The Social Entrepreneur Series - Felicity Wright of Flying Fox Fabrics

This series is part of our annual Fair@Square Ethical Lifestyle Festival, where we interviewed a number of social entrepreneurs to hear their amazing journey, what drives them, how they started their enterprises and what they see for the future:

Felicity Wright' passion of hand made fabrics, Indigenous art, culture and fair trade led her to establishing her social enterprise Flying Fox Fabrics a business that specialises in high quality authentic, unique, ethical products made through cross-cultural collaborations with remote Australian indigenous communities and women in Cambodia.

Q. Describe your journey so far as an ethical enterprise - what is your purpose, and why you embarked on this journey?

My vision is to have as many people switched onto the beauty, depth and integrity of Indigenous Australian arts and cultures as possible. Plus, foster respect for artisanal skills especially in relation to hand-made functional objects.

Indigenous people and subsistence farmers all over the world have such important knowledge and skills that have historically been treated with contempt by colonial powers. This is our loss and has been to the detriment of all life forms on the planet. Our environment is out of balance and many societies and individuals are also living lives out of balance. I believe we urgently need pathways to ancient wisdom.

So, that’s the big picture but how do I do this through an ethical enterprise? One very modest way is to create products that are ethically made, are a pleasure to wear and/or use and can be a way of educating consumers about Indigenous cultures.

The idea for making bags, purses etc out of Australian handprinted fabrics came to me when I was browsing in my favourite handicraft store in Phnom Penh in 2012. It was a block from my apartment. I was looking at the range of Messenger Bags made from hand-printed fabrics with Khmer designs. It suddenly struck me that it might be possible to get bags made from fabric printed in Australia. Remote community art centres print on fabric and most don’t have the capacity to value-add and bags can be complicated to make. I asked my friend the owner (Hok Thanan) and she said ‘why not?’.

The funny thing is bags/purses are so ordinary but so valued. They are part of everyday life in all cultures. Women, especially, ‘get’ bags. In my experience they have universal appeal and I’ve gifted and sold Flying Fox Fabric bags and purses in Cuba, remote Australia, the USA and many other places in between.

It was not a new thing for me to create an ethical business project. I came to work in ethical enterprises by accident when I began working in a very obscure niche sector – remote community Aboriginal art centres in 1986. Nobody used the words social or ethical enterprise back then. We (the managers) often struggled to communicate just why art centres are not ‘normal’ businesses and why they are worthy of support and patronage.

Aboriginal art and craft centres are not conventional businesses. They operate in communities where educational, enterprise, and employment opportunities are extremely limited, and they fulfil important sociocultural and training functions in addition to their commercial activities.

Many years later I was volunteering in Cambodia for two years (on the professional AVI program – not working in an orphanage!!) and I heard people in the international development sector abuzz with the words ‘social enterprise’ and how they could change the world. Hmmm, that sounded familiar.

Social enterprises are businesses that trade to intentionally tackle social problems, improve communities, provide people access to employment and training, or help the environment.” - Social Traders

Flying Fox Fabrics came about from seeing a range of resources, need and opportunities that just made sense. It was a matter of joining the dots.

  1. Indigenous artists have talent, wonderful (meaningful) stories, beautiful designs and art centres have the capacity to print fabric. They benefit economically and socio-culturally from expanding the market for their fabrics. (Ever seen how proud an Aboriginal artist is when they see someone wearing a frock or carrying a bag in their fabric design??)

  2. Disabled Cambodian artisans have skills, commitment and the ability to make quality products through the social enterprises they work for/with. They need customers/work (especially in times of a pandemic).

  3. Non-Indigenous people have financial resources. Many are yearning for connection and greater understanding of Indigenous people and their knowledge systems. Many want to show their support financially and morally – ‘make a contribution/difference’.

  4. Everybody needs to buy/use clothes and bags and homewares at some point whether out of desire or necessity. Keeping ethical products affordable

So Flying Fox Fabrics is an extension of my commitment to promoting Indigenous arts/cultures whilst at the same time as having fun indulging in one of my long-term passions: fabric! Oh, and throw in my loves for Cambodia, cross-cultural learning and experiences, ethical business, right livelihoods and artisanal skills … and you can see it meets my needs as much as it does the people I collaborate with.

Q. Can you give us an overview of the supply chain process from sourcing the fabric within Australia and then producing items in Cambodia? Our hand printed fabrics are sourced from remote community art centres. I do this in a variety of ways. Some art centres have their own website shops or online sales platforms, like Etsy, so it’s possible to buy online really easily (Injalak Arts, Babbarra Designs, Ikuntji Artists and Nagula Jarndu are currently the best examples). Others don’t, so the fabrics need to be bought in person from the centre or from markets. Choosing fabrics for products is interesting. Some designs work really well in bags and purses or cushion covers and some don’t. It can be surprising what works and what our customers respond to – and often you don’t know until they’re made and in front of potential buyers. Some colours have a lot more appeal than others and then there is the issue of base cloth. It may be the right base cloth (175 gsm+) but the wrong colour, or vice versa. Then it’s a matter of deciding what will work in a bag or purse, and what style of bag or purse. Each producer partner has their own range of bag and accessory styles.

Before COVID the fabrics were taken to Cambodia in hand luggage. Now it all needs to be shipped which is frustrating and expensive and doesn’t include the pleasure of a trip to Cambodia. It also makes it very difficult to oversee production and support my partners. Once the products get back to Australia they need to go to their destination. I have been making products on behalf of art centres, particularly Bula’bula Arts in Ramingining and Ikuntji Artists in Haasts Bluff, both in the Northern Territory. Their stock goes directly to them. All other stock is warehoused at my home in Coffin Bay, South Australia. To date the sales channels have been markets and online via Etsy and now the website.

Q. How has COVID impacted this process and how did you adapt your business model to overcome these challenges?

Flying Fox Fabrics was one of the businesses that thrived in the last six months.

When Flying Fox Fabrics started trading in 2019 I thought direct sales to customers interested in artisanal products was the way forward. My Etsy shop was set up, but relatively modest and achieved less than 15 sales by February 2020. Instead, I took products to Finders Keepers (Brisbane) and Bowerbird (Adelaide) and also did local markets.

Women (90% of my customers) are tactile, they need/want to touch the fabric products and investigate how they will work/look. I am also promoting products with a complicated back story, that takes time to explain and when done in