Featured Maker: Jenny Cleveland of Creative Women

A note from Erin: Our first six Featured Makers were all American artisans. For our next six Featured Makers, we’ve decided introduce you to some of our fair trade partners. One thing we hope you’ll see from these interviews is how connected we all are. Our fair trade makers all have roots in the United States, and the artisans they work with in other countries pursue dreams and goals very similar to those you’ve heard our American makers express in the series so far. The first is Jenny Cleveland from Creative Women.

Q: So what exactly do you do at Creative Women? What is your position?

JC: Creative Women is owned by me and Leigh Williams. We work with only one other person, so we are a small business. Everyone does everything.

Q: That sounds like a lot for just three people.

JC: It is, it is a lot. We would love to to bring in more people. We’re about paying artisans and helping small businesses grow. But we also want the products to be affordable so we try to keep it lean.

Q: So tell me about how you got into fair trade? What brought you to Ethiopia? What motivates you?

JC: So the company was started in the early 2000s, at the same time as our Ethiopian partners. We [Jenny and Leigh] came to the company two years ago. We were in Ethiopia working with a fund that helped small businesses grow into medium-sized enterprises but in our free time we kept returning to this small weaving business to learn more. The process was fascinating to us as well as the history and attitudes surrounding the craft.

When we got back to the states, the woman who founded Creative Women was looking to retire, and it felt like an amazing opportunity for us. We were already familiar with the Ethiopian business, but we’ve had to learn a lot about the weaving process, so there was something of a learning curve there.


Q: What can you tell me about the crafting process that you’ve learned?

JC: Cotton is grown in Ethiopia and is handspun by women so the materials and process are start to finish in Ethiopia. Spinning is traditional work for women while men traditionally work the looms. Our design process plays out on the loom and is a collaboration with the makers.

Q: How do you maintain a fair trade network? What goes into maintaining a system like that?

JC: I think that one thing I’ll differentiate is that we are part of the Fair Trade Federation, so we adhere to certain principles and are committed to putting those in action.

We have a so much security in the US; things flow the way they are supposed to flow. In other countries you are dealing with fluctuations in their economy and environment, their electricity and Internet, and you have to understand work doesn’t supercede everything else the way it can here. So there is a flexibility that you need: in timing, in getting materials, and in cost.

It does all come together, though, and the challenges makes it really alive and really fun.

Q: What can you tell me about the women who make these products? What are their lives like thanks to the fair trade network?

JC: Let me explain. Creative Women was founded to support women-owned businesses, and to increase the role women can have as business leaders and role models. But we don’t just work with women, even though we emphasize women-owned businesses.

Ethiopia is a gender divided place. Women spin the cotton. Men weave it. This has changed some but predominantly this is how it works.

For the women there, it is fantastic to see a woman running a business in Ethiopia. Women also say it is a safe way to make an income. It works around raising children as well. The two big benefits we hear is that women can do this instead of day labor -- that they have a safer way to make a living with our partner and a steady reliable income. It is hard to emphasize how important that truly is.

Our Ethiopian partner is also world fair trade certified. They provide savings accounts, benefits, and a fair wage. They work to employ people holistically. Many of their original employees are still there. The women spin, sew, fringe, do quality control, sales, and dyeing. They receive exposure as to how businesses are run. Their staff is more than 60% women.

Before the interview proper began, Jenny and I naturally fell into conversation about consumers and consumer awareness. During that conversation, I asked her:

Quinstance: Do you think consumers want to be informed about the products they are buying?

JC: I think they do want to be informed, but it is hard to be outside an industry and know what to ask. What the label says is all they get; so I do think they want to be informed, but it’s up to us and retailers to make it easy to get facts, not just marketing.


Q: How has the changing consumer landscape, with more people becoming aware of how their products are made, affected your business?

JC: What we have seen is an increased demand for handmade products. We’ve seen a quest for knowledge about the origin of the product, a consciousness of doing no harm, as well as a real desire for consumers to contribute in some way.

If they know that the product is good for the environment, or if it helps someone economically, it does motivate them to buy it. We’ve seen consumers get savvier and more committed to making their purchases count for something. There are now so many ways to do that. Now that those options are there, consumers are going to choose them.

Q: How is fair trade connected to us? How does what you do with these women in Ethiopia affect the people here in Massachusetts? Which I realize is a rather difficult question, in hindsight.

JC: Yeah, I was about to say, we’re a small business, so we have a smaller view into these questions. It’s a little difficult. I can give you a window from what I have seen from working with stores like yours.

Q: That’s fine, you can just give what you have seen in regards to the question.

JC: I can do my best.

What you asked about earlier--about the consumers-- I think they care. I think they are trying to make a good decision. We can accomplish something important by shopping. We can direct our purchases to something meaningful, to helping others, and people understand that. It’s becoming a part of shopping culture. That’s astounding.

I think consumers rely on the retailers they choose to be patrons of to offer ethical products. They put their trust in their stores like yours to do the due diligence. With stores like yours there is also a personal touch that is new and beneficial.

It is up to small businesses like us to be vigilant and transparent. It spreads the wealth around the world in a way that is new, that you couldn’t do 15 years ago. It lets people into an economy that a decade ago they were shut out of. It is exciting in that way.

It is challenging to work with a new culture, to get it to a consumer, to impart all the knowledge about the product, but we do our best to be transparent and live up to the fair trade principles.

Some of the ways we do things are new, and we do it for more than just for profit.


Q: That was awesome.

JC: Yeah?

Q: Yeah that was great.

Q:  What is next for Creative Women and the women who work with it?

I think we would like to expand. We are in the process of meeting other artisans. We take on partners very slowly, because we make a commitment to work with them over years, not seasons. We started with 5 weavers and now it is over 70. It has taken years, but it is rewarding to see.

I hope we continue to help preserve the craft, especially the handspun process. I would like people to feel handspun cotton; it’s soft and durable. A unique experience is people touching it and falling in love with it.

Q: Jenny Cleveland, what is your quinstance?

JC: I have a quinstance from Ethiopia. When we were working there we relied on a driver, Benny, who we became friends with.  

Ethiopia has national pride like no other. It is so vibrant to be there, they really love their country, and they can’t wait to introduce you to it. There is a joy there that is inescapable. In Ethiopia everything is red, green, and yellow—the national colors.  It’s a very bright culture, not like the neutrals happening here. When we were getting ready to leave the country, Benny gave us these brightly colored scarves that we wore for the rest of our time there. It was really heartfelt and an inclusive way of saying goodbye. It was a beautiful gift. It was like carrying that brightness with me. It reminds me of the very beginning of my time with Creative Women. It’s something I hold onto now.