Hello from Bangladesh
Hello friends and supporters,
I’m finally making some time to fill you in on everything that is taking place for Happily Made at the moment. The past few weeks leading up to my trip to Bangladesh have been intense to say the least and I was trying my hardest to meet with others who run social enterprises and learn from their experience, as well as meeting with those that have social media skills so I could try to figure out how to get my project to a wider audience.
It has been reassuring to find out that what I have been going through is very common and that it’s no wonder I have felt as if the weight of the world is on my shoulders. The best part about reaching out has been the wonderful support I have received and the feedback that I’m on the right path and just needing to fine tune my approach and of course have a clearer plan of where I’m heading. It was such a relief heading off to Bangladesh knowing I had a team of helpers offering their skills and support.
The trip to Bangladesh
So the idea of traveling to Bangladesh and India started back in January when I was in Ubud, Bali. Funnily enough I was listening to some live music and started chatting to a young man next to me. He told me he was traveling from Bangladesh and I told him about my community project in Cambodia and the Bangladeshi Asylum Seekers I visit every week in the detention centre in Melbourne. We eventually properly introduced ourselves and Abdul explained that he was an exporter of clothes. He was very interested in my community project and said he would love to do something similar but didn’t know where to even begin. Bangladesh has such a bad reputation when it comes to their clothes manufacturing and it was hard not to jump to any conclusions about Abdul running some giant sweatshop in Dhaka.
Thankfully he reassured me that since the horrific collapse of the Rana clothing factory, Bangladesh have been steadily trying to improve the conditions of their workers. But more importantly he told me that his mother was the Director of Human Rights in Bangladesh and wants to make sure he does the right thing for his workers. It almost seemed as if he was making this stuff up but he genuinely seemed like a good guy (not that I trust my judgement in that department!), and we tried to keep our conversation going above the loud music. We decided to meet again the next morning after Abdul and once again I was struck by this young man’s sincerity and desire to make a difference in his home country.
I really didn’t think there was a chance that I could fly over to meet with him but a couple of months later I went online and found return tickets for $500, so I booked the flights before I could talk myself out of it! Abdul was thrilled to hear that I was coming for a visit and promised he would line up some already established community projects for me to meet with. I knew I was pushing my luck somewhat but I asked Abdul if he would join me for a very brief visit to India. I wanted to go to the workshop where I had the bamboo baby blankets made and just make sure that everything there was “kosher” so to speak. It’s so hard to know from a distance and even though the person who helped me organise the order assured me that it was ethical, I figured I might as well pop over since I was in the “neighbourhood”. Thankfully Abdul agreed to join me for a three day visit to Jaipur.
So all that to say, last Monday morning I found myself on a plane to Dhaka, Bangladesh hoping that my hunch about Abdul was correct and this wasn’t some elaborate scam. Thankfully all was well and I got picked up from airport in a Government car (turns out he didn’t lie about his mother being the Director of Human Rights!). Crazily my visit coincided with massive protests outside the Universities so the traffic was impossible to get through. What would normally be a half hour drive was taking us more than 5 hours which meant that we had lots and lots of time to chat and not so much time to actually go places. I had this idea of using recycled fabric for the products that I want made in Bangladesh and let’s just say that was much easier in my head than in reality. At one local market we visited, I don’t think there was any seller there who looked remotely interested in me buying from them. I did come away with a small stash of sample fabrics but will need to find a better way to source these.
When I eventually had a chance to meet with the ethical producers, I was so disheartened. These guys supply the largest Fair Trade brand in Bangladesh as well as other ethical brands…and can I just say there is NO WAY I could have any integrity if I was to go ahead and get my items produced there. The space was so cramped, windows blocked up, and the fumes…oh man…such a strong smell of glue throughout the factory. The Director was a lovely man and very keen to work with me but I just knew that it wasn’t the right fit. Sure I could tick the box of ‘ethical’ and sell my items in Fair Trade shops around the globe, but no, everything in me just wanted to get out of there.
The light bulb moment!
This is where the story gets really good though! As we left the workshop and were yet again stuck in traffic for hours the light bulb went on. WHY DON’T WE SET UP OUR OWN WORKSHOP?? Abdul is already in the process of building a factory so why not turn that into an ethical workshop instead? That way we could have 100% assurance that it meets my standards of “ethical”. It seemed so obvious once we realised this was an option. As we brainstormed the possibilities something one of the social media experts said to me in the week before I left came back to me. “Veronica, no one is thinking I want to buy a monkey…I better hop online to find one. You need to have items that consumers are already looking for…and then get them interested in the monkeys once they are there”. I had been mulling over this since she said it…and here was my answer. Abduls workshop could create products that customers are already looking for. Clothing like t-shirts, underwear, men’s button shirts and so on…but offer them as truly ethically made items!
If you thought we were excited you should have seen Abdul’s mother’s face the next day when I finally got to meet with her. She was so overwhelmed with the idea that her son could be part of the solution of creating ethical jobs for the poorest of the poor. In the five hours I was with her, the phone rang non-stop with people pleading for jobs. It was so humbling to sit there and see the pile of job applications on her desk and to hear the voices on the phone. Kanta insisted she come with us to visit their family land where the workshop will be built. According to her there will be so much support from Government Ministers because everyone knows that the answer for the poor lies in employment and not aid (it felt so good to hear my catch cry repeated by someone on the front lines of poverty).
So that is my update from my very short visit to Bangladesh. There is much more to say but that is for another time
I’m meant to be in India right now…but believe it or not I didn’t know I had to book a visa (I always travel on my Swedish passport and the one time I didn’t, I managed to have an epic fail!!). So I am on my way back to Melbourne now. Thankfully, Abdul has gone ahead to Jaipur without me and will meet with the workshop there and take some monkey photos for me. Yes, I feel ridiculously silly for not checking about visas…SO thank you for not ever reminding me about this again.
How can you help?
For those of you wondering how you can participate in this next chapter these are the current needs:
- Spreading the word – any opportunity you can think of where I can share my story to a larger audience would be really helpful. I have already spoken to schools, church groups, workplaces and so on…if you can think of a place that would like to hear my story please get in touch.
- Online sharing through Facebook & Instagram – after talking to the experts I finally understand what a difference it makes when people comment and share my posts.
- Buying the beautiful products in my online shop and then showing your friends.
- Supporting my crowd funding campaign.
Thank you again for being part of my “team”. I saw this quote from Mother Theresa in Dhaka and it’s so true:
“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”