Supplier case studies
Kolkata - fair trade wedding favours & stationery
Name: Siobhan Wilson
Tell us a bit about yourself and your business
I studied International Development at University in the late 80's, where I learnt in depth about the issues and the difficult circumstances (whether political or economic) that people have to overcome in the South. Following this, I worked with two refugee organisations in the UK and the US. Again, I heard first hand the experiences people had to face on a daily basis.
Fifteen years later I was firmly established in the finance world, and was contacted by a good friend from university, Maura Hurley. She asked me to sell products for some groups in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta.) Maura had been living in Kolkata for ten years doing work with young children on various levels: teaching underprivileged children in a slum area, and opening a library in one room of her home for neighbourhood children to come and browse and do activities.
The groups she introduced me to ranged from organisations helping to provide medical services for the homeless in Kolkata to young companies employing rural weavers and providing a good, reliable income to rural artisans whilst sustaining their traditional craft.
A market for talent
I started selling products at the fair trade market in Brighton once a month and continued in Finance as my main job. I received a card one day from Maura from one of the groups. It was hand painted by someone who could neither hear nor speak. It was gorgeous. I started to think that there was so much potential to help these groups here.
I decided to leave my job and fly out to Kolkata to meet the groups, see the full range of products available, and of course get to know what the city of Kolkata is all about. The first day the noise and pollution was overwhelming. There were throngs of people everywhere, eating in makeshift cafes on street corners, showering at communal water pumps, sleeping along the edge of large highways ... and the driving! I was constantly waiting for a collision as we drove to visit each group.
I have now set up relationships with eight groups and select products to offer the UK market. Many of the products are perfect for weddings: handmade papers, silks and embroidery. The organisations we work with help educate and house homeless children, provide employment for individuals who cannot hear or speak and help rural women become economically independent.
As mentioned earlier, we also work with an organisation that funds medical services for the homeless. I am trying to act as a support for these groups by helping them market their truly unique handicrafts. Feeling a social responsibility towards each group after creating this relationship, we plan to work out new designs and products with them in a sustainable way.
What or who inspires you?
The individuals in Kolkata that live in tough conditions whether it is intense heat or monsoon, bad pollution, poor housing (if they have any at all) and with so few possessions. Despite this most people have such a charm about them and such an upbeat and positive attitude to life.
What do you enjoy most about running your business?
I love selecting and adapting the products. The products and the skills of the artisans that I am working with are impressive. It is fascinating to look at the silks and the embroidery. Some of the larger embroidery pieces take six months to make. I look at the quality and the originality and feel that it should be easy for these people to earn their living through these products. It is just finding the market place that will produce reliable and regular sales for the groups.
What is the most challenging aspect?
The UK is a very sophisticated marketplace and there is so much out there for us all to choose from. “Kolkata” is working to help consumers understand the story behind the products it sources so that people not only get a good product but realise that they are helping individuals to help themselves out of poverty.
What do you feel you bring to an ethical wedding?
Ironically, out of the poverty within Kolkata comes what the western world sees as the most luxurious items: silks, handmade paper, embroidered goods and unique design. These are all perfect ingredients for a dream wedding. We are offering a bespoke service so that the bride and groom can alter colours and designs to fit the theme of their wedding. We also have some standard designs to choose from.
How do you see the wedding industry changing over the next five years (if at all)?
Choices will grow even more for the bride and groom. The internet will give brides and grooms the ability to source things more easily from further distances. It will be possible for small local businesses to reach a wider audience. Having a website such as Ethical Weddings is a great opportunity for small producers and businesses in the UK and abroad.
It should mean that people can create a very individual wedding with fresh, organic produce and fair trade items. There are so many small businesses creating ethical products. It will just make the wedding even more special to the bride and groom if they can use services and products that they believe in.
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