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Fair Trade – It’s not just for coffee.

Fair Trade has become a more popular concept recently, as big guns, such as Starbucks and Pacific Coffee have embraced the idea of paying their growers a fair price for their crops (no doubt with at least one eye on image-linked sales revenue).

But the idea of Fair Trade, if not the name, has been around for some time amid members of the business community who place a high priority on the quality of their product and the welfare of their suppliers

One such entrepreneur is Mrs. Vicki Ozorio, of Asian Artworks Gallery, a small enterprise, specialising in crafts, furnishings, furniture and artefacts, primarily from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

Vicki, the daughter of one of the first Australian judges to be appointed here, is that rare breed, an expat who can really call herself local, arriving at the age of eleven and remaining, apart from her university years. She is married to a local barrister, whose family settled in Hong Kong around two hundred years ago. Vicki trained in interior design with Hong Kong University’s SPACE programme, and then worked with the designers of the original Mandarin Oriental Hotel, sourcing hotel supplies, including linens, china, cutlery, etc. Afterwards, she became involved in sourcing soft furnishings for the new Ritz Carlton Hotel and became aware of the wealth of gorgeous fabrics and textiles available in the rest of Asia that were not available here.

Her entry into the retail business happened by chance, a little over 10 years’ ago. During a visit to her cousin, who was living in Bali, Vicki bought furniture and furnishings and had them shipped to Hong Kong. These were seen by her friends, who immediately demanded more. Soon, Vicki was making regular buying trips and people were doing their home wares shopping in her living room; it became clear that she was either going to have to open a shop or stop buying – she opened her first shop in Repulse Bay.

I asked Vicki what it is that draws her to the objects she sells, to which she replied that it was a combination of their individuality – everything is created by individuals, often family members working together – their quality, their history and her own passion to promote the work of the small artisans and crafts people of Asia and help keep their traditional arts and crafts alive for future generations, in a world of mass produced sameness. As she told me, she was once asked (by a larger local outlet) if she could get her factories to produce goods for them and was met with disbelief when she informed the company that she had no factories, unless a factory was a mother and two daughters weaving intricate designs into shawls, in between the twice yearly rice harvesting.

This point led to a discussion of her approach to her suppliers, whom Vicki considers her friends. Vicki supports a small women’s textile cooperative in Thailand, which produces original designs and now has its own health clinic and school, and a village in Laos, where landmine victims weave simple but traditionally inspired designs. She deals directly with her suppliers, cutting out the middle-men to guarantee both the quality of the work by examining it herself and a fair income for the workers who sit for hours on end producing what Vicki describes as ‘works of art’.

Vicki also pointed out that by adopting this approach, the villagers with whom she does business are less likely to seek a decent income by other means, as has been the case with a Thai village where a Norwegian aid group funded the village’s basket-weaving cooperative and buyers like Vicki provide the regular income that stops them returning to their previous enterprise of growing opium, and a women’s pottery cooperative that has been equally successful and provides healthcare and education for their local community.

Customers coming into the shop are regaled with high-spirited tales of how Vicki came across this object or that design and treated to an in-depth knowledge of the textiles, techniques and production of whatever they are looking at. Vicki wants her customers to appreciate the whole process, rather than just the end product. A member of the Textile Society of Hong Kong, the Oriental Ceramics Society and the Friends of the Art Museum of CUHK, she regularly attends seminars and courses to increase her knowledge.

Vicki’s final comment on Fair Trade and “Asian Artworks Gallery” is that, “If we can pay people a decent amount for top quality, then those skills will remain; they will be passed down. If they [the artisans) are not paid a decent amount, they'll just go into the cities to work in factories. We really do need to elevate the great [craftspeople] so we can keep those crafts going and [they can] keep their heritage.”

Her future plans include promoting this message of Fair Trade on a bigger scale, encouraging other businesses to support small craftspeople worldwide so that they can maintain their traditions and at the same time secure a decent future for their families.

Interview conducted by Gillian Kew

One Response to Fair Trade – It’s not just for coffee.

  1. fairtradefashion says:

    Sounds great, you should participate in The New England Culture Fest, which is the premiere fashion, film and entertainment event for fair trade!

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