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I have always adored Christmas, and my passion for the season has only increased as the candles on my birthday cakes have grown in number. It’s such a joyful time of year, and I love the emphasis that the holiday has on family, kindness and giving. However, there have been a few drawbacks to getting older (and despite what my family may tell you, a little wiser). One of these is that I am starting to become painfully aware of the ethics (or lack thereof) behind many of the products in our stores; most of which are made overseas in unsafe conditions, with the majority of workers not even getting paid a living wage for the incredible amount of time and effort that they put into creating things that so many of us buy, and subsequently discard, without a moments thought. And never is this mass consumerism more pronounced than in December, when we all crowd into the shops to load up our arms with as much tinsel, gifts, and party dresses/suits as we can carry.
Over the years it has become increasingly more difficult to balance my disgust for the way in which many of our products are made, with my love for a season that encourages us to buy as many of these products as we can. Luckily, I am starting to learn that it does not have to be an either/or, and we can indulge a little during Christmas in the form of gifts and decorations while at the same time helping to support a system that ensures workers are both paid and treated fairly.
One way to do this is to shop at sites such as Good Spender, a joint venture between the Social Traders and Australia Post, which is a fantastic way to find products sold by Australian social enterprises. One of these social enterprises is Canberra’s very own Oz Fair Trade, which is a non-for-profit that sells, as the name suggests, fair trade products.
Oz Fair Trade was one of the first sellers on Good Spender, and owner Qinnie Wang explains why a website such as Good Spender is so important to businesses like hers.
“For many start-up ethical businesses, marketing is the hardest and most expensive part of doing business, and since started Oz Fair Trade I have discovered so many hidden gems”, she says.
“It is sad because no business wants to be a hidden gem. Good Spender can help small ethical businesses to reach a much bigger audience in a cost effective way.”
Oz Fair Trade is a registered charity and has been running since early 2013 (originally under the name Global Handmade), offering ethical alternatives to the mass produced products that fill our stores. As the values behind her social enterprise align very closely with my own, I was excited to have the opportunity to chat to Qinnie about Oz Fair Trade, and was particularly interested to know what inspired her to start her organisation.
The idea for Oz Fair Trade arose when she travelled to Southeast Asia for a holiday in late 2012 and witnessed poverty on a large scale for the very first time.
“I knew poverty was a global issue and I donated regularly to charities,” Qinnie says.
“I thought I was doing my bit and I felt pretty good with myself. But that trip made me realise that I could do a lot more, and the good life I had was really just luck, not because I was smarter or worked harder. It made me realise that the world is not fair and the lucky ones should help the less fortunate.”
While travelling, she began to read about poverty alleviation and watch TED talks that called for a rethink of traditional aid and charity work.
“At the same time I came across beautiful handicrafts made by Lao, Thai and Cambodian women which were adored by the other women I was travelling with,” she explains.
“I put two and two together and an idea slowly started to form. By the end of the trip, I felt a burning desire to create an online platform for these beautiful products so that I could help the people I met and many like them. I didn’t know how to start, but I knew that I must only stock fair trade products so that this platform truly benefits those in need.”
So has Qinnie always been an advocate for ethical consumption, or was the trip in 2012 that really opened her eyes to how so many of our products are made?
“To be honest, before Oz Fair Trade, I didn’t know or care much about ethical consumption,” she replies.
“I occasionally visited Oxfam shops for cute and exotic gifts, but the ethics behind products were never that important to me. I bought many cheap clothing [items] and accessories without questioning whether child labour was involved or whether workers were working in safe environments. I just didn’t think about it.”
“What I did notice was how ridiculously cheap fashion had become over the last ten years, and as a consumer, I welcomed cheap prices. But since the trip to Southeast Asia and since I started Oz Fair Trade, ethical consumption has become a part of who I am. I am no longer excited by $5 dresses, and whenever I see them, I am deeply concerned about how it was produced. I have read widely in the areas of fair trade and ethical consumption, and I truly believe that this is the only way forward for civilisation and humanity.”
At the risk of sounding somewhat cliché, I am curious to know whether she believes that individuals really can make a difference. Qinnie is quick to assure that through the everyday decisions that we make, such as where we buy homewares and food, we as individuals do have the power to change the world for the better.
“If we don’t question where the products come from, how they were made, who made them, what they were made with, we are basically handing over the power to the businesses who can then do whatever that maximises their profit,” Qinnie explains.
“I believe that human nature is kind and any person will be horrified to learn that a five year old spent 20 hours working in a tiny dark room so that the customer could buy a dress for $5.
“But I also know that we tend to ignore things that we consider too hard unless it’s right in our face. There are a small group of ethical consumers and businesses who are leading the world in the fair trade and ethical fashion movement, and because it’s human nature to copy what our friends do, this group will grow. Every ethical purchase helps to change the system a tiny bit, and lots of tiny bits can make a huge impact.”
Which is why Qinnie’s website only stocks Fair Trade products.
“The fair trade movement started because workers in developing countries don’t get fair pay, and labour law is often non-existent or not-enforced,” she shares.
“There are so many in developing countries who are desperate for work they will accept any conditions, so large businesses take advantage of this and offer unfair pay and conditions to their workers. Fair trade helps to change that. It respects and supports the producers so that they can break the poverty cycle.
“It offers women opportunities to earn income from handicrafts so that they don’t have to leave their children and work in a factory for little pay. It promotes gender equality, bans child labour and fosters long term relationships between buyers and sellers. It encourages producers to adopt environmental friendly methods of production and materials. It is not simply handing over things or money to the communities. It is helping the communities to help themselves.”
As Oz Fair Trade is not-for-profit, any extra money from the sales go straight into buying more fair trade products and supporting the costs of the online store.
“Oz Fair Trade is my passion and my baby, so what I value is the emotional satisfaction that I get from it, that is, knowing that I’m bettering lives of people who I’ll never meet, rather than monetary return,” says Qinnie.
“Every producer group usually has hundreds of people behind it, and every product has a struggling family behind it.”
When asked how Canberrans can aspire to have an ethical Christmas?
“A lot of presents especially toys are mass produced and not environmentally friendly,” Qinnie begins.
“I would suggest that if you have to buy presents, buy from ethical businesses such as those on Good Spender and goodonyou.org.au, and buy less. There are also wonderful resources online such as otter.org.au and ethical.org.au that provide excellent information on ethical consumption.”
But it’s not just Christmas that these gifts can be bought. Birthdays, Easter, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day…there are plenty of opportunities in the new year to turn your purchases into ethical ones.
So if you want to use your dollars to make a positive difference in someone else’s life, then shop locally or at sites such as Oz Fair Trade. After all, as Qinnie says, “Fair trade currently makes up only 1% of total global trade, and only 50% of Australians know about fair trade.”
“We can do better than that. Every purchase is a vote so please vote for ethical consumption. This has to be the easiest and most mutually beneficial way to help someone!”