Michael and Clare from IbuTrade are a partnership – lifelong and business – and IbuTrade is their family business – even their kids get involved! The business was established in 2007 by Tracey Donehue and Kathy Stefanac to provide Fairtrade and environmentally friendly gifts and homewares. In late 2011, when Tracey decided to move on, Michael and Clare jumped at the chance to ‘adopt’ Ibu .
Their philosophy is to “tread lightly on Mother (Bahasa: ibu) Earth, to live thoughtfully and generously”. The name, with its roots in Bahasa Indonesia, reflects that connection to nurturing the planet and its people; nurturing unique skills to benefit those most marginalised by the modern global economy and supporting the role of mothers in developing countries, as well as in Australia.
Clare found time to chat with me about why they got involved, what they offer and some of the people they work with.
When did you first decide to get involved with Ibu and what inspired you?
We have always been committed to conservation and social justice in our personal lives and had been roasting our own Fairtrade Organic coffee on a small scale. We are passionate about being part of an ethical alternative to business-as-usual, so when the option to take on Ibu arose it seemed a natural fit. And here we are!
You carry a range of products from gifts to homewares, to kids toys, art and fashion. Where and how do source items for your store and do you have an overall direction/look and feel for your collections?
Some items we source directly from producers and others from great wholesalers whose mission is to create a market for ethically produced products. There’s still a sense that ethical products are exotic but we want to make ethical mainstream and to do that you need to create a reliable market, which includes producers, wholesalers and retailers. It’s really exciting to see these networks and relationships building up and to be part of that. It’s also a bit of thrill when producers seek us out to stock their gorgeous ethical things too.
We look for products that we love, that tell a story, pay-it-forward, is going to last, is handmade, natural or recycled, made locally or made fairly overseas. We do not stock anything with palm-oil and we avoid plastic unless it’s recyclable or biodegradable.
Mostly our collection reflects what we love – which is probably eco-eclectic – beauty, texture, natural fibre, colour, traditional technique and resourceful re-use.
Who are your producers and how do you work with them?
There are so many producers! Artisan’s Effort (Kolkate), Artisan’s Talent (Bangladesh), Corr (Bangladesh) and Shohojogita (Bangladesh) are favourites from South Asia. There are a number of producers from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, as well as Peru, whose ranges we source from an ethical wholesaler based here in Australia, who works closely with them in developing quality products. Our role is to bring their craft to market and to provide them with feedback about what works, what people are looking for etc.
We have been delighted to work with a social enterprise in Indonesia, ecoCSI, who has produced our IbuTrade journals. Thanks to modern technology (and the postal system), we’ve been able to do that via optic fibre not an airline ticket.
Chilote from Chile. Tendence Khmer and Smateria from Cambodia are established ethical and innovative businesses. From Australia, Tielka, Northern Light, Blueberry Paper, Sow ‘n Sow, Kambamboo, green living organics, and the fabulous Better World Arts.
I guess you could say we’re curators and supporters not product (or business) developers. (We’re uninspiringly normal I’m afraid).
What exactly is fair trade and how do you guys meet the principles of fair trade?
There’s fair trade and there’s Fairtrade. It’s a bit like “green wash” and you need to do your homework. Fairtrade is an audited system of accreditation which supports producers in developing countries by paying a fair price – which is composed of a base price and fairtrade bonus – and encouraging community development. Producers are cooperatives, so are organized democratically with the individual farmers or producers as members (or owners) of the business, and are required (and choose to anyway) to give back to their communities in various ways, often providing much-needed services like clean water, health care and education, and caring for the local environments.
In the Fairtrade system, there is also a bonus for organic certification, although a base condition of inclusion in the system is that producers not use a number of chemicals which are dangerous to both people and planet, as well as being very expensive. The aspect of Fairtrade we like best, besides actually embodying “fair”, is that there is a developmental element – the Fairtrade premium/price is available as an advance to producers to help them convert to Fairtrade (and receive the benefits of that system). They are also really supportive and work with producers to bring them back into accreditation if for some reason they are unable to meet the benchmark standards.
Fair trade is, ideally, any business that is organized along those principles of a fair price, democratic organisation (where possible) and producer-owned, but is not accredited. However, there are some pretty loose claims out there.
In our store, fair trade means the producers are part of a cooperative or community enterprise/NGO business who is a member of that region’s Fair Trade Organisation, where workers are involved in the business, paid and supported appropriately and other support/benefits are provided to workers’ families and communities.
We include information about the producers for each product on our website.
Is there something which is always fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and process?
Ethics. Does a product, does the way we do business or treat our customers, nourish and do good.
Can you tell us more about the idea of being eco-logical?
It’s being mindful of our part – as persons, as a business, as customers – within the world (natural and human perspectives). Ecology – the science of understanding the interconnections and relationships, the systems in nature – gives us a wonderful model for human life too. We are connected to each other, and to nature.
I think western sensibility has a tendency to view ourselves as separate – we talk about natural v technological – but there’s a compelling argument for seeing our logical, technological, rational talents as simply part of the human evolutionary toolkit. One of my favourite thinkers, Tim Flannery, talks about human knowledge – mneme – as part of human nature. I think that means that we need to evaluate our knowledge, ideologies and technologies from the perspective of being a component of the web of life. And that includes how we treat each other as well as the planet (or local environment).
So, as a consumer or a business, that means considering the life-long impact of a product or buying decision on both the biosphere which gives us life, and the people who are involved in bringing that product to us. That’s why we look for natural fibres, avoid plastic, seek out repurposed, support local and fair producers.
Can you tell us some more about the people who work with you at Ibu?
Well, there’s me, Clare, my husband and business partner, Michael and our two eldest children who love to help us out at markets. That’s it right now!
What is one of your biggest lessons learned since starting your business? Do you have advice for others who wish to follow in your footsteps in the fairtrade and eco sustainable homewares industry?
It takes time (lots of time) to build a business but caring for customers and staying true to your philosophy/ethics is rewarding and eventually pays dividends (or at least, the bills!).
Our advice: Give yourself time and know that not everything will be an overnight success. Meet your colleagues and support each other.
Do you have any favourite sources of inspiration in design and interior décor?
Do you have a favourite artisan and can you tell us their story?
One? Yikes! Actually, one of my favourites is Sow ‘n Sow seeds from Melbourne. It is produced by Michelle Brady who has worked with local artists and nurseries to create a truly beautiful and responsible product – gift cards with seeds – where everything is recycled, locally produced and is just a gorgeous concept – a gift with life!
What is a favourite product you are selling right now and how do you see eco and fair trade homewares fitting into contemporary interiors?
Smateria Smoto Satchel – made from repurposed motorcycle seats and discarded netting.
Eco and fair trade homewares offer everything that conventional products have plus a story and a connection beyond ourselves. I think they give our interiors soul.
Some of your personal story!
Apart from your work, what other interests of hobbies do you have?
I love my garden. It gives me so much pleasure to be outside, to create and nurture, and spend time with my Dad (who loves to visit for a gardening session) and my little ones. I love to read, fiction and non-fiction.
What is your most treasured belonging?
Our blackwood table – we saw it as a slab in a cabinet maker’s studio and he created a gorgeous, organic, tactile table for us to share meals with our family and friends. It’s extravagant but there are so many great memories created around it and we hope it will become a family heirloom.
What is your decorating style?
Evolutionary. We acquire things – gifted, purchased, found – and somehow they just seem to come together!
In ten years I’d like to be…
Harvesting. And hopefully bringing some of my dreams into fruition.