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The artisan revival

This article first appeared in our Organic September issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 14 September 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Arshad Khalid grew up in 1980s Delhi; the roadsides were lined with skilled artisans and his home was filled with handmade goods – from earthen pitchers to handwoven baskets – used by his family on a daily basis.

‘As a child, I was fascinated by how these artisans made these beautiful things by hand’, Arshad tells us. ‘At the same time we were witnessing the rise of plastics in India and I could see people turning to plastic alternatives without realising, of course, the long-term effects. Over time I watched the decline of the artisans, who simply could not compete with the cheap plastics.’

The impression of artisans being haggled down to painfully low prices stayed with Arshad; he had seen the power of co-operatives in securing better wages for dairy and sugar farmers in post-independence India and wondered whether a similar model could be created for India’s skilled community of makers.

Reinventing a sector

These sentiments lay dormant for 27 years, until Arshad read an article about the plight of the toy makers of Channapatna. ’I had never heard about this place in the south of India’, Arshad confesses; ‘but reading this article made me remember my 13-year-old self. It was then that I decided to set up a social enterprise to help.’

Arshad created Ethiqana as an umbrella platform where artisans can sell their goods and be paid a fair price. The goal is to help to preserve skills and cultural heritage while also providing an alternative to mass-produced plastic goods.

‘Around the world there is a wealth of talent that has been passed down over the ages’, Arshad explains. ‘Most of the techniques used to make things rely on reuse, upcycling and Earth-friendly materials without any of the harmful plastics or dyes that might leach into our fragile ecosystem – yet we are neglecting these arts and crafts in our drive for convenience and quick gratification. I think it is time we looked at our handicraft industry with a fresh pair of eyes to see what we’ve been missing.’

An antidote to plastic pollution

We often hear about plastic pollution in the fashion and food industries, but the toy sector is the most plastic-intensive industry in the world. ‘Nearly 80% of these toys are thrown away each year after being used for about a week’, Arshad says. ‘That’s 8.5 million toys – with their plastic and synthetic dyes – polluting our environment. We know children like to explore their worlds through their mouths. With widespread use of plastic toys, children could be ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic in only a month! Do we really want these microplastics and forever chemicals in our children’s bodies?’

For Arshad no one wins if the toy industry carries on this way: time-honoured techniques of making toys with sustainable materials will continue to decline while we fill our environment and children’s bodies with plastic and harmful chemicals.

As the world wakes up to the realities of plastic pollution, ethical alternatives are making a comeback – but not not all wooden toys are created equal.

‘Quite a lot of them could still be coloured with harmful dyes’, Arshad explains; ‘and that’s where Channapatna toys excel.’

These toys are coloured using pigments from nature, such as turmeric, acacia, lime, madder roots and indigo, which are mixed with a naturally occurring food-grade resin and rubbed on the wood.

Leaves from the screw pine plant are then used to buff up the colours for a long-lasting sheen with no chemicals, paints or varnishes in sight.

Popular toys include a Cubby stacking bear, Chip Chop helicopter and Bovow pull-along toy dog.

Empowering women

Each toy available on Ethiqana has been handmade by a small-scale artisan producer and curated along fair trade principles; social welfare, no child labour and employment for women feature heavily in the vetting process.

At the co-operative that supplies Ethiqana’s toys, more than 70% of employees are women – ranging from the artisans to office staff and managers.

Ethiqana’s approach was rewarded with British Association of Fair Trade Shops & Suppliers (BAFTS) certification in February 2022.

Fair prices are fundamental to Arshad’s approach to business, possibly inspired by haunting memories of the haggling that devastated Delhi’s artisans.

‘We don’t negotiate prices’, he explains. ‘You wouldn’t go into a supermarket and start bargaining, so why do it to artisans whose talents we are trying to preserve?’

From a launch group of 40, Ethiqana now works with around 150 artisans. ‘That means all these people have had livelihoods saved and their arts and crafts preserved’, Arshad says.

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