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Community Project: Fair Trade Fashion From Cambodia
Uleshka Asher, 6 Aug 07
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sait_1.jpgWhen Japanese art critique Marie Furuta moved from Mexico to Cambodia in 2004 she soon decided to set up "something small" in her new home that would support the community and involve fair trade. Finding a strong fashion industry in Cambodia in general and looking at local, traditional materials, she decided to set up a new fair trade accessory label and simply called Sait - meaning beauty in Khmer!

Now she manages 5 different communities in Cambodia around Siem Reap to produce the accessories from scratch: anything from planting the trees for wild silk worms to grow, to gathering the cocoons for the precious Cambodian silk used for her bags and scarfs, creating the fabrics, designing and finally manufacturing the accessories. There are currently about 150 Cambodians making a fair living by working for Sait (http://www.republiqueair.com/ - sorry only really Japanese at this stage).

To share this spark of positive entrepreneurship today - read on!

Worldchanging: Marie, how did you start your fair trade company "Sait"? What were the first steps?

Marie Furuta: It all started little by little. By summer 2005, one year after living in Cambodia, I focussed my formerly vague idea of "helping the communities" on working with silk products, pitched my business plan to local NGOs, raised some money and looked for workshops who were interested in my project. I basically went around Cambodia and talked to the crafters to find out what problems they were facing and how to help them best. I now have 5 communities that I chose to work with and who agreed on this idea of creating bags and products with artisans to be sold in Japan and Spain.

It took me about one year to really fix the ideas of the workshop, create optimal working conditions and find buyers. In 2006 we started selling and things have been going well since then - step by step.

Worldchanging: What would you say is different about the way you run your fair trade company compared to others around?

sait-2.jpgMF: There are lots of workshops in Cambodia already and lots of fair trade companies, so people don't view me or Sait as extraordinary as such, but they know that we are one of the few "fair" ones amongst all of those who "claim" to be fair.

I set up 3 important agreements with the people from my workshops:

  • The project must be community based, so it needs to stay relatively small. There are lots of big companies here doing fair trade, but instead of just creating a place for the crafters to go and "give them more work to do", I really wanted them to be able to work from their communities based on their schedules.
  • They have to be involved in the design of the actual product. This protects them from dull labour work and forces them to be creative, think about what they are producing, it educates and makes them more independent - and happier - in the end.
  • Maximum transparency. I have to tell them for how much I am selling their accessories in Japan and Spain, how much the shipping costs, how much the store keeps, how much money I spend for internet purposes etc. so things are kept as transparent as possible. They really need to understand how much things costs and recognize their own and the products' value in the chain of retail. Also we decided to sell the product very cheap (about 1500Yen for a middle size handmade 100% pure silk handbag) so that we sell more and make more profit in the end.

Worldchanging: Why is it so important or the crafters to stay in their community to work?

MF: It is a real problem to provide work in Cambodia, since there are so many handicapped people due to land-mines. 3 managers out of 5 from my workshops are disabled. Many can actually still work but in order to get to or from work, or onto the chair etc. requires someone to help them. That is why working in a community makes it easy from the start.

On a normal day there could be 5 crafters from one community actively working, but one of them would do all the domestic tasks (helping the disabled, cooking, looking after the children etc.) and the others work on the accessories. The next day they would switch roles to keep everyone involved.

Since they are all good in making the products, it also allows them to go in and out. A while ago someone's brother had a problem and joined the community for some time, stayed to earn money and once he had enough he left again to look for a new job. That gives people a lot of support in a country where there isn't such a system as social security established yet.

Worldchanging: How do you see the whole aspect of design in your project?

sait3.jpgMF: Design is one of the most important factors, definitely. I want our customers to buy our products because they really love the design - and as a result they are also helping. You cannot build on the idea of wanting to help through fair trade, since - hopefully - one day the country grows and there would then be no need for buying their "products to help" anymore.

sait4.jpgThe crafters have to learn how to create products of great value that are unique, have a local feel to them but also suit the needs of the customers (e.g. smaller "party size" bags for Spain, stylish silk bags to match Kimono in Japan or bags with an extra compartment for laptops). That is why I am really pushing for locally crafted and designed products that come from Cambodia. If our products convince as a product and you are surprised to realize all the story behind it - then buying these bags is twice as good as purchasing an ordinary product and we achieved our goal.

Also I really believe in handmade things. You feel it somehow! Also - knowing that the product has a greater value than another mass produced item might keep you using it for another year or two - adding to a healthier environment in that respect.

Worldchanging: A lot of culture and an overall identity has been destroyed in Cambodia and it is now on its way to re-define itself. Where do you see your role in this as a young entrepreneur?

MF: Using traditional materials like silk for our accessories but trying to come up with something new on their own is one way to help our crafters to create a rooted but new identity to touch.

Also 10% of all our sales go to the Modern Art Project in Cambodia supporting contemporary local artists - which makes our crafters understand, that they are also contributing to help their own country flourish by supporting the arts.

This Modern Art Project raises money for Cambodian artists to exhibit their works in Cambodia or abroad - through small donators like us, bigger ones like Art Pacific (http://www.aapmag.com/) or from charity auctions of the artworks.

2005 was the first time that all Cambodian artists got pulled together which raised the awareness that there is such a thing as an emerging art scene in Cambodia in the first place. You should keep an eye on artists like Vann Nath and Svay Ken!

Worldchanging: Any last words from you? Future plans?

MF: The one thing I am trying to improve right now is that we switch to using organic dyes. Somehow our crafters see the organic, traditional colors and all they can think of are traditional style Khmer bags! They simply freeze. So for now we work with toxic free dyes (http://www.twn.tuv.com/english/Services/product/approvals/tox.htm) from Oekotex (http://www.oeko-tex.com/OekoTex100_PUBLIC/index.asp), Germany. It is a slow process to convince them but we really only just started this, so there is a big learning curve ahead!

Also I am constantly looking for designers who would like to collaborate with us - designing new patterns or coming over to do a workshop.

Worldchanging: Thank you Marie and good luck!

Sait's web-page is - unfortunately - only in Japanese at this point. For more info about their products or where to buy them in your country please contact Marie directly at marie.furuta AT republiqueair DOT com.

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