International Women’s Day is celebrated on Monday, March 8, and we are honored to feature Ganesh Himal Trading, a pioneer in the fair trade movement. Denise Attwood co-founded Ganesh Himal with her husband, Ric, over 36 years ago. Through natural disasters, joys, sorrows, and the creation of thousands of products, Ganesh Himal is a pillar in the fair trade community here and in Nepal. People and relationships are always the priority. This interview with Denise affirms what fair trade is all about for us, and why your purchases matter.
What inspired you to start Ganesh Himal Trading and work with artisans in Nepal?
When we arrived in Kathmandu in 1984, Ric and I had no idea that the experience would be a defining moment in our lives. Having just graduated from Huxley College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University, Nepal was one of our first stops on an 8 month trip to explore what other countries were doing in regards to the environment. Prior to departing on a month-long trek through the Himalayas, we bought two wool sweaters from a Tibetan refugee family. We were amazed by how well the sweaters performed in harsh conditions and when we raved about them to the family, they replied: “Do you know how we can market them?”
Unprepared for that response we weren’t sure what to do, but recognized that putting money directly in people’s hands allowed them to build the lives they wanted. So, with an initial investment of $400, we bought sweaters and socks and shipped them home to Spokane, Washington. Six months later, returning from our trip, and surprised to see the boxes had arrived, we presented a community slideshow and put the Nepali goods out for sale. People loved it! They loved the items and the concept that these families were making them to send their children to school. It became apparent to us that providing a fair wage and access to the U.S. market could offer economic empowerment. This could change lives. We had made the initial contacts and decided to dive in.
Our venture soon turned into a full time business. With the goal of supporting work that enhances people’s lives and traditions, we began establishing partnerships with small cottage industries and development aid projects. When we chose our partners in Nepal we looked for groups that were focused on women, the environment, refugees and other marginalized groups. We wanted people to have a place at the economic table and we saw this possibility through creating solid, caring mutually beneficial relationships through trade. When we started in 1984, there was no “Fair Trade Federation” or “fair trade criteria.” We used our own principles to guide our work:
- treat people with respect,
- make sure they get a fair return for their work,
- provide continuity over time along with safe working conditions, design assistance, and financial support.
At the heart of Ganesh Himal Trading is long term partnerships that empower each partner. We believe that building long lasting relationships based on trust, dialogue and mutual respect is key to community building and helps move us all toward a more equitable future.
Our partnerships are grounded in reciprocity. We work diligently to establish mutually beneficial relationships with our producers in Nepal by encouraging a balanced level of give and take. We work directly with producers as a team, expanding each other’s talents and ideas. We believe everyone’s insight and perspective is needed to create systems that address the changing nature of our world.
Striving for economic justice is where our business began. When Ganesh Himal Trading was established, we decided to seek out producer groups that worked with marginalized individuals (e.g. women and Tibetan refugees) so they could gain access to trading relationships for economic mobility. This has led to years of partnering with women producers to co-create a world where women have control over their money, are empowered to make their own decisions, and have a respected voice in all discussions. Overall, we believe that trade is interrelational and that access to trading relationships is key to enhancing people’s lives and traditions. After 36 years we are still firmly committed to this path.
How is Ganesh Himal Trading organized, and how to the artisans work?
We work in partnership with 18 producer groups that employ hundreds of artisans from Kathmandu to the most remote rural areas in the country. Each group is organized based on how it works best for them. We work alongside them to help them make their work spaces safe and comfortable for them within their cultural settings. For example, many of the knitters work from home allowing them to tend to their families, knitting allows women to work for their own income in between caring for children and completing housework. But it does so much more.
For Ganesh Himal knits, women gather together in village or neighborhood teams, select a leader who can travel to get supplies, learn a new skill which gives them confidence, make money they can manage, discuss problems in their lives and community, all while staying at home. Their income earnings and greater confidence result in greater voice in their homes and communities, and eventually increases their status and they become leaders. [This] leads to more choice for them, their families and their children. Ganesh Himal also has created “social development funds” for each knitting group where an extra payment is made into a special fund that the women can manage together as a group. Some of these funds have been collectively used to pay for children’s school fees, funeral expenses and given as small loans to members to help pay for emergency services.
Most of Ganesh Himal Trading’s woven products come from The Association for Craft Producers (ACP). ACP is a fair trade organization that provides design, marketing, management, and technical services to low income, predominantly women, Nepalese craft producers. Each of these groups is set up according to what works best for their producers in their villages.
For example, The Lagankhal Weaving Group joined the Association of Craft Producers (ACP) in 1985 with the hope of earning money for their families and children. Starting with four women who had no weaving skills, ACP trained the group in simple flat weaving. After receiving their training the group chose to create their own communal workshop near their homes in Kathmandu so that they could work in their spare time and be near their children when they needed them. Since 1985 the group has expanded to thirteen women weavers, of which a majority are the main breadwinners in their families. We help them to design products and order from them every two months on a year round basis so that these women are constantly receiving orders and income. They make many of Ganesh Himal’s most popular and beautiful table runners, placemats, and rugs.
The Lagankhal group chose to work in a rented space so that they could be close to their children and families. After 25+ years their workspace had become run down yet their landlord was not interested in remodeling. Ganesh Himal Trading knew how important the community workspace was to these women so in 2011 we agreed to raise $5000 to remodel it. We agreed to donate $2500 if our customers raised the other half. The money was raised, and the workshop restoration was finished by October of 2012! This was a wonderful collaborative process between Ganesh Himal Trading, our customers, ACP, and the weavers. Now they have a beautiful, well-lit workspace and it even survived the 2015 earthquakes!
Our partner non-profit Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) has also worked with artisans to help provide safe, earthquake resilient work spaces. In 2015 after the devastating earthquakes in Nepal, CCF, Ganesh Himal, and many of our retail partners in North America helped weavers who had lost their looms and homes in Kirtipur, Nepal to build a community weaving workshop that now not only provides a safe earthquake resistant workplace but also provides a community safe space in the event that another earthquake occurs.
We know that every business has had to pivot during the pandemic. How has COVID impacted the way the artisans work, and how you work with them?
Ganesh Himal Trading has had one continuous goal during COVID—to keep artisans working and getting paid in a safe environment. We are lucky in that many work in their homes which allowed them little exposure while they continued to work. For those who come into facilities to work, it was harder since Nepal was in a complete lockdown for many months. Facilities for ACP had to be paid for and artisans and operating expenses needed to be paid. Since there were no PPP loans in Nepal, Ganesh Himal worked with our non-profit to raise funds for operational expenses in Nepal and was able to send $40,000 to ACP to help them survive during the lockdown. You can read the detailed blog on this relief here.
Usually, shipments leave every two months from Nepal and each artisan group has orders that are in those shipments. This allows them to continually receive income and ship orders. COVID changed that, because we could not get flights for our goods out of Nepal. Luckily only shipment had to be postponed and we stayed in close contact with all groups to make sure that if they needed funds to survive we would be there to help them out. ACP was the group that had the largest operational expenses to maintain so that is where we focused most of our relief efforts for the artisans.
One thing I was very proud of is that because of our long term relationships [with our groups in Nepal], they had resiliency. Now we are coming back to more of a “normal” shipping schedule and orders are coming and going more regularly.
What is your personal favorite product and why?
I have so many! If I had to chose one item it would probably be the recycled sari placemats. I use them every day and they incorporate so much of what Ganesh Himal stands for. They are made by an amazing group of women who control their own money, they use recycled materials, I designed them, they are long-lasting (I think I have had one of my sets for 12 years), and they are beautiful.
When women work, the impact of the investment is greatly multiplied. What benefits or positive changes have you seen in the communities where the artisans work and live?
There are many powerful stories to tell here but my favorite is the story of Laxmi Maharjan and the weavers of Kirtipur. Ganesh Himal has worked with them through the Association for Craft Producers since 1986.
Laxmi is a traditional weaver who never went to school but dreamed of sending her children to school. Raised in a culture that never allowed her to handle or control any of the money made from her craft, she understood that to be able to send her kids to school and pull her family out of poverty she needed to control the money from her work. In 1984 she discovered, The Association for Craft Producers (ACP), which would pay her directly for her work and help her set up a savings account. Now more than 34 years later her daughter and 2 sons have college educations and Laxmi has organized 60 other traditional women weavers in her village to understand fair trade and receive their earnings directly as well! Her work & leadership have transformed their lives and their culture!
ACP taught Laxmi how to calculate the value of her work and how to save. Now the men in her village value the women’s work and their economic contribution to their community. The women’s management of their income has changed the power dynamic in these women’s lives and allowed their voices to be heard, giving them more decision-making power in their families and in their community. Laxmi, as director, became her husband’s boss, which is something that would have been unheard of 34 years ago!
These women also receive the benefits of social programs set up specifically for the producers. They have access to peer counseling, a scholarship fund to help them keep their children in school, access to workshops on topics such as how to vote, menstrual hygiene and how to exercise their rights as women and citizens and much more. This is a long way from the world Laxmi grew up in.
As more people become aware of the value of fair trade, more women will have the opportunity to change their lives and improve the lives of their children and their communities. Laxmi is retired now but her daughter, Sudha, with a Master’s in Social Work and trained as a traditional weaver herself, has taken leadership of the group. To learn more about Laxmi and the weavers, visit here.
We love your commitment to empowering others. What advice would you give to women and girls who are interested in getting involved in causes they are passionate about?
My advice is to look at the story of Laxmi and understand that these women who have been marginalized are incredibly powerful and when given the opportunity can achieve great things. You have to be patient and allow them to work their magic according to their own culture and traditions. You have to stand beside them as an equal, not as a superior and you have to understand that real, lasting change takes time. You have to really understand that it is not your say, but theirs, that matters for their future. As Westerners we want to fix things and do it quickly but in reality as a person who is interested in empowering others you have to realize that it is about facilitating the change they understand needs to occur. I see our role as helping people cultivate the ground and plant the seeds that will sprout in their climate and conditions and which will ultimately make us good friends and partners for a very long time.
What woman artisan or woman in your life has had the biggest impact on you personally?
Again, there are so many! Someone I have not yet mentioned is my dear friend Pema-la Lama. Pema-la fled Tibet at the age of 12 with little schooling and no money. A refugee in Nepal, she taught herself to read and write in Nepali and learned how to knit and sew, all the while caring for six younger siblings and tending to a father dying of cancer. In 1984 she lived with her husband Namgyal, also a Tibetan refugee, and their baby daughter, Chimme in a small room in Kathmandu with no water, bathroom, or kitchen. They supported themselves with sales from a small shop where they sold bags and knitwear that they made.
As we came to know Pema-la and Namgyal we quickly learned that as Tibetan refugees they had little help from the Nepalese government and that to survive they needed to make their own way. They wanted to partner with us to create a business that would support them, their young family and their dreams. They recognized the need to educate their children and give them skills. They wanted their educated children to become ambassadors to the world and expose the brutal takeover of their country by the Chinese. As Tibetan Buddhists they wanted to pursue their path with compassion and respect for others. Ric and I wondered, as we heard their stories, how we could work together to help make their dreams reality. They were one of the inspirations for us beginning our own venture into Fair Trade and creating Ganesh Himal Trading.
Since 1984, we have worked together with Pema-la and Namgyal as families, friends, and business associates to develop businesses that work to benefit all involved. Pema-la has worked harder than almost anyone we know to create this reality. From their humble beginnings, she and her husband have built a strong fair trade business that has helped send their three daughters to good schools and improve the lives of many others. They have set an example of how a successful business can be run with compassion at its core. Read more of Pema-la’s story here.
In reflecting over these years together and our shared path of fair trade, it’s amazing to see the work that has been done and the lives that have been affected just in this one family. Despite a 10 year civil war, Pema-la and Namgyal’s dreams have all been realized and continue to grow stronger and provide more benefit. Tibet is not yet free but Pema-la and her children continue to remain proud of their heritage and promote its enhancement, in their adopted home and throughout the world. These amazing people have helped to create big change in the lives of many less advantaged people, including their own. It has been a great gift for us at Ganesh Himal Trading to work with them these many years.