Fair Trade for Hand Made

I often see the words, ‘fair trade’ on food items, clothing and homewares from developing countries, and rightly so. The push for fair trade and income sustainability is a very important and powerful move towards equality and improvement in living standards. One of the core values of fair trade is the payment of a ‘fair price’ for goods, and the realisation that the cost of goods includes fair remuneration for workers and makers.

In my youth, I worked in retail.  People would rave about how cheap our goods were. ‘Wow, $2 is a bargain!’ But I knew from seeing the invoices that the $2 item actually cost us 5 or 10 cents. This got me thinking. If that item was sold to us for 5 cents, how much did it cost to make? Surely the materials would have been more than 5 cents, and what about the person making it? How much did they get paid? The honest answer is, ‘not enough’.

Unfortunately, due to the importation of non-fair trade and mass-produced goods, developed countries like ours don’t do very well with the fair trade of goods that are hand made in their own back yards. The price point for imported goods are not sustainable and do not offer a fair wage, however we have somehow come to expect everything to be priced cheaply, including handmade items from Australia.

Often people gravitate toward handmade because they want high quality, unique goods, but they don’t always realise that this means paying more than mass produced products. Handmade means just that - each piece is made by the hands of the artisan maker. There is no mass-making on machines. No under-age, or under-paid workers. More often than not, there is an intimate relationship with each piece. Each item is planned, and shaped with function and design in mind. Each piece is different, with individual quirks, and endearing blemishes. Even if the piece is part of a set or series, no two pieces will ever be identical. In handmade items, the maker is not separated from the production of the items; each piece has soul, and inherits a part of the maker’s personality. Time is taken to construct every item; they’re not mindlessly churned out on machinery, totally divorced from the designer and human touch.

I’ve had people ask me why one of my vases is $40 when they can buy a vase at Kmart for $15. My response is, “Yes, you can buy a vase from Kmart for $15. The same vase that thousands of other people can also buy for $15. But it won’t be the same as mine.” I would ask, do you know who made that vase, what working conditions they endure and what they were paid to make it? Not only would you not know the answers to these questions, but you also may not realise how time-consuming handmade goods are to produce. As a reference, I’ll break down the process of making my $40 vase.

  1. Design vase
  2. Buy appropriate clay/supplies (my supplier is 30 minutes away) and glaze ingredients (if a new glaze)
  3. If a new glaze, I have to make testers(samples to test the glaze on), fire them, make the glazes, (measure and weigh ingredients, mix, sieve, mix again) dip them, then fire again, and if the glaze isn’t how I want, the process starts all over again. This process can take hours.
  4. Knead clay to get any air bubbles out (usually a few minutes, but can be more if using recycled clay)
  5. Weigh clay
  6. Set up wheel and tools
  7. Make item (could take 5 minutes, or 20)
  8. Wait until it is leather hard (time is dependent on the weather) In winter it could be several days. In summer, it could be a few hours. I have to monitor this.
  9. Turn (trim/shape/carve) item if needed, stamp with logo (5-10min) and allow to dry further. (again dependent on weather)
  10. Bisque fire (first firing) This can take just under two days in total for firing and cooling to complete, depending on the cycle length and how thick the items are.
  11. Prepare item for glazing. Depending on desired outcome, this could include sanding, scraping, waxing, wiping, etc.
  12. Glaze item and wipe away any excess.
  13. Stack in kiln and turn on for the second firing – 1 day
  14. Once fired and cooled, the piece needs to be inspected, a final sand and a clean.
  15. And if there are any glaze issues, firing anomalies, or breakages, I have to start back at the beginning.


In addition to these steps, I have to vacuum the kiln and inspect elements. Also add to this time for cleaning, recycling of used clay, restocking, and administration. Administration may include taking photographs, updating website, social media, advertising, reordering of stock, sharpening of tools, and processing, packing, and postage of orders, not to mention payment of accounts for utilities, insurances, and memberships. Ceramics uses a fair bit of water and electricity. (my products are fired twice; the final firing is to 1280 deg Celsius)

In addition to fair price, consumers also need to ask themselves the value they place on the product. Do they need it or is it a ‘want’, or a luxury? When I consider my own purchases, I am mindful of the value I place on it in terms of my lifestyle. I don’t hesitate to buy a bottle of wine or rum for $30-$40; a drink that will be consumed and I will have nothing to show for it once it’s gone. Other people don’t hesitate paying high prices for fast fashion items made in China or Vietnam. So why wouldn’t I pay $40 for a dress for my daughter, that was handmade in Australia, and that she will wear many times until she grows out of it? Why wouldn’t I pay $40 for a handmade plate, vase or bowl as a gift that someone will use for years to come? It comes down to the value you place on the item, the value of its use, and the value as a gift.

So how do we put a value on this design, time, skill and product? Do we remunerate for experience and skill level as well as the time and effort for the whole process, from design to postage to customer?

The makers clearly need to cover the costs of materials and utilities, but they also need to make a fair wage. If I was to match Kmart’s $15 price for my vase, I would either be making a loss, or paying myself less than $1 per hour.  I wonder how many Australians would work for that amount? I would imagine not many, if any. Would you?

Continue to buy from larger companies if you wish. I still do at times, for certain things. What I am asking of consumers however, is to remember that handmade items cannot be compared to mass-produced, machine-made goods. Ever. They are totally unique in terms of time, effort, quality and cost to make. But most of all, before you tell an artisan that you can get something cheaper elsewhere, or ask for discounts on handmade goods, please consider the time and care taken to make them, and the value you place on the product. But mostly, please consider a ‘fair wage’ and income sustainability for the artisan maker.