It’s always nice to get mail, electronic or otherwise, and this post was inspired by a forwarded email I received from Limor Goren at Odegard, who suggested I might be interested in the topic: The Nepal Carpet Industry Petition. For those of you not familiar with the Petition, I invite you to read it in its entirety: Here. The petition provides some background to the industry and then lays out a proposed course of action for the Nepali government to take. Without repeating the petition verbatim, I will say that I am in support of the goals of the petition and encourage you to sign it in support, that is of course if you agree me, the other signers, and others of good sense. Of course “We rarely think people have good sense unless they agree with us.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld
There are several points of the Petition I would like to highlight and discuss, if for no other reason than they are the parts that interest me.
“A standardization of quality certifications with incentives to increase the percentage of rugs being made with a traditional Tibetan construction and utilizing hand spun yarns and the highest quality long staple wool, thereby increasing and protecting the value of the Nepali carpet brand. Certification standards should be put into place to distinguish the traditional pieces using crossed knot construction and hand spun yarns from the non-traditional pieces using a non-crossed knot construction and/or machine spun yarn.”
At first read I want to say that I feel this has no place in the Government, but considering most industries (rug included) are never going to be forthright with their customers, it may just be the case that regulatory intervention is required. (Wow! I’ve been hanging out with too many socialists.) Without reopening my now closed debate on this subject (crossed vs uncrossed), I think the labeling aspect of this proposal is entirely fair, and is ultimately of benefit not only to producers and importers, but to the consumer. Over the years I’ve spoken informally to many of the people and companies who produce, what the petition calls “non-traditional” pieces, and in an almost universal defense, they attempt to defuse the practice of non-disclosure by saying the customer “doesn’t care”, and I tend to agree, that to this point they have not. Everything is cyclical however, and as I have been forecasting a return to quality and true value, this clear delineation between traditional and non (acknowledging both have a valid place in the world) is ever so timely.
“A reworking of the labor unions’ relationship with the factories to ensure that the labor union activities and demands are responsible towards the workers and lead to the betterment of the industry, working conditions, and employment standards. The current thuggery and politicization of a select number of labor unions is reinforcing counterproductive activities that weaken and damage the industry and the working conditions of its employees.”
I cannot personally attest to the state of Weaving Unions in Nepal, but I can tell you that while Unions (in any industry) have their benefits, they too have their pitfalls. As a past resident of Akron, Ohio I can tell you that the reason there are no longer any tire factories in Akron is that Unions routinely demanded higher and higher wages from the Rubber Companies until such time that they were forced to close due to simple economics of profitability. Fair wages: Yes. Crippling to the company wages: No. Everyone (Person, Government, Union, Trade Group, et cetera) looks out for their own interests and survival, it is a basic instinct. Without proper oversight (from the members) and reasonable management, the very people who are supposed to be helped, can be hindered. A seventy percent (70%) reduction in weaving capacity in Nepal hardly seems beneficial to the now jobless weavers.
“An increase in the government’s export promotion policies, meant to help this industry win market share from the increasing number of machine made and lower quality carpet manufactures. This should include tax incentives for exporters, government backed funding structures for exporters, producers and suppliers, government promotion of the “Nepali Carpet” brand, and assistance to address environmental and labor issues damaging not only the industry but also its reputation abroad. Export incentives should have a direct and positive impact on the industry’s sales and national revenue derived from the industry.”
Downward price pressures due either to machine-made or low quality hand-made carpets is always going to be a concern, and in fact, based on a completely unscientific anecdotally based analysis of consumerism, I think the growth in both of those markets is just really starting. A shrinking middle class is pushing more and more consumers to spend less, and thus, targeting these consumers makes good business sense, if you are in that line of work. On the other hand, the high end will always be there (unless there is a French style revolution, but even then the wealth came back…..) it may just be that it is smaller, and as I have mentioned, more quality driven. While this is a continuation of my belief in “return to quality”, the top of the market has always been about quality, as an extension of price or otherwise.
As for the branding of Nepali Carpets, I think this is great, and quite frankly placing a fee/tax on the rights to the brand, could self fund the initiatives set forth in the petition. Put some legislation into effect, protect that name and have a system not unlike that of the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée. Everyone knows Champagne is from France, wether they buy it or not.
“The strengthening of government policy and enforcement to combat and diminish the use of child labor in the industry.”
Until this is tackled on a global/regional basis, the negative implications to those on the front lines selling rugs are hard to overcome. The salesmen (generally) just wants to make the sale, and the consumer just wants a carpet. That is not to say however that this should not be done. Of course this should be done. No illegal child labour should ever be employed. It’s just that simple. Tackling the global and/or regional problems has to start somewhere, and it starts locally (in Nepal) and locally (in say, Chicago or wherever you are), each of us doing our respective part. Salesman need to correctly educate their customers and only sell new production rugs made without illegal child labour. Likewise, countries and manufactures have to move past the false and temporary promise of economic growth that illegal labour provides.
Broadly it is important for all interested parties to remember that rug production is a viable economic development avenue for Nepal. Just as it is foolish to support and prop up failing and outmoded businesses, it is foolish to try and promote development that is not in line with the realities of the locality. High tech, by example, is not an option for Nepal at the moment (nor for many other places, even some in the West), so we should not venture down that current road to nowhere.
Now, as I’ve apparently been known to do when provided a forum, I am going to plug something: GoodWeave. The emerging progressive standards GoodWeave plans to implement can play a supportive role to many of the later goals above, as well as others found in the petition.
Finally, I would like to add a philosophical end to this post. Too often, in the name of progress (from the Western perspective) we allow once glorious and beautiful crafts and skills to fall away to the memory of history. Preserving traditional skills is just as important as innovation and progress. Striking the balance is always the hard part. Just because something can be done less expensively and faster, does not mean it should be done. There is always a cheaper way, but that doesn’t mean it is the right way.
Moving production from one country to the next is merely avoiding the root problems. To paraphrase (perhaps inappropriately) ….we choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Failing to support, foster and encourage sustainable growth will only continue the loss of skills, the cycle of poverty and the continued exploitation of developing economies by The West. (One could argue this is true at home here in the West as well. What do we actually make anymore?) I for one think we can do better.