I need to find a manufacturer of clothing tags. I would really love it if all parts of this bag could be socially and environmentally responsible. After many days of searching, I am surprised at how little I’ve found. I think I expected and hoped to find a fair trade coop somewhere making woven labels form organic hemp and soy ink. So far, the closest I’ve found is organic cotton or conventional hemp. I would appreciate tips on locating the kind of supplier I’m looking for. It also might be a great business opportunity for somebody out there, because I know I’m not the only one that wants them.

Going to these little jungle towns in the Comarca of Panama is like going to another world. In some ways, it’s so much more uncomfortable than the world I usually live in: no flushing toilets, no showers, very little food variety, lots of dust and bugs, under-fed pets. And in some ways, it’s such a luxurious experience: waking up in the morning to the sun slowly rising and an orchestra of birds’ song, seeing unadulterated starry night skies, hiking through the rainforest to find waterfalls and breathtaking mountain views. It always happens that my first night there I want to leave, and after the 3rd day I want to stay.

fair trade store

On this trip, I saw old friends and I made the first steps in some new relationships. The community in Soloy knows me best. I lived with them, ate with them and bought some bags. As requested last time, they introduced me to a very very old man who knows the Ngobe legends. I have digital recordings (video and audio) of him telling and singing the old legends. I got the feeling it would take a week to tell all the stories he knew.

It was magical. I feel lucky that I get to preserve some of this for my grandchildren, and for the Ngobe grandchildren. I will post them on another page soon.

ngobe story

I also saw some bags in Soloy that were made in another village called Boca Balsa. They were superbly fine. When I showed them to other Ngobe women, their eyes bulged. So my friend Adan (an intelligent young Adan ngobe handbagNgobe man working hard to develop the region) took me on the 4 hour hike up the mountain to meet them. Adan looked so agile and easy climbing in front of me. I tripped along in my expensive hiking boots, half alive, and we finally arrived.

Their area is gorgeous, but very poor. This community is much more remote with much fewer facilities.

I discussed with the women there the concept of fair trade. I spoke in Spanish and Adan translated in Ngobere because most of the women only spoke their native language.

For the second time, I was struck by how easily they got it. I walked them through the thought process: “Imagine how many days it would take you to make this bag from start to finish if you worked 8 hours a day only on it. Now figure the amount of money you need to make per day to provide a good life for yourself and your family (food, education, etc.).” Of course, in these villages this conversation takes about an hour.

But once they all agree on the time it takes and what a fair wage is, they jump easily to what the fair price of the bag is. They tell me with conviction. I’m impressed by this because, in this village, none of the artists can read or write. They have no education in economics or business or anything. But it seems that the value of one’s time is universally understood.

I forgot how things are in this region. I truly do not know when I will be able to come back and buy more bags: it depends on how quickly I sell them. But the other truth is, for most of the women who make these bags for me, there is no way of communicating except by telling them. No phones. No email. No mail. So I took a deep breath, and made my best guess. I told them October.

I am coming back in October. So now, the women are working, making bags with extra dedication because someone said she’s coming back in October to pay them a livable wage.

I am leaving in a few hours on the midnight bus to David, Chiriqui.  From there I will hire the 4X4 to take me to Soloy, the small village in the jungle.  I will meet with the women again, hike into the mountains to meet “the elders”, listen to their legends and stories, and buy one last round of bags.  Each time I go, I deepen the relationships and their trust of me.  Most helpful foreigners come once and don’t return.  I need them to feel that I will always return.  This will be my last exactly foreseeable visit.  I can’t tell them exactly when I’ll be back, but I can tell them that I will be back.

Anyone who wants to buy a handbag that helps save the world has hundreds of options. They are online, in boutiques, in natural food stores, etc. The bags of this project will not join their ranks and compete in the same small market.

I am pretty convinced that just knowing it “helps the poor people” or is “environmentally responsible” actually isn’t enough to inspire most people to pull out the wallet.

People want to buy things that add value to THEIR lives. I think fair trade marketers make the mistake of emphasizing the need of the producers and treating the product and its benefits as secondary.

There are three reasons why I will not do this.

  1. I don’t think it will work.
  2. I don’t think it’s ethical.
  3. I don’t think it’s truthful. When I went to this community the first time, I was a bit overwhelmed by its poverty: lots of mud, few shoes, scarcity of food, stick houses, etc. But when I saw these bags, they completely stood out. Somehow, amid all those meager conditions, the Ngobe people had managed to preserve one of their last “high arts” (with the invasion of the Spanish, they lost their homeland and many of their crafts). Everyone who visits appreciates their value.

So in order to do justice to this craft, I have to sell it as what I see it is. These are special, rare, and the result of great skill and hard work.

What I know from my market research experience is that people judge a thing’s value in large part by its price. If such a bag has a price tag of $15, you figure it’s worth $15. If a bag has a price of $1500, you probably say “Yikes! That’s expensive!” But your second thought will be “…..hmm, why IS IT so expensive?” And the mind will open to the idea that what is before you is extremely special.

To some, this might sound like manipulation. But the truth is that any price is manipulation, high or low – it affects a consumer’s perception. I have to pick a price: I want to pick a price that makes people understand and appreciate that this is a valuable work of art.

I also understand that if this venture gets the opportunity to grow, it will be pretty tricky to manage the supply. It involves trekking to places without roads, communicating with women who only speak their indigenous language, finding the best artisans, and then waiting patiently for them to make more. These are bags that, because of their inherent limitedness cannot be made available to everyone.

At the same time, the people who truly believe in them and feel an affinity should be able to buy them: they should not be priced out of reach.

In the end, after extensive research, the best range of price seems to be $200 to $350 each.

If Louis Vuitton can charge $2000 for a bag you see 5 times a day in the grocery store, we can charge $200 for a one-of-a-kind piece of indigenous art.

The Woonan are another indigenous people here in Panama. They are the ones I have been talking to about making the logo for the bags: one of their traditional crafts is carving tagua seeds or “vegetable ivory”.

I met with the artist and his father yesterday. I was expecting to hear ancient stories from the elder about the different animals and the epics and so forth… but as so often happens when working with another culture, what actually happened was different from what I expected.

It turns out the ancient legends the anciano wanted to tell me were the war stories from their “Guerra Mundial” with the Kuna and the Colombians. There were no legends about the iguana. I sadly fear that this kind of a project is too late. The stories that there were are mostly already lost, at least from the Woonan people.

We were sitting up on the terrace of our grand old house with a view to the Panama Canal. At first, they were negotiating, asking how much I was going to pay for the stories. This didn’t really sit well with me since my main motivation was to help them preserve their heritage… but that is the reality of such an interaction. Once I explained that I was not writing a book or anything that I would profit from and that I am searching for a story for my logo, but otherwise just want to help them not lose their history, the atmosphere changed. I felt they were wondering why they bothered with the trip. I began to explain how if they get these legends and stories written down about each animal, it will help them sell their crafts to tourists because tourists like that kind of thing. I said we should be talking about how we can both benefit each other, and coined the term “ganar y ganar” for win-win.

I told them I would write their stories for them in English and they could post them on their website to help sell their products… Oh, they don’t have a website. And then I felt the familiar heavy weight on my shoulders of knowing how much I can help – the feeling that I always listen to and that keeps me from getting what I need.

The truth was, I already had 5 websites in queue needing my work. I don’t want to make another one. But then I thought, looking at these two guys who don’t even own a computer – man, if it’s not me that builds them a site, it won’t be anyone else for a long while.

But having just come out of several hard fires with the lesson that “I don’t work for free” because if I do it sucks away my energy, I decided to be authentic. I said, well actually, I know how to make websites and I would be happy to make you one. But for me it’s a lot of work, so I would propose a trade.

And then some magic happened.

It turns out that if I make him a website and I “charge” him the same amount of money that I normally charge -nothing for free here- and he “pays” me in the equivalent amount of his tagua seed carvings, which I will use as the bags’ logo or “symbol”, at the normal price… then we have a win-win situation! It is way easier for me to make him a website than to come up with the cash to pay for the seed carvings (they are each handmade -not cheap). And I could tell that he felt like he was getting a good deal too. (and of course, he is)

I think this has been the most successful negotiation of my whole life: it was easy, authentic, stress-free and I made a friend!

The one element that adds some stress is the fact that I am only in Panama for another 2 weeks. That means that I need to figure out what I want him to carve and have him start carving soon!

There has been flow and there has been progress and for awhile, it felt as if I were cruising down some golden highway that was both my creation and my destiny.

I created a brand and a story, some great ideas for promotion and website features. I told my story and got support. But then, I tried to find a logo. The logo and name of the brand have to encapsulate this story: the story of being a hero and being recognized, of connectedness with nature and between women. It is a powerful symbol and a generous symbol.

So I started researching legends. I was looking for a legend of a hero who went on a quest to save her (or his) village and returned victorious. As a reward for his (or her) heroic deed, the village should present her with a special gift. Then I would use that gift as a symbol for the brand because I wanted it to powerfully evoke of the story. I thought such a legend would be easy to find because it seems so intuitive. I searched non-stop for 4 days. I asked for stories on forums. I emailed university professors. I might have read a hundred hero legends. But most of them involved killing something and the reward was usually immortality or a trophy wife. The more I looked, the more desperate I began to feel.

I realized that the right story must come from the indigenous people themselves, and since there is no written record of their legends, I will have to go ask them. So I made the long rough journey to the jungle village again.

I asked everyone about legends: are there any about animals? Are there any about heros? The answer was “Yes. We have so many legends.” Can you tell me some? “Oh, no. Only the very old people who live on the mountains know those old legends.” I felt dismayed and even more lost.

I had, however, decided on the material for the logos. The Embera and Woonan tribes of Panama make exquisite detailed carvings out of tagua seeds, also known as “vegetable ivory”. This is a very precious but completely sustainable material. When my designer friend Doug held a tagua carving of an iguana up to the bag, it looked awesome. Tagua is almost considered as a gem material and I think it is appropriate in so many ways to be a part of these bags: it is valuable, it is from the region, it is natural, it is a seed which is a symbol in itself of life and potential.

I met a very nice Woonan artist named Gusti. I saw all of his animal carvings and I asked him “Why are these animals so special to the Woonan? What are the legends and stories you have about them?” He said “Yes, we have so many legends about all of these animals – lots of stories, tons!” Can you tell me some? “Oh, no I don’t know them. Only the old people know them. My father knows lots of stories – ha can talk for hours.”

A week later I went to San Blas, another indiginous region of Panama where the Kuna live and I asked them the same question. And they gave me the same answer.

The stories and legends of Panama that are thousands of years old will be dead in 20 years and lost forever. In part, it is the fault of the people themselves for not actively learning the stories and passing them on. But in part, it is the fault of the rest of the world. By leaving their traditional ways and learning new things that will help them get jobs in the cities and farms, they make more money and improve their lives. The truth is that these stories have value, not just to me looking for a good logo, but to anthropoligists and students, and really humankind.

I was working and sweating so much so that I could have this story pinned down and the logos made and the prototype bags ready by April 20th. That’s the date Amy, my friend the model will leave Panama and be able to have the photos taken.

But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. I could grab a quick answer and have something made and forget the lost stories. But that’s not really the spirit of this project, is it? I had a schedule, but the universe had different plans. So the logo will have to wait while I collect the legends and the stories of the indigenous people of Panama.

I don’t know if I will find the right logo idea or not, but for now I have to let it go. These stories have to be recorded now. It is more important than me, or my schedule or my project.

I have an appointment for tomorrow afternoon with Gusti’s father, the Woonan elder who knows them all. Then, in a week or so, I will go back to the jungle to trek in the mountains to find the elders of that tribe who know the stories. I only have 2 weeks left in Panama. I don’t know if it’s enough time. I don’t know what the future will bring. I will just hold my intention in my heart and hope that the universe conspires again.

The tasks ahead for creating this product are developing a logo, having tags made, finding a model and a photographer, having a website made, creating packaging, and then trying to spread the word.

I met a famous, brilliant jewelry designer and sculptor from the USA named Doug who recently moved here to Panama, incidentally right next door to me.  He likes my project and generously gives me an afternoon whenever I pop by.  He has talked to me about logos and packaging and product stories.  He has given my books on design and on indigenous art.

There is also an Italian woman named Iris who owns a PR company who finds meaning in what I’m doing and meets with me to discuss what women want, how to market the bags and which celebrities I should enlist.

Another volunteer in the jungle town of Soloy understands this project and digs it.  She happens to be a former professional model and knows a very elite photographer and says they will both help me get the first shots of the bags for the website.

When these kinds of things just fall in my path, I am not surprised.  It’s that I have felt so entirely filled with the passion and dedication to this project that I touch everyone I see with it.  That they were the right ones and they are right in front of me, I suppose when looked at objectively, could be called a miracle.  But when I’m in it, it feels completely natural- like that’s the only thing that could happen because this is the right thing to do.

In thinking about how to sell these bags to the wider world, I realized I would have to do something really different. There are already lots of websites selling “fair trade crafts” from latin america and all over the world. All of these sites and brands are telling essentially the same story: these people are poor, buy their products to help support them. In a way, that is the easiest story to tell.

Fair trade hand bag

Fair trade hand bag

Fair trade hand bag

        But that story doesn’t work for these bags. These bags do not beg to be bought. These are bags that a woman can only get by trekking up to the farthest corner of the jungle, way past her imagination and far beyond her comfort zone. This bag will directly connect her with another woman whose life is completely different and completely the same as hers. There is only one of each. They are hard to make and hard to find.

Fair trade hand bag

Fair trade hand bag

Fair trade hand bag

                        These bags are not for teenagers. They are not for women struggling to “fit in”. They are not for women seeking to flash their wealth around. These bags are for women who are seeking something meaningful. These bags are for the women who are wanting to make a difference.

Fair trade hand bag
Fair trade hand bagI started thinking about what women want. Why do women buy the $3000 designer bags? Why do women ever believe in a brand or want to be associated with a brand? Looking at the demographic of women who have “arrived” who, having taken care of themselves and their families, can look around and ask, “How can I give meaning?” -what do they want in a brand? I was thinking about all the women in this demographic that I know, and I asked an Italian friend of mine in that demographic to also. We both came to the knowledge that women want to feel loved, important and powerful.

So that will be the story of the brand of these incredible bags: It is a brand for a hero-woman. The hero that looks beyond the everyday and seeks to make an impact and is rewarded with the knowledge that she is loved and important. Her handbag is a testament to her values and her uniqueness.

These bags are exquisite. It takes 1 to 3 months to make one. The process is entirely by hand and made only from plant material. This is how they’re made:

There is a plant that is native to these mountains in the agave family. The women harvest the long leaves from this plant (without killing it) and pull out the long fibers from the leaves. Then they take these fibers and expose them to various treatments of soaking in water and drying in the sun. Then they pick leaves from other jungle plants and grind them to make dyes. They soak the fibers in the dyes. Then they weave the fibers into thread, after which they are ready to begin the artistic process of creating a new design. They choose a particular style of stitch and create a design that can be very ancient or their own adaptation of an ancient design.

Urcinia, a Ngobe woman holding the fibers of the pita plant used to make the "kra" bags

The designs almost always have an association with an animal. Popular designs include, sea serpent, snake, butterfly, and woodpecker. The ladies say that when they are creating a bag with an animal theme, they can feel its spirit around them. There is traditional wisdom that if a woman is weaving a traditional bag (called “kra” in their language) with a snake design, she should not go to work in the field because she will attract the snake. They believe that the energy of the animal can be dangerous or powerful for healing and growth.

The material the bags are made of are totally unique. They are 100% organic, 0 carbon footprint, they last for 30 years even in the harsh conditions of life on those mountains. The bags are sewn in a very special way, such that there is no seam. The bag and the handle flow into each other like two seamless pieces.

The art of making the “kra” has been slowly dying in the last 15 years. This is because it is the most difficult of all the traditional crafts. The younger ones are choosing not to learn it. And why would they, if there is no incentive? But because of this project, the “kra” art is already beginning to regain its popularity.

When I went back home to the USA for Christmas, two things happened. I got a huge delivery of medical supplies which I promised to deliver to Soloy in January and my uncle gave me $2500 which enabled me to start buying the bags.

My second trip to the little jungle community was so lovely, like seeing old friends. We had a meeting again with me and all of the artisan women where I was explaining the concept of a livable wage and they were discussing among themselves what a livable wage would be for them and therefore how much they should charge for the bags.

the artisans and me

After some hours, they figured that the largest bags should cost $100, medium $70 and small $50. They usually charged $5 to $20 each for them. And then I started sorting. I was looking for bags with exceptional design, and fine stitching. I chose about 7 bags out of the piles they had made in hope of my return. They made note of the bag with each woman’s name. And then I took out the cash. The men had also crowded around and as I started handing hundreds of dollars out to the women, I could hear murmurs of awe and surprise from the men. The women stowed their money carefully and proudly.

I felt like that little meeting already made such an impact. I could almost feel the power shift in the air. A woman who stays home and makes one of her traditional bags can make as much money as a man who leaves the community to work on a far away coffee plantation. It empowered the women and it empowered the craft.