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How fair trade company Fair and Square is making a difference with Lien Uten from Fair and Square

How fair trade company Fair and Square is making a difference with Lien Uten from Fair and Square

This week we had the pleasure of interviewing Lien Uten of Fair and Square, a fair trade company creating products in India to help lift marginalised women and their families out of poverty.

We discuss how fair trade companies such as Fair and Square help poverty stricken communities by providing work, fair wages and safe working conditions, and produce organic and eco-friendly products such as our 100% organic cotton  Aquamarine Tote Bag.

 

Watch the video interview

 

Listen to the audio

Read the full transcript (click here)

Alison Rentoul:
Hi and welcome everybody to Aquamarine Homes blog. We are so excited today to be interviewing the lovely Lien Uten from Fair and Square. She's coming to us all the way from Belgium. Hi, Lien. How are you? 
 
Lien Uten:
Hi. Hello. I'm fine, Alison. How are you? 
 
Alison Rentoul:
Really, really excited to have you here. So Lien is going to tell us all about her amazing fair trade collectives that is creating these gorgeous bags, and you might have even seen them on our website. So I'll just do a little show and tell: these are our Aquamarine Fair and Square bags. As you can see, we've got our little Fair and Square tag on them. They're so cute. They're little cotton tote bags and it's obviously got our branding on them. Lien is going to tell us all about how she came up with the idea to start this amazing business and everything about what it's doing for the wonderful people that she's working with. Why don't you go ahead and just tell us a little bit about where and, how on earth this came into being. 
 
Lien Uten:
I started Fair and Square together with my partner Jonas and we actually came up with the idea while we were in India ourselves about one and a half years ago. So Jonas had been volunteering for years before that in a charity in India with an NGO (non-government organisation) called Samugam, which is actually a grassroots organization and they work with disadvantaged people. So tribal communities, Gypsy communities, basically people in India who don't get the chance to find a job, to go to school, to have a normal life. They have a lot of different projects that they do with these people. One of them is called Jolly Home and it's basically a home where the children from these communities can live. They get to go to school, they get food, events, they even get yoga classes and they really have a normal kids life and a lot more chances to a better future. One of the other projects that they also do is they have a tailor shop where the women of these communities can come and actually get a paid tailor training. So for six months they get a salary to learn how to be a tailor and then after those six months they are given a sewing machine so they can actually work independently for themselves, make a living, be a role model for their children and have a better life.
 
Alison Rentoul:
Wow, what a fantastic organization. I love that. I love the whole concept of “teach them how to fish and they'll eat forever” kind of thing. It's just so great. Rather than just giving people handouts, actually giving them a hand up and helping them create a viable income for themselves and a living, that's just so awesome. 
 
Lien Uten:
Exactly! So this project was already there. It was actually started in cooperation with an Australian woman as well (Gill Fecter), and the tailor project is called Sowing the Seeds. This project has already been in place for about six, seven years and a lot of women have already graduated from the program. So when we were in India, we found out that this NGO, Samugam, and that they were a bit short on money to actually make sure that all these projects could continue to exist and that's when Jonas and I started thinking about ways to make this NGO more self sustainable, so not 100% dependent on donations and that's how we started to think about ways to actually commercialize this tailor shop. So to actually start selling the products that they make during their training or even women who have graduated from the program, to actually hire them to make products that we can sell at first in Belgium.  But right now we're already selling them all around the world. That's how we actually came up with the idea. So that was the first thing that we did. We started to make tote bags and string bags in the tailor shop. So, for example, a tote bag like the ones you have. The cotton bags for around your shoulder and then also this type of bag which is like a string bag, you can wear it like a little backpack. 
 
Alison Rentoul:
Just quickly tell the guys about the cotton because that's special as well, isn't it?
 
Lien Uten:
Yes. So the whole idea behind Fair and Square is that we want to do everything, we want to make everything in an ethical way. But we also want to make sustainable products. So with everything that we do, we ask ourselves how we can do it in the most sustainable way and one of the really important things is obviously the fabric that we use. So the bags are made from GOTS certified cotton, which basically means that it's organic, but it's also produced in an ethical environment. So the workers, the cotton farmers, everybody who is actually involved in the process of making this cotton has a fair wage, has a safe working environment, so it's all ethically correct.
 
Alison Rentoul:
That is so cool. One of the main reasons why I chose you guys as well to make our bags because you were not just looking at one little tiny aspect of the production but the whole thing from end to end. So yeah, I love that. Tell us more about your other products. 
 
Lien Uten:
So we started out with actually making those tote bags and those string bags and they already had a screen printing installation in the tailor shop. When I say installation, I mean that they can make screen frames themselves. They make them by hand so they can actually put any type of design on those bags. So that's when we started selling those bags in bigger numbers to Belgium, Belgian organizations, companies, for example, events or merchandise, goody bags that you can use, anything actually, and that's what we did the first couple of months.  But one of the main ideas around those bags is obviously also that they are reusable so that people can use them instead of plastic shopping bags.
Then we actually started working on that idea a little bit more and then a couple months later, in September last year, we opened our own web shop where we offer the bags but also other products that actually help people to avoid single use plastics. So I've already showed you the bags, but what we also, for example, offer is bamboo straws. They come in a little bag and you get a bamboo straw. You get a cleaning brush to clean them. Because plastic straws, next to plastic bag's are a really big problem for the environment and I personally think that it's also nicer to drink with the bamboo straws. They look good. You can just take them with you in your bag as an alternative for the plastic straws.
Then the last product that we are offering right now is a drinking bottle. I'm not sure if you can see there's a little Fair and Square logo here and a bamboo bottom. These drinking bottles are really cool because they're made from recycled metals. They're really well insulated so you can put water in there but also coffee and tea, and I just think they're also really beautiful. So just all beautiful products that we want to offer to help people to not have to use plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic straws. But hopefully in the future we can offer a lot of more different products.
 
Alison Rentoul:
Fantastic. So you're developing more products as well? 
 
Lien Uten:
Yeah, right now we're looking to add more products to web shop. But all in the same idea, stuff that can help people to avoid waste in general. So we're now looking at maybe doing reusable menstruation caps, or maybe a portable ashtrays, bamboo toothbrushes, stuff like that. That's the kind of we're looking in at the moment to add to the web shop. 
 
Alison Rentoul:
Oh, that's so fantastic. I love it. What makes you so passionate about all of these kinds of things, do you think? Where does this come from within you? 
 
Lien Uten:
I think that the part to work with the Gypsy women and with the NGO came from just meeting them, we were there and we met all those people and we saw that they were living in, pretty harsh conditions, but Jonas who had been there for years before that, he also said that the living circumstances had already improved a lot in the last four years, but because of the work that Samugam does, so for us, when we met all those people and we met the people who worked for the organization and people who benefit from the organization, yeah, you meet those people and you just really want to help them and you see all those little kids and you really want them to be able to go to school and to have a better future than their parents had.
Then, besides the fact that we wanted to help these people, me and Jonas are also really concerned about plastic pollution and the environment and that's how we actually started using Fair and Square to not only offer those products but also to create awareness around the whole subject. I think just because we both love traveling, we love nature, we just want to be able to do this for the rest of our lives and we feel that if we don't start solving some problems in the world that we have right now, we might not have that beautiful world in 30 years. So it's only maybe a drip on a hot plate (or however you say that) but I think it feels really good to feel like you're at least doing a little bit and making the world a little bit cleaner and helping some people. 
 
Alison Rentoul:
That's right. Every little bit helps. Every little choice and decision. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's not real estate to imagine that we can fix absolutely everything that's wrong with the world like all at one time because there's so much work to do, but everybody can do some small things to make a difference and it doesn't matter if you're not doing absolutely everything completely and utterly, perfectly or whatever, because there is no such thing really. It's a spectrum and whatever you can do in your own little way to make a difference, whether it's big or small, it all counts. So yeah, absolutely. That's really exciting. So you're mainly based in Belgium aren't you? But you mentioned to me earlier that you were just recently in Australia. So what were you doing over here? 
 
Lien Uten:
So me and Jonas we started traveling in India and then we traveled for a couple of more months in Asia and then we went to Australia and actually spend 10 months in Australia on a working holiday. So we actually started Fair and Square and just worked on it while we were traveling. Jonas, he got back to Belgium at the end of last year and I stayed for a couple more months in Australia and I got back one month ago. So our plan was always to go traveling and Fair and Square just kind of happens on the way and then we just worked on it when we were traveling, but we both from Belgium and so now he's back in Belgium. I'm back in Belgium. 
So we operate from here and also most of our customers and most of the things we do are located in Belgium, but the nice thing is that through the wonderful internet, we can reach people from all over the world and work together with people like you and we also now have a partnership with a store in the UK. So it's really nice to see that Fair and Square is spreading out a little bit.
 
Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean, because I found you on Instagram, I think. And I'm sure there's lots of other people finding you that way as well and I hope that they're going directly to your website and buying your beautiful products from there too. So, what do you think about the kind of general attitude in Belgium and in Australia, you spent a bit of time here, towards this kind of thing? Obviously, here in Australia or in Victoria where I live, we've just recently had plastic bags banned, thank goodness, in supermarkets and they are in the process of trying to roll that out at the moment. We've had a few teething problems, but at least they're sort of trying to do it. Is that something that's important to people in Belgium as well? 
 
Lien Uten:
I have to say I was actually really surprised when I arrived in Australia and saw that there was still plastic bags in the supermarkets. Because in Belgium, you will find plastic bags for sure in smaller shops and in clothing stores for example, but most supermarkets have gotten rid of them since maybe five, 10 years ago. So when I came to Australia I actually was really surprised to see that in the supermarket, I had to tell the person at the counter myself to not pack my stuff in a plastic bag. Then it was actually a bit of a coincidence, but I actually did a bit of work, I worked as a fundraiser for Greenpeace while I was in Australia, actually raising funds to get rid of the plastic bags in Coles and Woolies. Then after a while that happened. Then the next campaign that we worked on was actually to get rid of the pointless plastics. So all the cucumber is wrapped in plastic, coconuts, all the plastic that doesn't need to be there. Doing that, I really saw that in Australia, a lot of people, the normal people, they're really concerned and they think like, "Oh, I don't need all that plastic," and for them it's more like, okay, it's a convenience obviously if it's there. Some of them will use it, but a lot of them are aware of the problem but it's more like, I feel, the government that wasn't really very keen to do something about it. 
In Belgium, I think the problem is here also still really big that there's too much plastic and it's very difficult for people to avoid it as well. So I think, now we don't have plastic bags anymore, they're now talking about getting rid of plastic straws in Belgium, forbidding them in all bars and restaurants and cafes and that's something that would be really great. But first we have to see that really is going to happen and when it's going to happen. So there are movements happening. We had an action called a plastic-free May, a plastic free month trying to motivate people to use less plastic, it's going slowly, but it's going in the right direction, I feel, both in Australia and in Belgium. 
 
Alison Rentoul:
Yeah. There's definitely growing awareness amongst people that we really need to do something about this and people are starting to give voice to all of these campaigns and support the lobbying to the government to get them to actually change things because as you say, it's one thing for the people to say that they want something, but unless the government actually legislates or changes things and the shops aren't necessarily going to change just because people say something. They don't have a choice. If they can't vote with their money somewhere else, although, sometimes people are able to do that which is good. I've seen things like in England there's been campaigns where people have taken all the unnecessary packaging off the vegetables and left them on the shelf, in the shop and I think there's campaigns to do that here as well. So we start leaving their rubbish in their own shops instead of taking it off and putting it in our rubbish. Yeah, so I mean, I just absolutely love what you're doing. I think it's a really, really wonderful and it's so beautiful that it's an end-to-end kind of solution as I was saying before, like the fact that you're helping the people who are making the products and you're also being careful about the sourcing of the materials that go into the products and then the products themselves are solutions to environmental problems and social problems that we have. So that's so cool. So congratulations on doing that.
So what are your hopes and dreams for the future of Fair and Square? Like if you could wave a magic wand, what would you make happen?
 
Lien Uten:
Well, right now we're obviously still really, really small. We've actually a bit more than a week ago celebrated our first birthday.
 
Alison Rentoul:
Oh, happy birthday.
 
Lien Uten:
Thank you. So right now obviously we are already giving something back to Samugam as in money, to help their projects, but it's not enough yet. So we want to grow slowly, steadily so we can actually maybe in one or two or three years really start donating an amount to the projects that is really significant. But obviously during the first year of our existence we were traveling so it was not always easy to spend a lot of time on Fair and Square and to make it grow quickly. Which is also not really bad, I think. But right now, actually in the last couple of weeks we've really been talking about ways to grow our business, like on one side the web shop, so add more products to it. On the other hand, maybe offer more personalized items like for example, different types of bags, different dimensions, different colors. Maybe, other types of reusable packaging.
We're also looking at making a zero waste kit. So basically a really compact kit that people can have in their bag all the time and have with them all the time so they don't have to produce any waste. So what would be in there is a travel mug with a straw, with what are they called again, the spoon and a fork in one - a spork. A beeswax wrapper for if you go and get a sandwich somewhere. So all little things, really compact that you can carry with you. So when you go out for lunch or when you go grab some takeaway, that you actually have your own packaging with you.
 
Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, that sounds gorgeous. I love it. 
 
Lien Uten:
So yeah, and in those ways trying to grow Fair and Square so we can in the end give more money to the projects of Samugam. So that's kind of like what we are working on right now and what our dreams for the future are and I think that besides all the products that we offer and all the things that we sell, a really big part of our business is also about awareness because obviously like everybody can help. If people want to buy a drinking bottle, they can also buy it in a random store. But by posting about it and telling people about it and showing people nice pictures of our drinking bottles, we really want to make people see that it's not only about, "Oh, it's a beautiful product," but really by using it you're doing something good and just reminding people of the problems around plastic pollution and yeah, that it's not really hard to do something about it actually. 
 
Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's so admirable what you're doing. So go ahead and tell everybody where they can find you on the web. So Instagram, Facebook, website. Obviously we'll put that all in our blog post as well. But yeah, we're dying to know. 
 
Lien Uten:
our website is www.fairandsquare.be (BE is for Belgium). Then on Instagram and on Facebook you can find us at Fair and Square BE, but the same as the website actually. That's how you can find us on Facebook and on Instagram. 
 
Alison Rentoul:
Awesome. Oh, well I hope that you get even more followers from our little broadcast.
 
Lien Uten:
That would be great.
 
Alison Rentoul:
We'll certainly be, our bags are proudly on display in our shop and I know that our customers love them and hopefully we'll be able to order some more from you very soon. So thank you so much for your time today Lien. It's been really interesting speaking with you and so lovely to hear more about the story behind Fair and Square and all the wonderful things that you guys are doing in the world. So thanks again. Take care. Have a wonderful day.
 
Lien Uten:
Yeah. Thank you for having me. It was really nice.
 
Alison Rentoul:
My pleasure. Speak to you soon. Bye. 
 
Lien Uten:
All right. Bye-bye.

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Check our Fair and Square's Website: www.fairandsquare.be  

Follow them on Instagram: www.instagram.com/fairandsquarebe

Or find them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/fairandsquarebe

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Have you seen our Aquamarine 100% Organic Cotton Tote Bags by Fair and Square?

 

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How does Lien's story inspire you? What are your thoughts about the importance of Fair Trade? We would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below!

 

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