Business can be responsible and successful
After 35 years, the fair trade wholesale company, Ganesh Himal Trading, is passing part of its business ownership to the next generation, which is also happening among some of its producers in Nepal.
After working off and on at Ganesh Himal Trading for more than half of her life, Austin Zimmerman recently bought 49 percent of co-founder Ric Conner's portion of the business. Ric is retiring, but his wife, Denise Attwood, will continue to work as co-owner.
"The network of relationships and systems required to run this business are extensive and the wealth of knowledge from 35 years is priceless. We hope by transitioning the business gradually, daily operations will continue uninterrupted, which we feel we owe our producer partners in Nepal, our employees and our customers," said Austin.
Five other staff work with Denise and Austin: Eileen Palid has been there 18 years; Sarah Calvin, 15 years; Michele Moxley, seven years; Justin Becker, a year, and Kirsten Fix just started part time. Sarah now lives in Vancouver, B.C., and works remotely.
Ganesh Himal Trading imports from cottage industries in Nepal and works with development projects that benefit Tibetan refugees and women.
As a fair trade business, it has long-term trading relationships that offer fair wages and allow artisans to lead dignified lives that respect their culture and traditional crafts while providing access to western markets. It was a founding member of the fair trade federation and has promoted fair trade in the Inland Northwest.
"To work from partnerships based on trust and respect towards outcomes that benefit all parties, including the planet, is not common, but it's the reason I choose to make this my life's work," said Austin, who is committed to continue Ric's and Denise's vision to make the world a more equitable place.
Fair trade principles involve creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers; having transparent and fair payment practices; being committed to non-discrimination, gender equity and women's economic empowerment; ensuring safe working conditions and respecting the environment.
"I'm proud of our ability to show what being a responsible and successful business looks like," said Austin. "We can put people and planet first and be successful, rather than just be in business for profit."
Austin said environmental stewardship is part of their business practices—creating products from scraps and sustainable materials like used tires and wild hemp, recycling at the warehouse and reducing its carbon footprint.
"We decided to neutralize the carbon footprint from using air freight every two months to transport our goods by planting 500 tree seedlings in Nepal for every shipment—3,000 seedlings a year," she said. "Trees sequester carbon and help limit global warming for a cleaner, healthier climate.
"To plant the seedlings, we will donate $990 a year to Eden Forestation Projects, a California-based nonprofit that has worked in Nepal since 2015 to restore the environment by planting trees and to alleviate poverty by hiring villagers at a fair wage to plant, grow and guard large-scale forest restoration sites," she said.
Ric and Denise also give $330 a year to Eden Projects to make up for the CO2 emissions generated by previous shipments.
"Through involvement with Ganesh Himal and trips to Nepal, I see fair trade principles in action. My knowledge of the principles deepened by serving on a screening committee for the Fair Trade Federation, reviewing membership applications from retail and wholesale businesses across North America," she said.
Austin has now been to Nepal four times, usually spending a month in Kathmandu and nearby communities, where many producers or managers of producers in rural villages are located.
They meet to develop new products and discuss future plans.
Despite having known Ric and Denise most of her life as family friends, Nepal wasn't always on Austin's radar. Austin first witnessed Ganesh Himal Trading at the age of 14 when she nannied Ric and Denise's son, Cameron Conner for a summer. Every summer after that, she spent at Ganesh Himal Trading, helping at the warehouse.
"Those early exposures to Ganesh Himal and their business practices planted the seeds of fair trade and responsible small business operations. I wanted to replicate their business model," Austin said.
After graduating with a degree in sociology in 2007 from the University of Colorado on an athletic scholarship, she backpacked Europe for five weeks. This trip fed the desire to travel and explore that her parents had nurtured.
Wanting to go back to Europe, she secured contracts to play professional volleyball in Switzerland for a season, and then two seasons in France.
On returning to Spokane in 2011, Austin, as most summers, called Denise to work at Ganesh Himal Trading. Interested in a career in fair trade, she hoped to job shadow Denise.
"I thought I'd work in Central America, where I had traveled with my family, but after my first trip to Nepal in February 2012 with Ric and Denise, I knew I wanted to continue their work there," she said.
That visit included trekking with Denise, Ric and Cameron to the base camp of Annapurna.
"It was a crash course meeting weavers, felters, silversmiths, tailors and knitters," she said. "I saw their relationships with producers from 28 years of business."
In 2012, Denise and Austin interviewed two recipients of an educational stipend Ganesh Himal supported. They asked one student, Heena, what she wanted to be when she grew up. She didn't know because she didn't think she'd have funding to finish school.
Heena's mother was a producer with the Association of Craft Producers (ACP), a fair trade nonprofit that has partnered with Ganesh Himal Trading since 1985. In the early 1990's, ACP established the Girl Child Education Fund to provide monthly stipends for families to keep daughters in school. Denise and Austin learned stipends were only provided for three years because of limited funds, but tuition was only $5 a month.
Realizing sustainable fundraising was needed, Ganesh Himal Trading employees each donated $5 hoping to inspire 2,000 other people to do the same. The Power of 5 campaign was born.
That fall, Austin organized the first Power of 5 fund raiser to expand the stipend program for girls.
In 2014, she, Denise and Cameron co-founded the Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) to provide resources to Nepali communities to help women and girls thrive. Now CCF is establishing an endowment to ensure all children of ACP producers can attend primary school long into the future.
In 2014, it also established the Joy Attwood Scholarship Fund to provide need- and merit-based scholarships for three female students to complete grades 11 and 12.
CCF also provides half the salary of an ACP employee to mentor and check on recipients.
"CCF is another way we can engage North Americans. In Nepal, our projects and programs are Nepali led. They decide what changes they want in their communities and country. Our approach to foreign aid makes CCF impactful. It wouldn't be possible without the trusting relationships we built through fair trade," Austin said.
After the 2015 earthquake, Ganesh Himal Trading and CCF helped build a communal space for weavers in the village of Kirtipur near Kathmandu. Austin and Denise visited weavers at the facility last January.
The workshop was built for a group of traditional weavers Ganesh Himal Trading has partnered with since 1986. They work in their homes on traditional looms passed down from generation to generation. After the quake, the weavers first preferred to rebuild their homes, so CCF funds were divided among members. Eventually, the group decided they wanted a communal space. So, they used CCF earthquake relief funds to build a workshop with six looms.
The Kirtipur weaving group is one of several that is witnessing a transition to the next generation.
With fair wages earned weaving for ACP, the founding group leader, Laxmi, sent her daughter, Sudha, to school. Sudha earned a master's degree in social work and worked with a government agency, but has returned because she is committed to fair trade and her mother is ready to retire.
"We've witnessed the generational change with partners in Nepal who prioritized their children's education. The children received degrees and international experiences but now choose to return to Nepal and the work their parents started, because they have seen the impact economic opportunity and fair trade can have on communities," said Austin.
"Many adult children about my age are returning to run their parents' businesses. It's fun to transition with them. We each bring different life experiences, which excites me about the future of fair trade in Nepal," Austin said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2019