After working in international development in Afghanistan for seven years, Hedvig Alexander had an epiphany: she realized that the country’s most talented artisans and craftspeople were unable to connect with buyers and markets abroad. To remedy that she founded Far + Wide Collective, an online retail business that showcases emerging-market crafts. We sat down with Hedvig to get the inside scoop on her vision and the beautiful business she has created…
TS - Long before “hand-crafted” “artisanal” and “sustainable” were buzzwords, you were focusing on these very concepts and translating them into a business. How did that come about?
I started Far + Wide Collective because after almost a decade working in development in Afghanistan, I saw first-hand that the biggest obstacle to achieving economic success and a better life for so many was lack of access to international markets and the global economy.
After agriculture, the crafts sector is the second largest employer in most developing countries, but because most artisans do not have access to international markets they cannot earn a living wage. The sector represents a very big opportunity for millions living in poverty – most of whom are women – to earn a living and perhaps even own their own business.
My interest in finding a new and more sustainable solution to combatting poverty, combined with renewed interest in the market for beautiful, handmade and authentic products, was a perfect combination.
TS - From that combination, how did the brand form and how has it changed as it grows?
To be honest, I was initially not intending to create a brand, rather I wanted to showcase the artisans but I quickly realized that it’s impossible to grow a business without having a clear and well-articulated brand. This was how Far + Wide Collective was born. As a brand we have become more design focused and, I hope, better at making artisanal products more relevant to the North American consumer.
TS - Can you expand on how hands-on Far + Wide is in showcasing the artisans and how you’ve actually changed lives for the better?
We strongly believe in creating sustainable revenue and income for our partner artisans and producers. We support them in two ways: one, by simply providing a stream of increasing orders, which means money directly into the pockets of the artisans; two, we invest in training, product development and capacity building. To this end we have developed the Artisan Toolkit, a richly-illustrated crafts business instructional manual accompanied with audio and video for artisans with low levels of literacy. The objective of the Toolkit is to help artisans turn their skills into a business opportunity and earn a fair income. It was initially launched in Afghanistan, but is now also available to artisans in Iraq and Myanmar. We are hoping to launch it in Guatemala and Kenya next year.
TS - How do you find the artisans featured on Far + Wide Collective?
From my time in development and living around the world I have a large network in the sector that so far has provided a steady stream of artisan partners.
TS - Is there a common trait that all artisans share?
Most often they have similar circumstances: lower levels of literacy, small size producers, they live in rural areas and are women. What they all have in common is that they need opportunity – to connect to the global economy and international consumers.
TS - You mention most are women and your team is made up of women – was that intentional?
Not at all in fact. I spent quite a few years as an officer in the Danish Army so have for large parts of my life been in very male-dominated environments. I just find that there are so many intelligent and wonderful women out there – hard to not just want to hire them all.
TS - Far from the “craft show stereotype,” Far + Wide goods have been featured in luxury publications such as Vogue, Elle, even Mercedes Benz magazine. How does that make you feel?
I am proud of that. If we really want to broaden the market for handcrafted products – and the opportunities for the women that produce them – we also need to make them fashionable, relevant and, most of all, aspirational.
TS - Why should people shop Far + Wide Collective?
Hopefully because they like our products! They are functional, beautiful and can really add to a home or wardrobe, but I hope also because we as consumers are becoming more conscientious. We can make an incredible difference with the way we decide to spend our money and consume.
TS - With that in mind, tell us about The Pin Project.
This past week, on November 15, we launched The Pin Project’s global campaign on Kickstarter. The objective is to galvanize direct support for the 65 million-plus refugees and displaced persons around the world. We do this by selling a beautiful pin handcrafted by refugees themselves which generates immediate income for those who produce it. A recent UNHCR report states that craft is one out of three viable livelihoods for refugees. We’re encouraging people to wear the pin as a badge of honour, giving the general public – the many who want to help but don’t know how – a chance to make a difference in one of the greatest challenges of our times. One-hundred percent of the proceeds go back to paying wages, building workshops, buying tools and equipment and facilitating further training.
TS - What’s on your Far + Wide wish list this holiday – both to give and receive?
Far + Wide and my wish list are identical: to convince more consumers that they need a little bit of Far + Wide in their lives so that we can grow the business and make an even greater impact.
Having said that, I really enjoy a good, interesting dinner party and try to always arrive with the perfect host gift. Our ceramic bowls are fantastic for holiday dishes and dips, our newly introduced hand towels go great in any style of guest bathroom and I love arriving at a party with one of our paper-mache bowls filled with homemade goodies or candies. The hand-crafted walnut-wood jali tray is definitely on my personal wish list this year!
TS - Where do you see Far + Wide 10 years from now?
I hope we will have become a strong visionary design business and, in the process, have helped start and drastically grown many more local businesses in poor economies.
TS - What’s the best compliment you’ve received about Far + Wide?
That our products are beautiful and that consumers feel good about buying them because they feel they made a real impact.