Based in China’s city of eternal spring, Kunming in Yunnan province, Threads of Yunnan have been working with local people to help them make a fair wage from their traditional skills since 1998.
The company was started by Bitten Hogh, a Danish ex-pat, who moved to Kunming to teach economics at Yunnan University in 1994. When we asked her why she started the company, suggesting that she fell in love with the people and the country, she replied “No, I started the company because there was a need.”. She is referring to the fact that Yunnan is historically a poor province in China and that the local ethnic minorities were becoming increasingly marginalised in the modern world. It is also a place prone to natural disaster and there was a particularly violent earthquake in 1995, which displaced many of the remote rural communities.
Of course, there is an element of love to this story. It’s hard not to be astounded by the colour of the local people but what many people do not see are the stories behind the people, their potential and their desire to improve their standard of living.
“I started the company because there was a need.”Bitten Hogh, Danyun Fairtrade
It’s a story which one finds in many places when researching ethical business abroad. The local people are used to making a living and existing in the same way they have done for generations. When they see themselves being left behind they often feel they need to find other ways to make money and remain relevant in society. Unfortunately, however, the way to do it is not clear and they may not immediately understand that people in far away place will be interested in their culture and skills, especially when their young people do not seem to care. Without help, it is often the case that they turn to illegal activity to supplement their income, be it through the manufacture of narcotics or other crime. In this instance the remarkable talent for embroidery was realised as a potential avenue for further revenue by Bitten and Danyun Fairtrade. Everything is as ethically sourced as possible , including the hemp flax used for some products which is sourced and bought locally to ensure transparency of the supply chain.
Another recurring theme is the role women often play in such social enterprise in communities such as these. In the case of Danyun Fairtrade and their brand Threads of Yunnan, the organisation is seen as a way to help the women in the village attain self-sufficiency, sustainably and equality. In fact today the women are taking a leading role in the decision making of the villages.
The products are often designed with the help of designers from Denmark, Holland or America, but produced by the women of tribes in Yunnan, be they Miao, Lisu, Lahu, Dai or Yi. Danyun then promotes the work of the women through Fair Trade networks. Not only do Threads of Yunnan and their mother company Danyun Fairtrade help these communitites with alternative sources of income but then re-invest 10% of all profits into the communities allowing them in turn to invest in vital irrigation or farming projects.
In 2001, Threads of Yunnan became the first member of the International Fair Trade Association in China. When first approached by the association, Bitten wasn’t even sure what Fair Trade was and had certainly never heard of the association but was of course pleased to be involved. She can be described as a true fair trade pioneer!
The results of Bitten Hogh’s involvement are easily seen today, with a huge increase in education in the villages with which she works and income in these very poor communities increasing substantially.
Our very first supplier, Threads of Yunnan are not only a source of fantastic, fair trade, ethical products but also of inspiration. If all of our future partners show even half the dedication and determination as Bitten we don’t think we can go far wrong!