normally I order all my Christmas decorations at the big trade fair in Birmingham on the first weekend in February, and 2020 was no different in this respect. It has been different every single day since then, but that's another story.
Christmas markets have been the biggest part of All's Fair's business since 2007, first in Manchester and more recently in Sheffield. Christmas decorations have been a key part of All's Fair's sales at these markets. People like to buy something small, inexpensive and light to remember their trip to the market. Often they get their tree down from the loft at the start of December and failing to be inspired by their old decorations, resolve to replace at least some of them with a new, unusual and ethical replacement. Some buy a decoration as a stocking filler for friends and family every year.
But my five week Christmas market stint in Sheffield in 2019 was tough with long days (out of the house from 8am to 7pm, seven days a week, followed by daily parcelling up of internet orders. Standing around in cold weather, despite numerous thermal layers, was starting to take its toll, and I was exhausted.
Back in February when I placed my order for these Christmas decorations the plan was to secure a shop (Indoors! Where I could set my own hours!) for the busy Christmas period - either a temporary pop-up or a permanent space. So my Christmas decorations order was a little more cautious than it might have been, meaning I only ordered 12 of one of my usual best sellers - a decoration with the year on it.
Every year most of my decorations with the year on are bought by people who have had a nice life event - buying a first house, weddings or the birth of a baby are some of the common ones. While I do know people who have got married and had babies in 2020, for most of us these kinds of events have been postponed indefinitely and it's certain that with hindsight the year 2020 will have relatively little to commend it. A friend suggested I take one and perform a ritual burning on New Year's Eve to banish the old year and usher in what hopefully will be a better 2021. It's tempting.
Even if I wanted to, trading at Christmas markets would not be possible in 2020. They are virtually all cancelled, and even if they weren't, the kind of busy, buzzy event we've become used to won't be happening. It's been clear since the covid restrictions around retail were clarified, that the best events - the ones where you rely on a great atmosphere and lots of people - could either be safe for customers or profitable for traders but not both. Nevertheless my fair trade story will always be about supporting and helping artisans in some of the world's most challenging and disadvantaged circumstances. I spent a fair chunk of my summer campaigning for retailers like Philip Green and Philip Day to #PayUp for the orders they cancelled with garment factories in places like Bangladesh. So when Mel contacted me last month - knowing that all my events were cancelled - and offered me the chance to cancel the Fair to Trade order, I refused. The artisans have worked hard for 6 months to produce these decorations. They have been paid by Fair to Trade, which means I should pay Fair to Trade (I've already done it) and now I have to hope that my lovely customers will step up and buy online from me. Christmas is still happening. And who knows, maybe people will want to send each other Christmas decorations if they are not allowed to meet up in person (Pro tip: the stars in particular are very easy to slip into a card and send as a large letter)
So I've listed these hand painted Christmas decorations - along with a smaller range of felt decorations from Nepal and metal decorations from India - for you to buy online. I hope you like them. And I hope to be back to seeing you all face to face for Christmas 2021.
Take care until then