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What is Fair Trade?

Posted by The Dharma Door USA in Fair Trade, Stories, Travels on March 9, 2015

As some of you know, my wife and I have been French Antique dealers for 17 years. We are good at it, and love what we do. A few years ago, with three young boys to raise, coupled with a huge recession, we started searching for another income that we could love, and believe in, as much as our antiques business.  I am a story teller by nature… I love the provenance of pieces and believe that often the back story is as important as the item itself… so we started our search.

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Our friends in Australia, Shannon and Mick, have spent the last fifteen years building relationships, trust, and a company that sells quality products made by Fair Trade NGO’s in Bangladesh. We have watched them grow and have always been impressed with their integrity, and ability to develop multiple lines of goods, including an exclusive range of baskets and home wares, that bridge contemporary styling with time honored production methods. We were thrilled when, in 2013, they asked us to become a part of The Dharma Door team to represent this beautiful, original collection throughout North America. As with the French antiques, I knew that in order to feel fully vested in the products, I had to be a part of this story as well.  I wanted to see first hand how Fair Trade works, so I traveled with Shannon to Bangladesh in April of 2014, for 16 days.

From the moment I arrived, I was blown away by the gracious and hospitable locals and organizations that we work with throughout the country. There are four distinct groups that work with us to develop our original designs using traditional techniques. Mick and Shannon handle the design work and we give input based on our demographic and market. The success of The Dharma Door has allowed these groups to grow and train more woman, enriching the lives of so many families.

smile weavers

The conversations with our artisans were so moving. They were grateful for the education and supplies provided to their children, and thankful for the chance to be trained in crafts that allow them to remain in their villages, earning up to 5 times the local wages. During each question and answer session with the women, the first question they always asked was, “How can we get more work?.”  After we made it past that, we asked them how this opportunity had changed their lives. One woman pinched her dress and pulled at it… I didn’t understand, so our friend Kohinoor, (the female CEO of one of our producer groups), translated: “She is proud to be able to buy her own clothes.”  Another woman indicated with a flat hand waving above her head that she was able to repair and re-build her own home. Some of the woman that had been with the group for several years, beamed when they shared that they had also purchased livestock and even land. This was practically unheard of in this country before the presence of Fair Trade NGO’s.

school workroom villagesOne group has built several schools throughout the country where they provide education for all children, from Hindu, Muslim and Christian backgrounds, all coming together to learn.  Access to free education means they will be less likely to be lured by extremism, opening up possibilities that allow them more choices in their future lives.  The children greeted us with a marigold petal shower and after we settled in to their school, which doubles as a workshop for their mothers in the afternoon, they introduced themselves one at a time. They were excited to show us their backpacks and school supplies proved by the organization. shoes lull villagesThey serenaded us with “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” When they were done all of the students started pointing to me. Kohinoor explained that they would like a song in return. There I was in Northern Bangladesh, 30 minute drive to Nepal, in a town with no electricity, sweating like crazy because it was 100+ degrees and super humid, on the spot in front of 25 young children. I stood up, searching my jet-lagged brain to remember my boys favorite songs, and with a deep breath, started “The….wheels on the bus go round and round…round and round….round and round….”  Thankfully, Shannon chimed in and we made it through several choruses before I was knackered. Lots of little 4-5-6 year old hands clapping and smiles everywhere!

charcoal villages  crew at school villages

The same buildings that are used as classrooms in the mornings, become work spaces in the afternoons.  The women gather to complete their work, share techniques and socialize.  It was so interesting to learn more about jute, how it’s grown, harvested, stored & how much skill it takes to transform it into our beautiful baskets.  (I tried my hand at it and you can be thankful that my efforts are not included in your beautiful baskets!)  It was truly an honor to be there with Shannon, talking with the ladies, describing what happens after the baskets leave their hands, and thanking them all for their hard work.

As we approached one of the schools in another village, a lady stepped out of her home, talking very quickly, thrusting a tray filled with white paper tubes towards me. I turned to Kohinoor for assistance, as I didn’t understand what was being asked of me. Kohinoor explained that she lives in a village where several of the ladies had received the training to make our jute wares. This woman wanted the training too, as she currently was employed by a local cigarette company that paid her a mere 20 cents for every 1000 cigarettes she hand rolled. To get an idea of the metric we are talking about, the average wage in Bangladesh is less than one dollar a day. So although a woman making 4-5 dollars a day doesn’t sound like much to Westerners, it makes a very big difference in the life of someone in Bangladesh.  It would be like if you made $20,000 this year and $80,000 to $100,000 a year the next… how much would that change your life?

cig tubes  K talks villages

The group that makes all of our printed fabric products was first started in the late 1970’s. Most of the women come to work in this open, airy courtyard and one story warehouse. Once the ladies have finished their apprenticeship, they earn their own sewing machine and can continue to work for the group, contract back to them or start their own business.  This organization also provides training on nutrition, health care & women’s legal rights, as well as leadership training and a savings & micro-loan program.

ESP quality check    Flora display

On our visit, Shannon showed them a photo from the display of their finished bags at the amazing Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. These talented artisans use our original designs to create each piece by hand. It was such a pleasure to be able to take the time to spend days with them, in person, working on new designs.  Their enthusiasm and good nature was a joy to be around. We brought little gifts for the kids like pencils, superhero washcloths and stickers, which were a big hit.

silk screen S S silkscreen

Saidpur Ladies sewing

I loved seeing first-hand the entire silk screen process, construction and sewing of the bags.

Our last visit was to one of the newest producer groups, started by an amazing couple from Italy.  Over the last 40 years, they have nourished and developed an incredible 300-acre compound that provides meals, a medical clinic for the locals, as well as physiotherapy for children with a wide range of disabilities. This is near & dear to my heart as we have a child with Down syndrome. To think that in one of the poorest counties in the world, this level of care is being provided, in part because of our working with this organization, just blows me away.

Enzo and laura

I sure didn’t expect to get greeted with fresh cream puffs that melted in my mouth and fresh water on the entire campus. Wow!   The project has been funded over the years by private Italian donors and the proceeds of the Fair trade goods they produce for us and several other buyers. They feed 500-700 children breakfast every morning and provide training and work opportunities in various workshops. They also provide jobs for up to 700 woman in the region, who work both at home and at the campus. Truly an inspiring experience to spend time with such selfless people who have such passion for what they do.

enzo in field

Macrame, in its finest form, these hand-tied hanging curtains can take up to a week to finish. Our new jute string bags are light, but sturdy, and can hold a large volume of fresh produce. Sumptuous, beautiful craftsmanship that is an extension of their traditional styles

Rope hang in home     Jute string bags

At the Dharma Door we have invested our future in developing these products with a fantastic pool of dedicated artisans. We have chosen to make this our life’s work knowing that not only will this help our family through the years to come, it also provides opportunity and hope on the other side of the world. In this ever-homogenized world, we are inundated with factory produced goods and corporations that favor the profit margin and shortcuts, over beauty and quality.  We are proud to be involved in building an enlightened and ethical company. Being a small part of the growing Fair Trade community, allows me to reflect & reevaluate so much of how I live, and the imprint I want to make along the way.

What kind of world do I want to leave for my children?

One where each & every human life is valued, nurtured and celebrated.

 

william&friend          OT clinic

 

 

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ABOUT THE DHARMA DOOR

Our aim is to bring the highest quality designer Fair Trade homewares, gifts and stationery to an audience that values contemporary design.

The Dharma Door has travelled the world to find the most highly skilled Fair Trade artisans, using only the best quality raw materials - the result is an exclusive collection of contemporary jute baskets, bamboo tableware, bags & totes, wrapping paper, book bags and much more.

When you shop with The Dharma Door, not only are you purchasing a beautifully designed and impeccably handcrafted product, you are engaging with a product that tells a story with every stitch and every fibre.

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