Monday, October 16, 2006


Hallelujah - a journalist has finally decided to blatantly explain the story of how we in the rich countries are exploiting those in the poor countries. Thank god, I feel like perhaps a change may be coming.

When I tell people our shirts sell for KSh 750 ($11 USD) all the way up to KSh 3,000 ($42 USD) it's like I've just said I was a transexual trapped in the body of a lizard. They stare at me like paying a fair price for something is a sin, or a problem or that something is wrong with my business model. So I start to explain that to pay fair wages and make a profit in business products cannot come to market for cheap prices. Why would you even try?

On the news today I see that a UK chain is selling 3 shirts for $10 and as a businessperson I immediately think - which country is being exploited for that contract? That's $10 to grow, gin, mill, bleach, wash, sew, fold, pack and ship the cotton a 1/4 of the way around the world. For over five years I have been studying how this possibly makes sense, how I must be missing something vital or complicated in this formula but now that I am deeply embedded amidst the people who live in the underpaid world of work here in Africa my suspicions are absolutely coming true. It doesn't make sense unless someone along the way is being taken advantage of.

When I tell people here my mission is to increase the wages, to pay people fair money to create and make - to imagine and work hard so that my business will earn a profit - many of them look at me like I am tredding on dangerous waters. Because the system isn't fair and most of us know this deep down in our hearts but it's been going on for so long we are used to it.

Why should any one country or culture or group of people be paid such abysimally lower wages than us in other countries? In the big picture scheme of things I mean - forget the economics - why shouldn't wages start at the point that makes a life possible to live in dignity? How can so many of us stand seeing people go hungry because they just can't earn enough? Why aren't we sharing more?

The very first time I went to Las Vegas I saw first hand what the root of this problem is. The deeply embedded concept that to compete on price is a business advantage. Miles of buffet food laid out in all the cheap hotels in the desert showed me how accustomed we have become of getting the things we need at the prices that suit us the consumers and not the providers. And the theory I am told when I challenge this is 'that someone has to work for less or it doesn't work' or my favourite, 'that's just the way it is here in a developing country' and I am stunned because that's not an explanation of a system, that's an excuse. Kenya should be far farther along the development curve than it is and everybody knows this.

So the t-shirt sewers in Bangladesh are protesting - enough they say - they're not going to make this cheap cotton stuff for such an awful rate anymore and we as the consumers of 3 for $10 ought to think very deeply about this shift. We don't need to consume so much. We waste the profit margin that truly belongs to other people halfway around the world. We toss things in the garbage without thinking because they're cheap and meaningless but if they were priced fairly and we were made to work a little harder for what we have maybe just maybe we could begin to correct what is so deeply wrong.

I sat in the office of a very interesting Indian woman this morning who administers an educational trust here in Nairobi and she said something that I think about so often everyday here in Africa. People here have dignity and they feel shame because they are treated poorly. To come here as a foreigner and distrupt what is already a beautiful system of trade and culture is what she called uncivilized. India worked before the British arrived and now finally it is starting to work again.

I wonder if the fact that Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize this week has anything to do with the workers protesting in Bangladesh. I think it must. They feel proud. They will survive without us and they know it because the world has told them that their own homemade system of banking on the poorest of the poor is the most successful investment on the planet.

One day I will go there and see the Parliament Building that was built for them by an architect who died penniless in a public washroom.

This story is for Joseph Kahn.


Blogger girlfabulous said...


a store in Vancouver that just opened up. I was thinking it may be a good place for the TShirts. I pasted the article from the georgia straight. I also want to send your info to my friend Janet who writes for them.

Indigenous design informs chic importer
By janet smith
Publish Date: 28-Sep-2006

Eighteen Karat’s edge comes from its contemporary feel, but the products have a story behind them. Store president Maureen Welton sources them from the remote Asian villages where they’re handmade.

Things at the chic new Eighteen Karat Home Store at 3039 Granville Street are not exactly as they appear. Inside the atmospheric digs that once housed Martha Sturdy’s flagship store, towering hourglass-shaped ceramic vases, satiny black lacquered trays, and charcoal jute rugs epitomize the height of décor fashions.

But although the pieces may look plucked from the design houses of London, New York, and Milan, their origins are a lot more colourful and intriguing.

President and creative director Maureen Welton travels to remote parts of the world to have her line created. For more than a decade and a half, Welton has been developing stylish vases, bowls, and other vessels at isolated village factories—mostly in China—where everything is still made by hand from indigenous materials.

“I love that end of the business—going to these little villages and helping to develop factories with people that have talent. If we knew someone was really willing and capable, we’d really help them make things suitable for a North American market. This trust and bond develop,” Welton says, sitting in her new store, surrounded by the organic, textural shapes she’s made a name with. (Eighteen Karat operated a wholesale outlet in Langley for 16 years and has signature “neighbourhood stores” in places as far away as Texas and Switzerland.)

Welton points out a grouping of huge, bulbous vases made of bamboo that’s curled by hand and then glued meticulously in place to be set in old wooden moulds; afterward, it’s painstakingly sanded down to a smooth finish.

“It is such an amazing thing, really, after all these years of travelling, seeing these factories and seeing that it is still done by hand and it is still affordable, even with the freight costs,” she marvels. “But it’s hard to explain all that to someone. So I made that my job—to show that there’s so much more to the product: it’s truly made by hand, every part of it. At some factories the dye is still made in a wok over a fire! Every product has some story to it.”

Even Eighteen Karat’s eye-catching, boxy gift bags have an elaborate tale behind them. Stiff, with a little bit of shimmer, they’re a patchwork of ethereal photo prints of plant life. They’re printed on panels whose original use is for the kind of soft juice boxes that are popular in Asia, Welton explains. She had seen little homemade bags popping up in the Philippines that were constructed from the actual juice containers, and it gave her the idea. She now has the photos, shot in Vancouver, printed on the juice-box material in the Philippines, then distributed to home workers to sew. “There are about 20 teams who do our orders in very rural, very poor areas,” Welton says. “Some of these houses are built on lean-tos, and they invite their friends over and they get together and sew. A quality inspector visits them several times a year. Every time we sell these we employ 200 people.

“I’ve seen some really destitute people in some of these rural places,” she continues. “Just giving them money doesn’t help them. They need a job and they need to feel useful.”

Welton makes a point of visiting these home workers in even the most cut-off villages of Asia. But it’s just as important for her to travel to the more metropolitan parts of the globe, where the trends are being set. In the end, Eighteen Karat’s edge comes from its contemporary feel.

“I spend a lot of time in places all over the world…looking for colours and textures and patterns,” explains Welton, who runs the company with sales director and business partner Grant Ohman.

The phrase Welton has coined to describe her latest collection is ethno-modern. “These aren’t classic pieces, but they’re not plastic-modern either,” Welton explains.

Take her collection of Anthos stoneware pots and vases: a new interpretation of traditional Chinese vases, they bear a relief floral pattern in fashionable lime-green glaze, but are pitted and worn to look ancient. Stripped of the usual handles and trims, they’re striking minimalist forms that show off the patterning.

The expansive new store is a chance for Welton to display her pieces in groupings. Her combinations are often studies in colour and texture: black, chocolate, and stark white are set off with hits of olive or moss green; shiny glass, shaggy wools, matte woods, and glazed ceramics mix with bamboos and rattans. But there’s a bold beauty to simple repetition too: tiny, irregular black glass vases crowd stylishly onto a squarish black tray; gigantic rough terra-cotta vases in different heights pack together in the shop’s window, with random twigs jutting out of their narrow necks. (Those vases are a good indication of the price range at the shop: the little black ones are only $3, while one of the huge clay showstoppers can set you back more than $200. Many of the objects fall well below $100, though.)

Of the retail space, Welton raves: “This gives us a showcase, but to me what’s exciting is that it’s experimental: we can try things here that we can’t do in our [wholesale] showroom. If we’re trying out a new factory in the world, we can place a small order just to see how it sells in the store. This gives us a chance to experiment and try different concepts.” We can’t tell you what those concepts will look like, but one thing is for sure: they will give Welton many more stories to tell.

9:32 PM  

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