Just over a year ago I visited Nepal with local fashion designer and friend Laura Queening. Laura set up the fair trade fashion label Aura Que in 2008. L-AuraQue-ening. Get it?
I’ve known Laura since school but I knew very little of her business trips to Asia other than that they involved her being abroad for three months and returning with a good tan. When I showed an interest in travelling out to see her, with free accommodation and Laura’s local knowledge thrown into the deal, I decided that a trip to Kathmandu to find out more was in order! Whilst there, I biked round the suburbs of Kathmandu visiting different suppliers and learnt more about how the Aura Que business operates. It became clear how the sketches Laura had been working on during bus and plane journeys transformed themselves, like pieces of a jigsaw, into the finished product.
Following her experience teaching English in a Nepali village, Laura chose to set up business in Nepal to support fair employment for local people, and it was clear on my visit that Aura Que’s ethical priority is the people involved. The bags are manufactured at the Nepali Leprosy Trust (NLT) where I met many of the workers. Leprosy is a stigmatised disease associated with poverty, meaning those impaired or disabled by leprosy tend to be among the poorest of the poor. The NLT provides employment and opportunities for those affected.
Doing business in Nepal isn’t always straightforward. On my visit we were initially unable to enter the country for three days due to a national strike which shut all businesses and blocked all roads. For me, three days at a border hotel in northern India was a bit frustrating, but if you’re running an international fashion business with meetings, deadlines and stock orders, such a set back has far greater consequences. While we were stuck in a hotel waiting for the border to open, I asked Laura if this kind of thing annoyed her. “It’s just a part of working in Nepal” she said, and she’s right. Strikes are just one additional obstacle that Laura has overcome in setting up a successful fair trade fashion label outside the UK. Shipping stock, ensuring quality levels are maintained and sourcing materials ethically in a culturally different environment has, as Laura put it to me, ‘kept her on her toes’.
The NLT’s manufacture is the final part of the production process. The materials themselves are sourced from small suppliers and individuals. Take the bag below for example
This is where it comes from… Leather – The leather is from buffalo like those we passed on the bus as we travelled through the lowlands of southern Nepal. We carried some with us on our journey overland from Delhi – from the tannery to the NLT…it was heavy. Banana fibre – What looks like wool on the front of the bag is actually banana fibre pruned from the root of the banana tree. I visited the place where they dye this fibre – a small dye plant at the back of a building. The issue Laura was having at the time was making sure they got the dye colours exactly right. It took Laura’s best Nepali, but she got there! Brass fittings – Brass fittings are made by hand by a local man, Mr Rizal, whom I met. He was sitting outside his family’s house in a little self-constructed workshop area moulding the metal with his hammer when we arrived.
Laura puts together high quality fashion products while maintaining a direct and personal link with the people involved in every aspect of each bag’s production. I was fortunate enough to get to meet the people that are being supported by Aura Que, but to find out about more without making the trip to Asia, take a look at the website http://www.auraque.com / or pop into The Fair Traders Co-operativethe Fairtrade shop where Aura Que bags are on display. You can also buy Aura Que bags online via The Fair Traders Co-operative at www.thefairtraderscooperative.co.uk.
Thank you to member Nick Batty for this post.
The Road King trundles across the Rapti Bridge, greasy axles turning, tassled wing mirrors catching the light. We’ve been behind him for twenty minutes now, trying to squeeze past as we make our way down the East West Highway towards our workshop, just outside Bardibas. It was just before 7am when we left Kathmandu, weaving up and out, over the lip of the valley, following the Trisuli river on its way down to the flatlands. With any luck we’ll make it to our destination before nightfall.
Since our last trip to Nepal things have moved on for Danusha. We’ve got a business plan in place (almost) and we’re just about ready to reveal our logo. We’ve also built relationships with shops and organisations like The Fair Traders Co-operative and we’re really grateful for such fantastic support. We like The FTC so much that we’re going to buy a share for Danusha as we believe in reciprocity.
The Danusha workshop is based at Lalgadh Hospital on Nepal’s south eastern plains which run along the Indian border. This beautiful area is largely undeveloped and a high proportion of the population live on or below the poverty line.
The project began in June 2008, in response to a need to provide training for women whose lives had been affected by leprosy. Though easily treatable, there’s still a lot of stigma associated with leprosy, so sufferers and their families may be ostracised and find it difficult to gain employment. We set up Danusha to address this issue and help make a positive difference.
Initially ten women received training in simple jewellery making. Since then they’ve received further training and now make jewellery for us to sell in the UK. They receive a fair wage and training in health and hygiene, basic literacy and personal development and receive good food and accommodation while they’re on site.
We love the fact that each piece of jewellery comes with a story which we’re able to share with our customers. Lots of people have commented that knowing something about the person who made their jewellery helps make it special, unlike something generic and mass produced from a chain store.
Recently we got one of our staff, Rekha, to tell us a little bit about her life. A beautiful young woman, Rekha is probably in her early twenties, though she doesn’t know her exact age. She lives with her husband, Sanjay, in a small village called Hariharpur in the area near Lalgadh. As well as working for Danusha, she and her husband run a snack stall at their local bazaar.
When Rekha was eight she burnt her left hand and foot, but worryingly didn’t feel any pain. She developed ulcers and went to a faith healer who couldn’t cure her. He referred her to Lalgadh Hospital where leprosy was diagnosed, though Rekah wasn’t told of this. Instead her father told her that she had a ‘big disease’ and needed to take medicine. After treatment it was Rekha’s stepmother who told her she had leprosy and that no one would want to marry her. Her stepmother refused to give Rekha food and was very unkind to her.
Counsellors at Lalgadh Hospital gave lots of support and encouragement and slowly the family situation improved. Rekha attended regular sessions at the hospital, and in 2009 she met and fell in love with Sanjay there. He was also receiving treatment for leprosy.
Rekha joined Danusha in 2010 and has really grown in confidence since then. She’s very creative, shows a lot of initiative and we’re delighted that she’s part of our project. Sanjay also works for Danusha and it’s lovely to see this couple so happy and content.
Rekha enjoys her work at Danusha. Her economic condition has improved, she’s saving money and can also make her own necklaces to sell on her snack stall.
With the support of organisations like The Fair Traders Co-operative we’re gradually developing a regular customer base here in the UK, enabling more people to own and enjoy Danusha jewellery and to help people like Rekha in the process.
Danusha jewellery is available online from The Fair Traders Co-operative
On March 23rd, The Fair Traders Co-operative hosted a fascinating evening of presentations and discussion focussing on fair trade projects in Nepal. The event was led by suppliers to the shop who work with Nepalese communities and was well attended by customers, staff and members of The Fair Traders Co-operative, who also enjoyed a bar stocked with Fairtrade wine, beer and juice.
During the course of the evening, listeners were shown pictures of the stunning landscapes, cities and people of Nepal, and were told of the reality of life for Nepalese people, many of whom experience poverty, disadvantage and in some cases disease, in the form of leprosy, which is prevalent in the country. Listening to the speakers it was clear that they have been deeply affected and touched by their experiences in Nepal, by the country itself and by its people, who were described as beautiful, warm and welcoming.
The first speaker was local fashion accessories designer, Laura Queening, who travels frequently to Nepal to oversee the ethical and sustainable manufacture of her Aura Que range of bags, purses, scarves and stationary. Laura explained how she first visited Nepal in a gap year between college and university, during which she taught English in a Nepalese school. While she was there, she fell in love with the country, its culture and its people, and she wanted to find a way to help improve the lives of Nepalese people through her work. Consequently, when she was required to develop a product range for the third year of her degree at the London College of Fashion, Laura decided to use only materials that could be sourced from Nepal and to follow fair trade principles in the manufacture of the products.
Since then Laura has launched Aura Que, an ethical fashion accessories company which aims to create high quality, handcrafted products following IFAT fair trade guidelines and using sustainable materials and processes where possible. Laura explained how she works through the Nepal Fair Trade Organisation with a combination of certified fair trade factories and small family businesses, who she visits frequently to ensure standards and working conditions are good. Aura Que products are made from a range of materials, including buffalo leather, which Laura explained can be sustainably sourced in Nepal; banana yarn, which is soft and non-scratchy and which is produced from banana pulp that would otherwise be discarded as waste; and lokta bark, which is sustainably harvested high up in the Himalayas.
Laura described how the use of local materials and processes helps to maintain Nepalese traditional skills and crafts, and how working with family-run businesses, such as the one that makes the brass fittings for her bags, helps to ensure their long-term survival.
After Laura’s talk, Sue Lavendar and Allison Davies of Dhanusha Designs gave a heartfelt presentation about the work of the Nepal Leprosy Trust, with which their organisation works. Sue described the stigma that is attached to leprosy in Nepalese society, and explained how people affected by leprosy are very often cast out of their families and communities, and left with no way of earning a living. The Nepal Leprosy Trust runs a hospital providing free treatment, rehabilitation and support to people suffering from leprosy, and it was through contacts at the hospital that the idea for Dhanusha Designs was born. A group of women leprosy sufferers attending the hospital were trained in bead-work and jewellery making, using traditional Nepalese techniques, but with ideas fed in by Sue and Allison so that the finished necklaces and bracelets are suitable for the UK market. Once trained, the participants were given certificates and then employed making jewellery at the hospital for a fair wage and a decent meal each working day.
The jewellery is then brought back to the UK and sold, largely through parties but also here at The Fair Traders Co-operative, earning income to pay the workers’ wages, buy materials and continue the project. Extra income is being used to improve the workers’ standard of living, for example by building toilets within their communities, and small loans are available to the women involved in the project, enabling them to invest in livestock which can provide an extra source of income.
The training programme has been so successful that more recently some of the women have been involved in making trips to Kathmandu with Sue and Allison to gain confidence in buying the beads themselves. Apparently just the fact that these women have been on a bus and gone to the capital city has been enough to significantly improve their social standing in their communities. And of course the fact that they can earn a living for themselves makes a huge difference to their lives, their children’s quality of life and their self-esteem. There are now plans to support women from the core group in training other women in their communities to make the jewellery in their homes, spreading the skills and the wealth to a wider group.
‘Moving Mountains’ was another inspirational evening hosted by The Fair Traders Co-operative, through which those participating were able to learn the stories behind the products and hear how buying through The Fair Traders Co-operative really does make a positive difference to people’s lives. You can buy Aura Que accessories and Dhanusha Designs jewellery at The Fair Traders Co-operative and via our online store. Find out more about the Nepal Leprosy Trust at www.nlt.org.uk.
The next supplier event will be a Divine Chocolate evening on 13th April, which will include a chocolate tasting and truffle-making session, as well as a presentation on the development of the Divine Chocolate Company – it’s likely to be popular, so book now!
On March 23rd, The Fair Traders Co-operative is pleased to host an evening of presentations and discussion focussing on ethical and sustainable trade with organisations in Nepal. Led by two of our suppliers who work closely with fair trade groups and disadvantaged communities in Nepal, the evening promises to be both informative and thought-provoking.
Local fashion accessories designer, Laura Queening, will be talking about working with the Nepal Fair Trade Group to improve income and quality of life in communities in remote, mountain-top locations; and Sue Lavender, Founder of ethical jewellery company Dhanusha Designs, will be discussing the origins of her organisation through the Lalgadh Leprosy Services Centre in South East Nepal.
Come and join us in our Community Room to learn more about these inspiring women and their innovative work. Tickets are now available from our online shop.
Country of contrasts
Think of Nepal and we picture towering snow-capped peaks and beautiful mountain landscapes. The name conjures images of crystal clear lakes, vast blue skies and lush mountain terraces. Unfortunately, this breathtaking environment is home to one of the poorest nations in the world, and to one of the highest rates of leprosy. For sufferers of this debilitating disease it’s not only the physical effects that make their lives difficult – local beliefs and culture see leprosy as a punishment for misdeeds in former lives, leading sufferers to be rejected by their communities and even by their families. Whilst the disease itself can now be treated easily and cheaply using modern medicine, a diagnosis of leprosy can nevertheless lead to being outcast, and in Nepalese culture this is considered to be a fate worse even than poverty or hunger. One sufferer quoted on the Nepal Leprosy Trust website describes the disease as “my living death”, and this despite the fact that from a medical perspective he was completely ‘cured’. However, the remaining ulcers, scarring and pain left him ostracised by his family and his community; to be dislocated from society in this way in a Hindu society such as Nepal is to be denied any meaningful role in life.
Both Laura and Sue work through the Nepal Leprosy Trust to support leprosy sufferers in building a life for themselves through fair trade.
Laura Queening’s unique, contemporary fashion accessories are designed in consultation with local workers in Nepal, to ensure that the best possible use is made of local skills and materials in bringing her bags, purses, scarves and stationary products to life. Environmental and fair trade principles underpin the design and manufacture of the Aura Que range… right down to the use of pedal powered machinery in the fair trade factory where the leather is worked.
Materials include hand-made lokta paper, banana yarn and leather that is a by-product of the food industry. Laura is committed to ensuring ethical working practices and fair trade, and aims to forge strong relationships with each of the manufacturers she works with, whether these be IFAT recognised factories or small, Nepalese family businesses. By maintaining long term relationships with suppliers based on fair prices, the businesses themselves can invest and grow, and their workers can rely on receiving a living wage into the future. Laura also works through the Nepal Leprosy Trust to support their projects providing employment and support for people affected by leprosy. See Laura’s latest collection at her website http://www.auraque.com and in our online shop.
After visiting a hospital run by the Nepal Leprosy Trust, through which sufferers and their families are given treatment and support, Sue Lavender felt moved to work with the Trust to set up a project providing work and skills for people making use of the hospital. The Trust aims to bring improvements to every aspect of the lives of people affected by leprosy, by equipping them to re-adapt and re-integrate successfully into their communities, both socially and economically. The hospital Sue became involved with, the Lalgadh Leprosy Services Centre, provides healthcare and treatment for sufferers, and runs outreach programmes to prevent the spread of the disease and to tackle the social stigma that is attached to the illness in Nepalese society. The Centre also aims to provide empowerment and capacity building programmes, giving sufferers and their families training and opportunities to gain dignity, and an income. Sue set up Dhanusha Designs in partnership with the Trust, and working through the Lalgadh Centre, the company creates elegant beaded jewellery for sale in Nepal and the UK. All the workers are paid a fair wage and gain valuable skills, confidence and dignity via their involvement in the project. You can find out more about Dhanusha Designs on Facebook and see her products in our online shop.
Our Moving Mountains evening on 23rd March provides the opportunity to view and buy fairly traded Nepalese products, hear more about these initiatives, and to ask Laura and Sue about Nepal, its people and their work to improve quality of life for the most disadvantaged in Nepalese society.