JUL Designs started as a relationship. In 2006 in Bali, Indonesia, I met Agus Budi Astradhi who, since 2008, has been my creative partner and a collaborator in developing JUL as a Fair Trade company specializing in knitwear jewelry and accessories for needlearts makers. Our relationship didn’t start as a true collaboration, however. It took hard work to forge the partnership we have now.
The term “Fair Trade” typically refers to a direct transaction between producer and buyer in which the buyer agrees to a price the producer determines is fair and the work is completed under humane conditions. The goods are produced and sold without using exploitative practices that benefit the buyer while hurting the producer. Fair Trade is win-win.
For JUL, Fair Trade means more than this. Fair Trade starts with a transformation of the relationships of production into creative partnerships. And for JUL, this transformation started with the original relationship between me and Agus before it worked its way into the relationships we have with our artisans. Creative partnership in product development is the most fundamental and humane aspect of our business — the establishment of an equal and collaborative practice, not just a fair price structure for goods exchanged between producer and buyer.
Today, Agus and I take collective responsibility for design and product development and we each manage the administrative aspects of the business within our respective locations. He takes care of production in Indonesia. I take care of global sales, marketing, and production in the United States. That description sounds simple and balanced, but it’s not simple and it didn’t start out balanced. When we first worked together, I was the tree and Agus was my fruit (anak buah). This relationship of tree and fruit is a Balinese model of hierarchy within which we both knew where we fit. I didn’t want a fruit, though. I wanted a collaborator. I wanted us both to be trees.
My relationship to Bali as a place is complicated. I’m an anthropologist. I did my PhD fieldwork on the island for two years with my son, who is half Balinese and was a little boy at the time (now 21). I speak the language. I understand the culture. So I understood this tree/fruit relationship as one where I occupied the position of boss, dictating and delegating every detail. Fruits don’t make decisions; they take direction. Fruits wait for the tree.
If the tree doesn’t give the order, nothing happens. Years ago, our production slowed and our designs were not delivering on time. I didn’t understand why. When I questioned Agus about it, he said his embarrassment made him afraid to go check on the status of our order because we had not paid our producers. I asked why we hadn’t paid them and he said he was waiting for me to tell him what to do. This was a Balinese tree/fruit dynamic playing out.
I protested that I hadn’t known they needed payment and rather than being afraid and staying away, he should go make the payment. And then I proposed a change that re-positioned him. I asked him to take responsibility for managing production based on his knowledge of the situation. In sum, I asked him to stop being a fruit. And that, too, sounds simple. But, the roles of tree and fruit are deep and multi-faceted, affecting every aspect of working together. And while I can describe this relationship through my anthropological lens and relate my desire for Agus to take on a sense of ownership and become the collaborator I wanted, his experience has been different.
I asked him to put into writing a description of what it has been like to work with me over the past decade, including what he has found challenging. In the paragraphs that follow, I have translated excerpts of his response, concentrating on those aspects that speak to the difficulties he has faced in the process of abandoning the role of fruit to take on that of a tree. What he focused on was creativity and the differences he between us on our approaches to the creative process. He does not frame these as by-products of moving from fruit to tree or altering a Balinese cultural model of hierarchy within working relationships, but I think we can see his account in these terms. Becoming a tree in a design business targeting a predominantly American audience has meant Agus has had to develop new ways of thinking about creativity that goes against the Balinese cultural grain. Here are his words:
(Please note that in the Indonesian language a person’s name is typically used instead of a pronoun. I have retained this feature of Agus’ account)
My focus in the past has been on how the capabilities of our artisans, the tools they use, and our materials, can limit our ability to realize our ideas. This focus comes from the fact that I am fairly pessimistic and afraid that the designs we are working on will fail, that we will have wasted our energy, our time, money. It has also been my tendency to stick to safe ideas that are already present in the marketplace, rather than to be confident enough to work with ideas outside of the norm, because of concerns like those I mentioned before.
In addition, I think differences in culture, education, and experience affect the way we view situations and ideas and what can become a source of inspiration. I have tended to work within safe bounds with ideas and design, totally different from Laura who explores new and fresh ideas. This difference in approach, in the beginning, often meant that it was as if I had to force myself to try to understand Laura’s perspective or to move in the direction Laura wanted to pursue. I was just following along with a sense of anxiety about whether a design would work, whether we would run into production problems, whether the cost would be too high, and whether the customer would want to buy it.
My inclination, in the beginning, was just to wait for Laura‘s instructions or decisions because Laura was the one who understood the conditions of the market [in America]. This situation eventually made Laura push me to be braver in trying new things and to develop opinions. I had to trust my perspective in relation to whether a particular design was successful the way it was or not. Often Laura would say “there is no harm in trying” in response to my explanations of the difficulty or expense of producing a particular design. This feeling of not believing in myself, perhaps, comes from the influence of Balinese culture. It’s as if we subjugate ourselves, don’t believe in ourselves. I encounter this often in my interactions with our artisans, too, especially those who are Balinese.
This is something so valuable that I have gotten out of my work over the years with Laura and has caused a change in me: the development of an optimistic outlook, a self-confidence, and a willingness to try new things. This has transformed my daily life. I am more open and accepting of new ideas, which I can now consider without a fear of failure or making mistakes because I remember what Laura always says – “there is no harm in trying.”
The situation now is so much better than it was some years ago because of this openness I have developed in my thoughts as well as the ease of communication by video-chat instead of email. It’s so much easier to discuss new ideas. Recently, when I see Laura experimenting with new materials I have never tried, I have a feeling like “when will I get to try that out?” or “I also want to try working with that material,” like there is a kind of impulse to do something more, something new. I feel that lately, I am trying to explore new ways to push my ideas to become interesting designs.
Developing our alternative to a Balinese cultural hierarchy of work and roles described by the dynamic between tree and fruit takes our consistent effort. Agus and I are still chipping away at patterns of deference in our own relationship, and putting in place a cultural fusion of practices that integrate Balinese and American models of work and relating. My tendency is to see the effects of this dynamic in our management of production or the timely completion of administrative tasks like bookkeeping. But for Agus, moving away from the tree/fruit model means changing his way of thinking in a way that extends far beyond production logistics.
So how does what Agus and I have worked on in our relationship affect the transactions between artisans and buyers that definitions of Fair Trade emphasize? Agus alludes to this when he talks about his interactions with artisans and the emotional and psychological impact of a Balinese hierarchy—that is, a sense of pessimism, a lack of self-confidence, and a reluctance to try new things. Agus has worked with our artisans for the same decade I have worked with him. And over that time he has developed a critical criterion in assessing an artisan or workshop: are they willing to try new things? Are they willing to engage in creative problem-solving? Are they willing to collaborate? Are they ready to become a creative partner? For us, Fair Trade starts and ends with relationships. &