Indigenous Communities Suffer As Online Sellers Take Advantage Of Their Work

credit: Rossalba Martinez

Cultural appropriation has become a hot-button issue in the last few years, especially as social media has empowered communities of color to hold individuals accountable for these offenses.

Last year, Jenny Niezgoda, a white woman, caused a major backlash after she attempted to open a “modern fruteria” in a historically Chicano community in San Diego, using Mexican culture as the aesthetic backdrop and inspiration for her project. Now, an online seller of traditional Mexican goods has come under fire for cultural appropriation and what many are calling an exploitation of indigenous communities.

Mexitrend is a site that specializes in selling “hand-picked Mexican goods.” The company appears to be owned by a white woman, with Kimberly Claybaugh Jonas listed as the manager of the company’s Facebook page and appearing in numerous photos on buying trips in Mexico.

Instagram and Facebook users have taken to the comments section of Mexitrend’s page to call the company out, saying their culture is no trend.

While the selling of Mexican goods by who appears to be outside the culture is one major problem, the price point Mexitrend sells at offers insights into another major issue. Traditional embroidered Mexican dresses are listed on the site for $25-$42, while blankets run for $30. For a company to charge such a small amount for handmade artisan goods, it leads many to believe the Mexitrends team is guilty of doing something many online retailers and tourists are guilty of.

“Online sellers are not experienced in market linkage so artisans make a fair wage, or don’t have a social mission in a sense of responsibility. They arrive, haggle for prices without consideration of what it is they’re getting here. They are the ones that are really the problem,” says Monika Steinberger, director of programs at Aid to Artisans, a program under the non-profit Creative Learning that supports and educates artisans around the globe.

While Mexitrend’s buying practices and attention to social responsibility are unknown (the company did not respond to emails and messages, though they have posted about sales that benefit children’s shelters), the situation does bring up an important point regarding social responsibility within the business world.

It’s a serious issue that impacts indigenous communities in countries like Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and countless other countries both in and out of Latin America.

As online sellers bargain to score the best deals on handmade goods, knowing they can jack up the price on their respective websites and Instagram pages, they do so at the expense of marginalized communities struggling to make a fair wage.

CREDIT: Rossalba Martinez

Ashley Shoshan is the founder of Seiba, an online retailer specializing in goods made by artisan women in San Cristóbal de las Cases, a small city considered the cultural capital in Chiapas, Mexico. Seiba has been in business for five years, employing a family of artisans who she and her product manager based in Chiapas, Rossalba Martinez, have built a familial closeness with.

“On one hand, artisans selling product is a good thing, as it brings them income, especially when they can sell direct retail for a good price,” she says. “On the other hand, the business world can get very dirty, and there are many sharks looking to take advantage of any situation they can.”

She and Martinez have witnessed buyers haggle for exorbitantly low prices, expecting artisan goods to be “practically gifted to them,” as Martinez puts it. They’ve also seen buyers jump from artisan to artisan looking to play them against each other and drive down the cost, knowing that each desperately need that sale to support themselves and their families.

“Negotiation and deal-making are a normal part of business, but there’s a point at which greed can breed unfair practices,” says Shoshan. “The sellers and end businesses need a profit margin as do the artisans on their side of the business. Most people measure success by profit alone, and unfortunately they neglect the human and social impacts of certain business practices.”

Paying low prices for handmade artisan goods has larger effects on their communities. It’s why fair trade practices have been put in place. Artisans in underdeveloped countries often face extreme poverty, and lean on the craft traditions of their culture to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. Online sellers paying little for their wares are part of what perpetuates that circle of poverty.

There’s also the goods themselves, which take time, care and human effort to make.

“Buyers don’t know the value of the work. They don’t know that to embroider a blouse can take up to two to three days to make,” says Martinez. “It’s important that they don’t haggle when women spend days making these shirts. They’re sitting there, their hands hurt, their backs hurt. The work takes a lot out of them.”

“If they don’t pay for that time in a fair way, they’re stealing from them,” she adds.

Shoshan’s company helps alleviate the physical ramifications of artisan work by providing medical support to the women who work for her, as well as steady, fair pay. She also shares the stories of the women artisans she works with so customers know where the products come from and it raises awareness on indigenous communities.

However, an issue that arises often within these communities is that they’re often willing to sell at cheap prices out of the necessity of the sale. Martinez says that Cristi, one of the artisans Seiba employs in Chiapas, admits she’d rather sell cheaply than not sell at all to have at least some funds come in.

That’s a big hurdle to overcome, says Steinberger, who through Aid to Aritsans runs a market readiness program that educates artisans on creating a sustainable business model that will provide them the profit they need to have a steady income.

“Usually artisans charge what they think a buyer can pay. Someone well dressed is charged a higher price, and someone that looks like a student they’ll charge lower,” says Steinberger. “They need to have a pricing structure that is consistent and guarantees them a profit – knowing what something is worth and sticking with it. That’s the only way, to stand their ground and to make money consistency.”

She adds, “There’s always buyers that will buy at a cutthroat price to the artisan. We cannot police them, but we can give the tools and the knowledge to the artisan to respond to them. The artisan is better off not selling to the guy who sells the product for cheaper.”

Supporting indigenous artisans through fair trade and wage practices leads to many positives. The art of these beautiful and vibrant cultures are kept alive and artisans are able to sustain themselves on their ancient crafts.

CREDIT: Ashley Shoshan

“The Mex tradition, and any cultural tradition in general, has high value,” says Steinberger. “When we talk about the value of the tradition then we really talk about the cultural review, which is more intangible. It’s the social and ethical responsibility of all of us to preserve it.”

Culture also has an economic value that clients clearly understand, she adds. Customers want handmade goods with a cultural tie, and are willing to pay for it.

Devaluing it monetarily has the unintended effect of devaluing it culturally, which is offensive to a culture, its people and the makers of their culture’s traditional goods. And when these offenses are perpetuated by someone outside the culture, it speaks to an even larger issue of degrading those cultures and people. However, when these realities are understood and respected it changes lives.

The women at Seiba watched Cristi save her wages and eventually open up her own store in the San Cristóbal market at just 24 years old.

“She’s the only woman in her family who’s been able to have her own store with her own money,” says Martinez. “It makes me feel so proud of her because she’s so hardworking, but also proud of ourselves because we were able to help her aspire to have more.”


READ: One Woman In Mexico Started A Program To Teach Indigenous Woman How To Use Modern Technology

What are your thoughts on haggling with artisans? Let us know in the comments!