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Nepal RPCV Jeff Kaley works with villagers in remote regions to design and produce handcrafts
Nepal RPCV Jeff Kaley works with villagers in remote regions to design and produce handcrafts
Trading cultures In his Asian imports store in Blue Hill
Jul 31, 2004
Bangor Daily News
by Kristen Andresen; Of The News Staff
The first time Jeff Kaley traveled to Asia, he went as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching villagers sustainable agriculture, cooking techniques and nutrition. Though he had traveled the world extensively, the visit to Nepal in 1967 changed his life.
"I began living in communities where I became part of the daily life," said Kaley, now 57. "I wasn't just a traveler. Even though I was a young man, I was able to contribute to their community."
Today, Kaley continues to contribute, and his sphere of influence has expanded to include Nepal, India, Thailand and Vietnam. But instead of working the earth, he works with villagers in remote regions to design and produce handcrafts. He travels four to six months a year and stores personal belongings in six villages in the four countries so he can travel light.
His business, Asian World Imports in Blue Hill, includes a retail shop, a gallery, a wholesale operation and online storefront, all of which purvey handmade merchandise.
"These are all traditional skills that are turned into a product that we can sell here," Kaley said recently in the office of his shop.
He touches a delicate scarf in luminous blue silk made by a weavers cooperative in northeastern Thailand. It is an arid area with little industry, and many of the men have left to find work. The cooperative has given women in the region a chance to earn a living.
"Each village patterns its traditional weave," Kaley explains. "They're revitalizing old skills. They grow the silk, grow the cotton, weave the old patterns and use vegetal dyes."
In weaving the old patterns, these women also are creating new social patterns.
"They're now becoming major contributors to their families," Kaley said. "Traditionally, men ruled the roost. Women are claiming their share of power by bringing opportunities to their families that they wouldn't have had otherwise."
The collective also has given the women a forum to learn about health care, medicine and growing and cooking food. Some have even started to practice yoga.
And at the end of the day, this is what keeps Kaley going. He is a member of the Fair Trade Federation, an organization of wholesalers, retailers, and producers who are committed to providing fair wages and sustainable employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide. Since he founded Asian World Imports in 1984, Kaley has developed personal friendships with many of his producers. To him, it's much more than a business.
"I'm not there just to get the best deal," said Kaley, who often negotiates up in price with his producers, rather than down. "It's all ridiculous in terms of our dollar's buying power. It shouldn't be on their backs to make our money. You can still have good products, good pricing, good selection and do it in a fair-trade way."
Kaley's not alone. Bjorn Claeson of Peace through Interamerican Community Action in Bangor said he gets inquiries "all the time" from retailers interested in selling goods made in sweatshop-free conditions.
"Places like that are a growing trend at this point," Claeson said. "People wonder where are the contractors that they can work with to make sure the workers are being treated with respect and dignity. They know shoppers want those kinds of products."
In a recent study, sociologist Ian Robinson of the University of Michigan placed two sets of Wigwam socks side by side in a Detroit- area department store. One had a yellow label that proclaimed "GWC," which meant the socks were made in "good working conditions." They were priced 20 percent higher than the other socks, which had no label but were otherwise identical.
He found that when priced the same, an equal number of people bought the labeled socks as opposed to the unlabeled socks. As soon as there was a price differentiation, 25 percent of consumers were willing to pay 20 percent more for apparel certified as sweatshop- free. This is a decrease from previous surveys by the University of Maryland and Marymount University, in which between 76 percent and 86 percent of American consumers stated they would pay 20 percent more for a $20 garment.
"What people say they would do and what they actually do is not always the same thing," Claeson said.
But Kaley has an advantage in the relationships he has with the producers, and the stories he tells about them.
"I think it means something entirely different for the consumer," Claeson said. "You can pick up a piece of clothing at any large name- brand retailer, and you can look at the label and see where it's made, but you have no idea. When you buy the product from Jeff Kaley, he can tell you the personal story of the people who made this product. You're much closer to the actual producer."
As he walked through his shop, which is packed with jewelry, teas, artwork, handmade paper, antiques, clothing, stationery and other items, Kaley stops to pick up a jacket embroidered with tiny cross-stitch.
"Abu made this," he said.
As a visitor picks up sheet after sheet of pulpy paper, some printed, other inlaid with petals, Kaley describes the fibers used in each paper, the region it came from and the people who made it.
Upstairs, in the office, he logs on to his computer and opens digital pictures of Sita Sheling, "an angel," he says with a smile. Sheling runs the Mechi English School, a boarding school in Nepal that her late husband founded. In addition, she takes in battered and widowed women and trains them to weave traditional dhaka tapestries so they can become financially independent.
When Kaley met her in 2003, he was taken by her generosity and determination. He was equally taken by the fine weaving, which is later made into dresses, blouses, hats, shawls and tablecloths.
"We started to talk about cloth, and I asked her, 'How much is this piece?' She replied, and I said, 'That's not enough money,'" Kaley said.
He knows fine work when he sees it - Kaley is an accomplished woodworker - but he also helps his producers innovate new uses for traditional products.
"I have a craft background as well as the ability to communicate with them, so I can work with them," Kaley says of the myriad artisans whom he commissions to do work. "I find producers who produce things I'm willing to buy, and, unlike most, I advance them money."
It wasn't always this easy. The idea for Asian World Imports came about when Kaley returned to Nepal 13 years after his Peace Corps stint. The people there remembered him in a helping capacity, and they still saw him in that role.
"They said, 'The first time you visited, we learned about the things that were possible, but we don't know how to make it happen,'" Kaley remembered. "At that point, I decided I would support craftspeople by finding what they could produce that would be marketable."
At first, it wasn't easy finding garments and handcrafts that would appeal to a Western sensibility.
"Poor people are happy to have a shirt," Kaley said. "If the pocket isn't lined up, they don't care. Or if the color's not right. That, to them, wasn't yet an issue. We're a much more sophisticated market here."
He developed partnerships with each of his producers, guiding the design, overseeing the manufacturing end and checking the quality of the finished product. Then, he expanded to other countries, trekking thousands of miles into far-flung regions of India, Thailand, Vietnam and most recently Burma, to find unique items.
"If it's handmade, I'm interested in having it, especially if it's done well or if it's indicative of the traditional art of a culture," Kaley said.
So are his customers, who have been known to spend an entire day in the shop. Some custom-order clothing, while others ask Kaley to search for antiques on his travels. Some stop in and don't buy anything, but he doesn't mind, especially if they learn something when they visit.
"It's just an adventure to go out in the world and see what I can find," Kaley said. "It's not just shopping and it's not just stuff. It's an opportunity to know more about where your money is going and understand that your money is really impacting people's lives."
Asian World Imports is located on Pleasant Street (Route 15) in Blue Hill. For information, visit www.asianworldimports.com or call 374-2284.
| This Month's Issue: August 2004|
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.