This is the first installment of a series we’re starting called “Conversations.” It’s more of an interview series, where we ask our vendor partners questions about their experiences working directly with artisans around the world. You may not know it, but every product we carry has a team of people who are dedicated to doing trade on the fairest terms possible. Fair Trade is about transparency and creating a dialogue – we hope this series shines a light on some of the struggles artisans are faced with and also some of the positive changes that have come out of their fair trade partnerships.
First Stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia where Lia Valero, founder of Malia Designs, visits her artisan partners who make upcycled bags and wallets out of feed and cement bags. Malia Designs follows fair trade practices to provide fair wages and a healthy working environment. The fact that Malia Designs turns what would normally be trash (and in fact, the cement bags often line the streets in heaps) into bags with terrific design and functionality is super cool, but even more important is the fact that they provide a source of income for marginalized women who might otherwise be victims of human trafficking.
To further prevent human trafficking, which has become a modern day form of slavery, Malia Designs donates to an NGO in Cambodia called Damnok Toek. At the top, Lia is pictured with the director. Damnok Toek cares for over 1500 children who are either at risk of being trafficked or have been rescued.
We emailed Lia some questions after her most recent visit to Cambodia, just a couple months ago.
How often do you have the opportunity to visit the artisans?
Once a year a Malia Team visits our producers in Cambodia and the Child Centers where we donate.
What were the goals of your most recent visit?
We always have a packed schedule when visiting Cambodia. This years goals included seeing samples of new designs and making design changes, choosing fabrics and colors for Fall 2014 and Spring 2015, discussing terms for our new producer loan program which we started this Spring, visiting 2 of the three Child Centers we donate to through Malia and our philanthropic arm, Stop Traffick, and, of course, visiting with our producers and their children who have become like family to us!
We usually decide on new products and designs before leaving on our trips. Often our trips lead to new materials or designs, however, as you never know what you will find! This is how we came across the Recycled Cement Bag line! I have included a photo of the bags on the street. The before and after!
Do you have a story to share about an artisan or artisan family?
Thanan was trained at the National Center for Disabled Persons in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After years of working and designing at NCDP, she got a loan to start her own business dedicated to helping disabled women and men. As a disabled person herself, Thanan’s dedication to this population is steadfast. Unfortunately, the disabled are treated as third class citizens in Cambodia with less rights than the general population and are at a high risk of exploitation. Providing a much needed source on income lessens the likelihood that these individuals and their children will become victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking. Thanan’s passion and dedication is an inspiration to us all.
What kind of positive changes have you seen occur in the communities/families that you work with since Malia Designs was founded?
We have witnessed the organizations we work with growth in many areas, most importantly in their ability to employ and help more disadvantaged people. However, we have also be fortunate to work with them increasing the quality of their products and design which, of course, increases sales and in turn creates more opportunity for growth. It’s been very rewarding to get to know them personally as well. Many of the women we work with have been honored for their dedication to Fair practices and creating job opportunities for those who are less fortunate.
What is one difficulty that you or the artisans have faced?
We face many difficulties over the years: conquering quality issues, material shortages (which with recycled and upcycled products is inevitable) and breakdowns in communication. However, I believe each of these hurdles has provided us with an opportunity for learning and growth. Our last trip was amazing. It truly felt like going home.
Lia and the Malia Designs team are doing some amazing work fighting against human trafficking and providing women with an opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their children. When you buy a Malia Designs bag or wallet, you really are Carrying a Cause.
——- Thanks to Lia for taking the time to fill us in on her goings on!
Watch a video from a trip Lia took to Phnom Penh to visit the facilities.
Cement bags line the streets and would otherwise be trash. If you look closely, you can spot the elephant pattern that Malia Designs incorporates into their wallets and messenger bags.