Colorado State University Professor’s New Book Examines Artisan Employment as a Sustainable Enterprise

Mary Littrell, professor and head of the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University, recently published a new book that looks at artisan work as a form of income for the poor in developing countries. Littrell researched and wrote the book with co-author Marsha Dickson, professor at the University of Delaware.

In their book, “Artisans and Fair Trade: Crafting Development,” the authors write extensively about MarketPlace: Handwork of India, a fair-trade textile producer in India. The organization provides women who are largely slum dwellers with an income to help them better their own lives and those of their children. The book is intended for international development planners, sustainable business entrepreneurs and academics in development studies, applied anthropology and business sustainability.

Artisan enterprises provide a significant source of income for many in developing countries but there has been very little research on the impacts of such enterprises. Through their study, Littrell and Dickson show that a textile producer such as MarketPlace is able to succeed in its goal of empowering its workers while successfully marketing textile products to global consumers through its catalog and website.

“Fair trade businesses engage in paying a fair wage, providing healthy and safe working conditions, promoting environmental sustainability, offering business training and building long term trade relations,” Littrell said. “Fair trade offers one development model for artisans seeking a place in the global marketplace. Funding from the Earthwatch Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation allowed us to conduct extensive field research across a period of eight years in Mumbai and to develop a comprehensive analysis of the social, psychological and economic impacts of the fair trade work.

“We found that artisans contributed on average 40 percent of the household’s financial resources,” she said. “The women’s enhanced quality of life ranged from new material comforts to psychological and social well-being. Newly empowered women become proactive rather than passive about their lives and work, speaking up and taking action on behalf of other women and for their communities.”

Women seek work at MarketPlace for many reasons such as unemployed or ill husbands, being widowed or abandoned and their desire to improve their lives. The majority of women who work for MarketPlace pick up embroidery work from a central workshop and finish it by hand at home. This flexibility is crucial as women spend about seven hours per day on household tasks such as cooking, fetching water, caring for children and shopping for and preparing food. They can intersperse 5 to 6 hours per day of work for MarketPlace into managing their housework. This provides an alternative for those who cannot leave for an extended period to work as domestic help or in a factory.

The new book was launched in India at a celebration on Jan. 13 with 150 of the artisans.

Littrell has spent her career studying fair trade and social responsibility in the textile industry. Littrell and Dickson collaborated previously on “Social Responsibility in the Global Market: Fair Trade of Cultural Products.” Both books are available on

The Department of Design and Merchandising is in the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University. This year, the college is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its formation.