As the Fair Trade movement evolves around the world, we wanted to take a focused look at how Fair Trade helps communities around the world. In this interview, we asked two social enterprise founders/leaders, Pimarn Tovanabootr (SOAP'n'SCENT) and Mitos Urgel (WEAVE), a couple of questions about how their organisations help their communities and what being a woman in business meant to them.
Pimarn Tovanabootr (SOAP'n'SCENT)
PIMARN picked up her soap-making skills from a friend in the United States, and it first started as a hobby. She went back to Thailand in 2001 and decided to give the handmade soap business a shot, adapting and adjusting the recipe using local ingredients like turmeric, which is well-known as a beauty aid in Thailand. She later decided to use common herbs and ingredients that most people are familiar with, such as lavender, tea tree, etc. According to Pimarn, some customers don’t want to try something they don’t know. But once they try something, they’re familiar with, and like it, they are more open to the other herbs. Pimarn first started making her soaps in her kitchen and sold them at the Night Bazaar (in Thailand). It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time – the aromatherapy and spa business was starting to boom then, and people wanted to try handmade soap. She soon received more orders and once the business grew, so did her work area – she ended up converting the garage into a small factory. First, I took part in the garage. Everything was in there (about 4m x 4m.) – the office, the computer, our packing material, etc.,” recalls Pimarn. She later ended up using the whole garage and kept a small room in it as the office. Now the office is in the house and the showroom and stock room. Pimarn officially registered SOAP-n-SCENT as a business in 2004 and has been running it with her own money. So how did she feel when she sold her first few bars of soap? “In the beginning, it was fun and exciting. The very first few bars weren’t meant to become a serious business. It was pure joy and fun, and I was eager to try new things. I’d never been in any business before, so I had to learn everything by myself, how to find suppliers, how to deal with customers, manage the people, etc.,” says Pimarn. She also makes it a point to attend business seminars, especially those about management. When the business is more serious, there’s stress. There are time constraints, budget limitations, customer satisfaction to worry about, complaints, etc. I think it comes with any business, but I have to manage it to minimise the problems. That’s why things can stay fun, and I can enjoy running the business,” she adds. So, how challenging has it been to maintain the business? Pimarn reckons that anyone can make soap, but to make it well with consistent quality, especially when you have to deal with a large quantity, isn’t easy. “I think it’s about management and people. Also, I never stop learning; you need to have a desire to learn new things and be able to apply them to the business.”
Could you please share with us a bit about your organisation and its impact? We have started the business in 2017 and been provided with a job for local, hill tribe, disabilities to be our full-time workers. We believed it had improved their life constantly.
As you operate in Thailand, could you paint us a picture of what the current economic climate is and what it is like to run an enterprise there? Chiangmai is a craft and tourist city. We have much good skilled craftsmanship. A lot of craft company based in Chiangmai. The city itself support this kind of business. In the past 10-20years, many buyers would visit to make an order. But when the technology is good and the shipping is cheaper, fewer buyers come. They do not need to come; instead, they contact us via the internet. This also creates more opportunities for other channels for the manufacturers.
On the topic of Building Back Fairer, the Fair Trade movement slogan of 2021 - COVID has had an impact on communities globally. What has been the impact for the communities you work with, either positive or negative? Chiangmai is a tourist city, with the pandemic right now, it’s not very good overall. But there’s an all-new business that runs by young people. Overall I believe we are OK for the short term with help from the government. If we can open the country this year, I think the business could be back to almost normal. Since SOAP-n-SCENT is an export business, we are lucky that our wholesale customers can keep their business going (maybe online); we were struggling at the beginning of the lockdown in March, but the business is almost back to normal from the end of the year 2020 until the present. And we hope the new wave will not cause the business too much.
What are the key challenges in the modern supply chain that must be addressed using Fairtrade as a vehicle for change? Salary to match the living cost, not the minimum wage.
Your enterprise is a fair trade business, how does this model work with the communities you work with within Thailand? Why did you decide to become a World Fair Trade Organisation? Before becoming a WFTO member, we have Fairtrade customers, and we had to answer and fill out so many long forms. So we believed our business model qualified to become a member and therefore applied for membership. After becoming a member, we also met many more customers who are WFTO members or interested in doing fairtrade business.
How are you driving impact to build a groundswell for the Fairtrade movement in the places that you operate in? What is the response like from the local policymakers? How has your journey been? SOAP-n-SCENT received a Human Rights award in 2020 from the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection, best practice in small business. So they must see what we do and appreciate that we aim for a global standard.
What are the main challenges for the communities you work with in terms of employment, health, education, social and environmental issues and how is your organisation addressing these? We implement the environmental practices in the factory, but we want staff to practice in their daily life both at home and work. It’s very challenging. We hope that they could bring these practices to their families as well.
Are you able to share any success stories in relation to the communities you work with? Human Right Award 2020 for Best Practice for a Small Business, awarded by the Departments of Rights and Liberties Protection
To build back fairer (Fair Trade movement slogan for 2021), what do you believe is the best foot forward? What advice can you give any other businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic or any budding entrepreneurs keen to pursue a business that aligns with the Fairtrade movement? SOAP-n-SCENT does business in wholesale, so we need to know our customer and design to match their market, not our market. SOAP-n-SCENT
Mitos Urgel (Weave)
Ms Mitos Urgel is the President and CEO of WEAVE Foundation (Women's Education for Advancement and Empowerment) with an enterprise subsidiary Fair Trade Enterprise in Thailand. She is also the President and CEO of the World Fair Trade Organization in Asia, an alliance of over 150 Fair Trade Enterprises in Asia promoting justice in international trade. Mitos is passionately and actively working to advance the rights, status and dignity of refugees and underprivileged ethnic women and their children on the Thai-Myanmar border via education and economic empowerment interventions through Fair Trade for more than 20 years now WEAVE takes women's social, economical and political empowerment into action through educational programs, advocacy and Fair Trade social enterprise. WEAVE facilitates access and opportunities to generate safe and fair income of refugee women artisans through handicrafts development (for global market) and support to preserve time-honoured artisanry and culture. WEAVE fair trade handicrafts are nature-inspired collections of beautifully and lovingly handmade crafts co-created by the Karenni and other ethnic women from the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma and in Thai remote villages in Northern Thailand. Could you please share with us a bit about your organisation? WEAVE is a refugee powered organisation in Thailand with a subsidiary Fair Trade enterprise. Our work with the marginalised and disadvantaged refugee women was born out of the belief that the refugee women, as survivors of all violence, are potent drivers for change. We believe that encouraging their leadership and the development of their status benefits their families and communities. We create enabling spaces for them to access safe and fair employment opportunities, to build their capacities to drive and share power in building strong and resilient communities to practices that are environmentally and socially just, equitable and sustainable. Amongst the impact of Weave includes; 1. Elevating and improvement in the status and advancement of women 2. They are now in greater control over decision making, especially in how to allocate and utilise their earnings 3.They’re able to generate and work toward the creation of wealth 4. There is a significant improvement in family relationships and change in gender roles and relationships
As you operate in Thailand, could you paint us a picture of what the current economic climate is and what it is like to run an enterprise there? Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, Thailand’s craft sector had evolved in response to the social and economic forces that influence the country’s production structure, ranging from house to industrial levels. The craft industry output is increasing in the diversity of products and is becoming an essential part of the creative industries in Thailand; ⅓ of the total employment in the creative sector is from the craft industry. Perhaps more importantly, Thai handicrafts constitute a signature part of the country’s cultural legacy. Skills and knowledge have been accumulated and passed down through the generation; they’re woven into community life, the arts and the culture. The situation, of course, has been altered now due to the disruption caused by COVID-19; competition has further increased as the purchasing power of the consumer has now been directly geared towards essential products. The situation is also directly affecting the domestic sales of WEAVE Fair Trade, even though we only command 30% of the domestic market in Thailand. As we are working in handmade products, we cannot compete with the local economy where production is mass-based with lesser cost than ours. The business climate is competitive and highly challenging; the economy is terrible at the moment, with the tourism industry being extremely affected. On the topic of Building Back Fairer, the Fair Trade movement slogan of 2021 - COVID has had an impact on communities globally. What has been the impact for the communities you work with, either positive or negative?
COVID-19 has exposed the entrenched inequality in our world today; the disruption further exacerbated the situation. In the context of our communities, the lockdowns (Thailand being on its 4th wave) isolated us from our artisan producers, a significant handicap in continuing their employment. COVID-19 has shaken us to the core; it exposed the vulnerability of a refugee community to a more considerable extent, especially when they were cut off from the outside world to access safe and fair income. On the one hand, as the refugee population has been subjected to isolation, hardship, over-dependency for many decades now, the restriction was not something new to them. One of the positive responses in 2020 by the community of artisans of #weavewomen was their easy adaption of the pivoting of wear into the home-based production of masks. The facial fabric mask is fair trade created through the leadership of WFTO Asia as part of its immediate response to the fight against COVID.
What are the critical challenges in the modern supply chain that need addressing using the Fair Trade movement as a vehicle for change? There’s no doubt that the lack of transparency in the supply chain is among the major challenges, together with increasing waste generated during production, maybe as a result of inadequate planning processes. Questions like “Who’re the creators of your products?” and “ What and how is it made?” are crucial considerations, especially in looking at how these processes within the whole supply chain contribute to the health and well-being of the poeple, both producer and consumer, and our planet. Your enterprise is a fair trade business; how does this model your work with the communities you work with within Thailand? Why did you decide to become and Fair Trade organisation? Since the establishment of WEAVE, more than two decades ago, we had already differentiated our business approach to one that is pro-people, pro-environment. Early on, we knew our global economy had been failing us, with a widening disparity in wealth, which was in the hands of a limited few, with the poor getting poorer. We thought that having this idea, one of an alternative system must also be thought by like-minded individuals and groups; we know this thought isn’t unique to WEAVE. True enough, in 1997, we found the Fair Trade Federation in the United States and become a member. In 2010, we moved our membership to the World Fair Trade Organisation. Fair Trade became the common bond in our quest to create solutions to inequality, marginalisation, refugee livelihoods, women’s empowerment, unsustainable use of natural resources, and less environmentally friendly and unsustainable farming production systems and practices. The Fair Trade business model perfectly aligns with our vision and fits into the context of WEAVE, where it contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to securing the rights of marginalised artisan and farmer producers and the environment.
How’re you driving impact to build a groundswell for the fair trade movement in the places you operate? What has been the response from local policymakers? How has your journey been? Firstly, by creating champions within our ranks – #weavewomen. The fair-trade philosophy, principles and practices must be reflected in our work towards the transformation we need. The #weavewomen refugee artisans projects this changes/transformation in their communities. We also work with strategic leaders and partners as influencers. we started to gain momentum until we got caught by the covid-19 pandemic and the political upheaval in Burma.
At any rate, we, Weave Fair Trade, gained active supporters from several government line agencies in Thailand, in particular the operations centre for a displaced person, of the ministry of interior, in terms of allowing refugee livelihoods in temporary shelters where displaced persons are housed. Fairtrade has been recognised by our institutional partners, including the UN’s agency for refugees, as a significant business model that has the high potential to enable refugee women to regain confidence and increase financial independence to support their families and communities. What are the main challenges facing the communities you work with; in terms of employment, health, education, social and environmental issues, and how is your organisation addressing these issues? There’s a gamut of challenges that refugees are facing; in the areas of survival, protection, participation and access to quality education, health and safety. The refugee situation in the Thia-Hurma border is protracted, having existed in Thailand for more than three decades. The approximately 100,000 displaced persons in 9 refugee camps face food insecurities, inadequate health and education services, and most especially uncertainty and bleak future as stateless people. WEAVE’s projects offer a solution to address the priorities within the framework of two developmental goals; women’s economic empowerment and education for empowerment. To build back fairer (Fair Trade movement slogan for 2021), what do you believe is the best foot forward? What advice can you give any other businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic or any budding entrepreneurs keen to pursue a business that aligns with the Fairtrade movement? SMEs play a significant role in the economic development of a country and pursuing sustainable growth and employment generation. However, the pandemic and the financial crisis exposed the fragilities of the global supply chains. Micro and small enterprises at the bottom of the pyramid are always hit the hardest. The World Fair Trade Organisation is developing new business models that put people and the planet first; I would like to invite budding entrepreneurs to get in touch with us and join the fair trade movement at www.wfto.com. We need each other’s support to cope with this universal challenge to #BuildBackFairer. WEAVE
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