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Designing Society

© Goethe-Institut Bangladesh I Local International

Designing society: In a German-Bangladeshi exchange program, the participants explore design between aesthetics and social entrepreneurship

By Anna Kessel

Development aid organizations and NGOs in Bangladesh have recognized artisanal textile production as an opportunity to offer people from low-income backgrounds employment and to strengthen rural infrastructures. Within Germany, too, there is a growing number of companies that are trying to create economic prospects for disadvantaged people on the primary labor market through targeted manual involvement in design processes. In the exchange program LOCAL INTERNATIONAL IV
social design + crafts, students and young designers from Berlin and Dhaka meet founders who are committed to the idea of ​​social entrepreneurship. All parties, as it turns out, can learn from each other in exchange – as relevant design today not only requires a holistic understanding of local conditions and global markets, but needs an interdisciplinary and resource-oriented approach.

Nawshin Khair: “artisanal ecosystems“

Although there is a general understanding of the term ‘social design’ throughout the online seminars, the approaches of the invited entrepreneurs are as diverse as are the stories behind their products. Companies based in Bangladesh such as  Living Blue, Aranya or the fair trade company​​​​​​​ Prokritee provide good examples of how economically marginalized communities can be strengthened through the approach of building artisanal networks. 

Invited as a guest to the exchange program, Swapan K. Das, Executive Director of Prokritee, explains how the organization, which was developed primarily to economically strengthen women, now supports over 1,500 craftswo*men from rural areas. In eight craft groups, they manufacture products from renewable material sources such as recycled saris and natural fibers such as jute and silk – with success: Amongst others, Prokritee was able to win the successful British fashion company People Tree, founded by fair trade activist Safia Minney, as a partner. 

For Nawshin Khair, managing director of the fair trade label​​​​​​​ Aranya, too, social entrepreneurship is primarily about creating ‘artisanal ecosystems'. She furthermore shows how important a holistic understanding of local conditions is. Because she observed a stagnation in the development of the arts and crafts sector – due to a lack of resources, training opportunities and innovation through international exchange – she increasingly concentrated on establishing better networks within the crafts sector. In 2016 she founded the non-profit organizatio​​​​​​​n Bengal Craft Society to support the profit-oriented company Aranya, that focuses on high-quality fair trade crafts.

“It takes three years to create the livelihood of a community from scratch. No profit-making company can support this incubation period. This is where we start with the idea of ​​ecosystems.”

Nawshin Khair

The urgent occasion: Today, the Bengal Crafts Society secures the livelihoods of craftswo*men and economically meaningful networks among workshops, while Aranya guarantees their products gain access to national and international markets.

Lisa Jaspers: „Do-able, strength-based design“

She, too, is amongst the founders who provide the participants in the exchange program with their experience in the field of social entrepreneurship: Lisa Jaspers, founder of the Berlin fair trade label​​​​​​​ FOLKDAYS. The trained development economist has worked in the past for Oxfam as a consultant. Today she is, above all, a social entrepreneur. With FOLKDAYS and it’s international cooperations with 32 craftswo*men from 25 countries, she is committed to preserving arts and crafts under the premise of fair working conditions. Speaking from a German perspective, she particularly focuses on opening up international markets.

Jasper's decision to start her own label was based on the finding that infrastructure-strengthening projects such as building up the arts and crafts sector are sensible economic measures, but in the projects of international NGOs there is still too little awareness of good design and knowledge about how to create international market access. The time-consuming handcrafted products then, too often, end up as cheap mass-produced goods in Europe. According to Jaspers, what is needed are fair trade products that appeal to a younger, design-oriented target group. However, these demands must be implemented on eye level with the producers. With FOLKDAYS she therefore collaborates with craft businesses following the premise of "doable design":

“We don't want to just create a beautiful product and then ask someone to make something he/she is not familiar with. This all too often leads to frustration and problems at policy level when working together. Instead, we concentrate on strengthening existing skills and focus on products that give our craftswo*men the opportunity to produce them in high quality. ”

Lisa Jaspers

How successful this strength-based design approach is, Jaspers has recently shown with the project​​​​​​​ IKAT/eCUT, a collaboration with the Goethe Institute and the nonprofit organization be able on the 'future of craftsmanship in clothing and textiles'. The textile residencies brought together six designers from Germany with producers of traditional textiles in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In local workshops, they jointly developed products that are characterized by high quality craftsmanship and traditional manufacturing and contemporary design.

Charlotte Ehrhorn und Constanze Klotz: „Talents over Diploma“

The founders of the Hamburg-based upcycling label Bridge&Tunnel. finally give a rather unusual and therefore all the more inspiring example of social entrepreneurship. They show that for the German participants, too, it pays off when it comes to social entrepreneurship in front of their own doorstep. With Bridge&Tunnel, the qualified textile designer Charlotte Erhorn and the cultural scientist Constanze Klotz successfully design and market upcycled denim products made from post- and pre-consumer waste. Their ecologically sustainable approach, which is implemented in cooperation with the​​​​​​​ Kleiderkammer Wilhelmsburg and Hanseatic Help , is not the only priority for the social enterprise. As the founders explain: "Above all, we want to build bridges to the primary job market." 'Talents over diploma' is their motto. The two entrepreneurs rely on the expertise and motivation of the women and men who find their way into the company – in close cooperation with the local job center. Bridge & Tunnel stands for a design approach that tries to rethink society on its own doorstep.

“Through many encounters, it quickly became clear to us that diplomas are not everything in life. Many of our employees either have no certificates or – due to their age, their language, their religion, their deafness or their refugee history – have so far had difficulties in finding a job on the primary job market. But: Many of them possess creative abilities and skills from their home countries or their family context, which are of great use for textile production.”

Charlotte Erhorn


Initiating change with small ideas – an outlook

The first examples in particular show how important it is for social design enterprises to understand local conditions on the one hand, and to also think about international markets on the other. Mahenaz Chowdhury, a participating student who founded her own upcycling label during her studies, knows from her own experience how difficult it is to access these markets – from understanding local infrastructures and finding the right sales platforms to the question of scalability. The exchange with the other founders opened up many new perspectives for her and encouraged her in her work: For the successful development of international markets, she resumes, it needs trained designers who provide the design of high-quality products and provide planning responding to customer needs and fair production standards. And, last but not least, designers who create the kind of added value that can mean a real financial improvement of the social project.

Samia Rafique, a young designer from Dhaka who in the past also worked for Aranya, is confident that companies will increasingly appreciate this added value in the future: “For me, social business means designing products that have a positive impact on the environment and society. The company's focus shouldn't be on quantity, but rather on selling quality products at fair prices.” She sees with confidence that the demand for such products is increasing: “When a handcrafted product combines high quality, timeless design and an authentic story, it will sell internationally. To do this, we have to successfully narrate precisely these stories.” How to narrate? The students and participants are currently showing their personal answers in the final project exhibition.

About the AUTHOR

Anna Kessel Anna Kessel studied cultural sciences. Her research focuses on textiles in visual arts with an emphasis on the weaving class at Bauhaus and its (post) colonial connections to Latin America. She co-founded the online magazine “die konsumentin”, where she writes about responsible fashion consumption, the textile industry, environmental and human rights.