Recognizing women for their achievements is one way that we celebrate Women’s History Month, but it’s also a call to action to expedite the fight for women’s equality. Joan Shifrin and Catherine Shimony, co-founders of Global Goods Partners (GGP), have answered this call by promoting the work of women in more than 20 countries for 17 years. GGP is a nonprofit social enterprise committed to providing sustainable jobs for women, which has been widely proven to be the key to community development and family well-being. In partnership with women-led, community-based organizations, GGP taps into the rich well of skill and artistry that is passed from one generation of women to the next. All proceeds from product sales are invested in developing sustainable market access, and provide training and funding to enable partners to prosper and thrive well into the future.
1) What inspired you to start Global Goods partners and what countries do you work in?
When we first launched GGP in 2005, our goal was to create economic opportunity for women. During more than two decades of working in the field of international economic development, Catherine and I saw the impact that came from women earning an income for the first time. We witnessed the new sense of agency women felt in their families and community when they were able to contribute financially to their family’s well-being.
We set our focus on handcrafts for a few key reasons. First, in many communities, especially traditional ones, handwork presents fewer barriers to entry for women than many other forms of paid work. Second, the skill base is vast, but, especially when we started out, there was little structured access to the international market. Catherine and I saw the opportunity to bridge the gap between the US and resource poor, often isolated communities where beautiful handmade products are made.
In the past 17 years, we have partnered with over 70 artisan groups in more than 20 countries throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas, helping to design and bring to market the fair trade, handcrafted products they produce. Each artisan that creates products for GGP earns reliable, fair living wages and gains experience that can add benefit to all aspects of her life.
2) How is Global Goods Partners organized?
From the start, our approach has been to work with community groups—in contrast to individual artisans—where the benefits of income generation initiatives can be maximized. Many of our partnerships date back 15 years, to GGP’s early days. As market forces have created opportunities, we have grown and learned alongside our artisan partners.
Our partners operate workshops in their local communities but have always made it possible for women to work at home, as needed. Since the start of the pandemic, however, those groups that were able to continue operating, moved to at-home work, often incurring considerable costs to transport materials to artisans who are geographically dispersed and to collect finished products once the work is completed.
GGP’s team in the US works collaboratively and closely with our partners overseas. In addition to creating and operating the marketplace where their products are sold, we also provide technical assistance, product development expertise, operational guidance and small capacity building grants to our community-based partners. In the US, we are small team of six and each of us wears many different hats.
3) We know that every business has had to pivot during the pandemic. How has this impacted artisans’ work and how you work with them?
The spread of COVID-19 and the painfully slow rollout of vaccines in the Global South have had a devastating effect on many of the communities in which we work. Between government mandated lockdowns, transportation delays and the high cost of raw materials, we have had to remain nimble. Of GGP’s partners that have been able to return to work, few are at full capacity. Orders we had placed months ago are taking twice or three times as long to arrive and, in some cases, shipping costs have tripled.
Of course, our greatest concern has been for the artisans we work with and their families. To help address the many needs in the community, GGP provided emergency funding to help our partners purchase food staples, PPE, and cleaning and hygiene supplies. We also increased the size and number of advanced payments to several partners, enabling them to purchase larger quantities of raw materials as a hedge against severe supply chain disruptions.
4) What is your personal favorite product and why?
Joan is especially partial to textiles, particularly the hand woven cotton blankets and towels from Ethiopia and to the linen scarves from Nepal. For as long as I’ve known Catherine (several decades!), she’s had the best collection of drop earrings, built from her years of traveling and working with artisans. On our Zoom calls, she’s usually wearing the beaded Shikano earrings from Tanzania or a pair of silver earrings from Chile.
5) When women work, the impact of the investment is greatly multiplied. What benefits or positive changes have you seen in the communities where the artisans work and live?
Globally, women and children suffer disproportionately from economic, environmental, political, and social hardships. When women have the tools to practice a craft, manage their finances, or start and run a business, they gain experience, confidence, practical skills, and economic independence. These skills and experiences enable women to move beyond achieving simple economic improvements to making a real positive impact on the well-being of their families and their communities. Becoming a wage earner with decision-making power also has the effect of empowering women to claim their rights, demand access and visibility and fight for equality within their families and their communities.
6) We love your commitment to empowering others. What advice would you give to women and girls who are interested in getting involved in causes they are passionate about?
Follow your passion but do your research and make a plan. Remain open to learning from others and, particularly when working across cultures, respect for local knowledge is key. We have a lot to learn from others whose lived experiences are different than ours.
7) What woman artisan or woman in your life has had the biggest impact on you personally?
In all honesty, I couldn’t possibly single out one woman’s impact. Through my work I’ve been in the fortunate position to meet women around the world who defy the odds every day. Some are leading organizations, others are forging paths by waging campaigns for education, health care or property rights, and still others are focused solely on providing for the needs of their families. I respect and admire every woman who stands up to patriarchy, calls out injustice and works toward economic equity.
Two women in our network who come to mind are Micaela in Guatemala and Asmita in Nepal. Micaela started her education journey at the age of 33 after being unable to attend school as a girl; she began with middle school and graduated from high school six years later, and now dreams of attending university. In Kathmandu, Asmita learned to felt and became the breadwinner in her household after her husband lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic. Sharing her story with us, she was proud to be able to sustain her family through her work.