By Jane Applegate

A passion for authenticity in today’s high-tech world is fueling consumers’ passion for handmade goods with a story behind them. That’s according to experts gathered at recent a U.S. Department of State conference co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute. In 2012, Aspen launched the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, which includes 60 non-profits and corporate members, including Macy’s and Coca-Cola.

“If the creative economy were a country, it would be the fourth largest economy,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “There is a real hunger in this fast-paced, technology-driven world to stay in touch with the traditional way of doing things.”

Kerry said an estimated $32 billion worth of handmade items trades hands every year, mostly made by women in far off countries who are supporting their families and investing the bulk of their wages into educating their children.

The colorful and creative goods exhibited at the daylong conference at the State Department ranged from scarves woven from Bolivian wool to traditional embroidered clothing from China and painted ceramic tiles made from cow dung in Rwanda.

Craftswomen in Mexico, Kenya, Turkey, Myanmar, Ghana and Turkey among other countries, are making and selling jewelry, holiday decorations and accessories made from recycled straws, aluminum pull tabs, cut up Coke cans and shredded liter bottles.

“We’ve empowered 850,000 women so far by giving women a soft introduction into business,” said Jackie Duff, strategic project director for Coca-Cola’s women’s economic empowerment group. For information on how to buy the products, visit the Coca-Cola Store.

(l-r) Reyna Pretzantzin, president, and Cheryl Conway, director of operations, of the Maya Women's Rug Hooking Group.
(l-r) Reyna Pretzantzin, president, and Cheryl Conway, director of operations, of the Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Group.

One of the biggest business challenges, according to artisans at the conference, is the high cost of international shipping. “The cost of shipping a rug can be pretty prohibitive, especially since it’s based on weight,” said Reyna Pretzantzin, who serves as president and director of operations of the Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Group based in Panajachel, Guatemala. The group trains Mayan women to hook vibrantly colored rugs made from recycled fabrics. So far, they work with 63 women making rugs, ranging in price from $40 to thousands of dollars each. The group also hosts educational visits by passionate rug hookers from the U.S.

Another challenge is dealing with intermediaries—middlemen—who often take a substantial bite out of the transaction, leaving the artisans share at less than 10 percent of the cost of goods, according to a study done by eBay. “We make sure 40 to 50 percent of our sales go back to the artist,” said Cheryl Conway, director of development for Guatemalan rug hooking group.

Sashi Kiran, with cards made by deaf artists. The paper is made from kava root.

Sashi Kiran, founder and director of the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprise and Development in Fiji, works with deaf artists who make textured paper from kava roots and other natural fibers. The cards are easy to ship because they are light, but high shipping costs limit export of jams and chutneys made by other local artisans.

“I’m now looking to export food items to Australia because it’s closer and cheaper,” said Kiran.

Joy Ndungutse, CEO and founder of Gahaya Links in Rwanda, was honored by the Alliance for her efforts to bring Rwandan women together after internal strife and massacres left an estimated 800,000 to one one million people dead between April and July, 1994.

“In 100 days, one million people vanished,” she said. “I said, ‘we have to do something,’ so I invited 26 women to sit under a tree and created a platform where people can heal.”

In the past 10 years, women brought together by Ndungutse, have woven thousands of baskets for Macy’s, according to Serena Potter, group vice president for digital and social media strategy.

“It’s critical to have boots on the ground,” said Potter, adding that having support from Macy’s top management has been invaluable because importing handmade baskets from Africa, “may not be as profitable,” as other ventures.

Access to credit is a major challenge for artisans, according to Karen Miller, chief communications office for Women’s World Banking. “Development assistance is really critical to grow and strengthen artisanal enterprises.”

Lisa Hogen, chief development officer for Kiva, a global loan-making platform, said the group has facilitated zero-interest loans made primarily by individuals, to about 40,000 artisans around the world. Loans of as little as $25 can make a difference for a rural artisan, she said.

“Whether you are selling artisanal products or operating a nonprofit enterprise, to remain competitive, you must price your product affordably and not try to take too much profit on your product offerings or any profit on the transportation portion of selling your product overseas,” said Laurel Delaney, an export consultant, columnist, author and founder of

“You’d be surprised at how many people try to add an additional 5-10 percent on to the actual price to ship a product,” said Delaney.  “In some instances, this can limit your sales growth and at worst, can cause serious problems for your cash flow. The only way to remain competitive globally is to price your product affordably, research market demand and examine where your competitive advantages lies.”

For more information on international shipping, read The New Wrinkle Affecting Your Shipping Costs.

Jane Applegate is the East Coast correspondent for Follow her at @janewapplegate.