Labour of love
A kiwi not-for-profit company Trade Aid has been in the business of selling the wares of artisans in developing countries for 40 years. Founder Vi Cottrell talks to Element.
One of the perks of the job for Trade Aid founder Vi Cottrell is travelling to meet the organisation’s trading partners in developing countries. “It’s a chance to make sure the information we have about them is up to date, talk about issues that may have arisen but mostly to understand their aspirations, and what kind of progress they’re making towards that,” says Cottrell, who has just returned from two weeks in India and Indonesia.
Impact studies are regularly carried out but Cottrell says in-person meetings are much more beneficial as she gets to witness the impact firsthand, picking up on intangible clues such as body language between workers.
“It’s important because what we’re telling the public has to be accurate but also because resources are limited and we want to be sure we’re working with partners where producers really get the benefit.”
It’s been 40 years since Cottrell, originally a teacher, and her husband, Richard, a lawyer, started the notfor-profit organisation. Trade Aid now imports over 3000 global products, which are sold to a network of over 30 Trade Aid shops around New Zealand, online, and to organic retailers, supermarkets and cafes. The organisation works with 75 producer partners throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America to create opportunities and ease poverty for disadvantaged communities through sustainable income generation. These are communities in developing countries that cannot compete with the vast commercial products from the Western world.
“Twenty-five years ago, someone once showed me a pair of crooked earrings, and I said, ‘Nobody is going to buy those in New Zealand’,” says Cottrell. “And the maker said: ‘But you’re all so rich, you can buy whatever you want.’ That attitude had to change.”
Since then, the quality has improved to the extent that traders keep up with international design trends. Cottrell has also noticed an increase in developing countries confronting climate change, and paying attention to which dyes are used, and how they are disposed of. Several trading partners have also set up tree-planting programmes, such as teak plantations in Java.
An impact study undertaken in Kashmir revealed that the children whose parents were involved with Trade Aid were 95 per cent more likely to further their education beyond the primary school years.
“I asked a woman there ‘how do you feel when you save and pay for their education and then there’s no jobs at the end of it?’ which is very common. She said, ‘I am blind, I am illiterate, I see nothing. But my children are literate and they see’.”
Awareness of women’s legal rights, health issues, production cycles, design, and gaining access to the internet has also improved. Cottrell is grateful too, that Trade Aid, and their partners, have weathered the recession storm, despite orders in parts of India halved by 50 per cent.
“It’s just astonishing what they can do with so little resources.”