Blog

How one Fair Trade company thrives in business while still giving back

How one Fair Trade company thrives in business while still giving back

Although Aquamarine Home is mainly a homewares company, I couldn't resist bringing some felt toys home when I met business owner, Renske Carbone at a trade fair in Melbourne.

Renske Carbone runs Colours of Australia, where she creates beautiful educational toys with a Fair Trade collective in Nepal.

We recently sat down for an inspiring interview with Renske to chat about all things Fair Trade, as well as her journey from Holland to Australia to create Colours of Australia, a company which has since taken her all around the world. Renske has such an uplifting and impactful story full of purpose and passion – one that we are so excited to share below!

Watch the video interview:

Listen to the audio:

Read the full transcript (click here)

Alison Rentoul
Hi everybody I am Alison Rentoul the CEO and founder of Aquamarine Home and I am here today with the lovely Renske Carbone who is Dutch and has a fabulous name which I am probably not saying very well at all. 

Renske Carbone 
No, you were right!

Alison Rentoul
So the lovely Renske, I actually met last year at a trade fair in Melbourne and she was producing these absolutely gorgeous felt toys and beautiful things that were being hand made by a Fair Trade collective in Nepal and I just couldn't resist them and even though Aquamarine Home is mainly a homewares company, I just couldn't walk away without buying some of those products, so that's how we connected.

And I just thought it would be really interesting to have a chat with Renske about how she set up the business and why she set up the business and what it is that she is trying to achieve with it. So, Renske, why don't you just tell us a little bit about what prompted you to start Colours of Australia and how did that come about?

Renske Carbone 
Okay thanks Alison. Well, basically I have got an artistic background, I studied at Curtin University in West Australia and when I finished that in '91, I thought, 'okay, now what?' because it's nice to be creative but it is even nicer to be able to pay the bills. So, that's when I started Colours of Australia and my first product was hand painted scarves out of the back shed so to speak and the business really grew from there. So that was back in '91 I really started the business.

Alison Rentoul 
Okay and so how did you end up coming from Holland to Australia as well?

Renske Carbone 
Well you know I was a little bit wild and I left home at a really young age actually at 15 and I just was looking for adventure. So I dragged my then boyfriend to the altar, said let's get married and go to Australia, so that was when I was 19, I came to Australia and yeah never looked back from there really.

Alison Rentoul 
Oh fantastic, so he is Australian is he?

Renske Carbone 
Yeah, well we have since divorced but we were married for six years or something and we've both gone our different ways, still friends so that is all good. But then I met John who is Italian and we got married fairly quickly after that, so I have been with John for the last 31 years.

Alison Rentoul 
Hence the name Carbone. So Renske, how did you end up incorporating the whole kind of Nepalese Fair Trade element to Colours of Australia, when did you start doing that?

Renske Carbone 
Okay, so by '97 I had discovered trade fairs and I was exhibiting and we actually started becoming a bit more well known and then I was approached by a lady from China who was living in Australia and she said, why don't you do all of this stuff in China? And I said, "Well, I have never been to China."

So we went to China and we worked there for a number of years, we set up a factory. It's very hard working there because we don't speak the language and we really got, we were pretty naive and we didn't know much.

So by 2005 I had decided that I had had enough of China and I was looking around to see where I could go next and I had some ideas for products and I was exhibiting in Europe at the time at the big gift fairs in Europe and Germany and I thought, well I am being a bit thick here because there is lots of people from different countries here so I went around and I found a company in Nepal that I wanted to work with.

We were doing bags at the time, so this is 2006. Yeah that's how I actually ended up going to Nepal that same year. I wanted to make sure that people were you know, doing the right thing, there was no child labor and you know, just stuff like that.

And I just need to mention that after China, I actually had two years where I was looking around to see what I was doing next while still conducting our business but I ended up in Bangladesh and I worked there for two years and that was really what put me onto Fair Trade. I was working with a beautiful little company there making leather bags and unfortunately the quality wasn't quite there and it didn't really work out but that was a Fair Trade company and it was really the first time that I have had anything to do with Fair Trade people and I really liked the idea and it really excited me to be able to contribute in a positive way to other people through business. So, that is really what sparked it off.

Then, when I went to Nepal, the company that I worked with there, they are also Fair Trade and it just continues our journey in that direction.

Alison Rentoul 
So did you set out to find a Fair Trade organisation in Nepal to work with or did it just happen that it was lucky that you found one?

Renske Carbone 
Yeah at the time, when I actually went to Nepal the first time, there was no Fair Trade there or registered US Fair Trade. There was a bit of a difference between people calling themselves Fair Trade and people being Fair Trade.

Alison Rentoul 
Yes, I am learning that.

Renske Carbone 
Yeah so you know, I am Dutch, I take everything with a healthy dose of skepticism, I guess. So the company I started with is a family business and that is a story for another time but it is a really beautiful company and they were, for many years, they were working toward getting to being registered as Fair Trade. I don't know if anybody has been involved with that process – it's a huge process. This is a US Fair Trade registration and it's the kind of thing that you wouldn't have any idea about what it takes for a third world country to become registered Fair Trade. So they in fact became the first Fair Trade company in Nepal.

So, they weren't Fair Trade at the time but they were making the product I wanted to make and have been registered Fair Trade now for the last, I don't know exactly, maybe eight years or something like that.

Alison Rentoul 
That's so interesting. So you must have been one of the first people then to be bringing those products into Australia?

Renske Carbone 
Not felt, there are lots of other people that bring felt in, there are a lot of Nepalese businesses that are also bringing in felt. The whole Fair Trade thing is quite interesting because as I said, there is a lot of skullduggery going on really – people calling themselves Fair Trade and, you know. 

Really, in Nepal still, there is only a handful of Fair Trade craft product producers and the people that I work with. To be Fair Trade certified, actually takes a continuous effort, you get checked every year with certain things. It's got to do with how many toilets have you got? How do the doors open in the work room? Is there light? There are lots of things that people don't really realize about it. Yeah so that's, you know, sorry I actually forgot what you had asked, sorry.

Alison Rentoul 
Well I was thinking you might have been one of the first people to bring those products to Australia.

Renske Carbone
Oh right, I probably was in terms of getting Fair Trade felt out of Nepal, yes, I must say in Australia, definitely, yeah.

Alison Rentoul 
And you go to Nepal quite a lot don't you?

Renske Carbone 
Yeah well both my husband and I go so we now work, because we are exporting our product worldwide, to the US, UK, New Zealand, Canada, it's all over the place. We have found that shipping goods to Australia and then shipping them back out is like really stupid. We are also really wanting to look at our footprint and how can we do this smarter and with a bit of intelligence so we kind of worked out that actually warehousing in Nepal was the answer to our dilemma. 

So our workshop is there, we have got staff there and we have got our warehouse there and we go to Nepal really regularly. So John goes to deal with warehouse things and I go to deal with design and you know things like that and product development.

Alison Rentoul 
And you have so many gorgeous designs like your felt toys, just literally was a show stopper for me when I was walking through the trade fair and I saw them I was just like oh, oh my God. And yeah so why don't you just tell everyone who is listening a little bit about how you came up with all of those designs because a lot of them are your designs aren't they? Are they all your designs?

Renske Carbone 
Yeah, no, that's right. Well after my adventures in China and Bangladesh, you know, when you come up with original product, you get copied really quickly so one of the things that we do now, because we focus a lot on early childhood toys or educational toys, that's been a learning process for me, I don't have children and you know, it was sort of working out what do these customers actually want from me in terms of product but I found I had to really spread the design range out to make a really wide base of products.

So we when we started with the felt, we did jewellery, we did home wares, we did toys, we did decoration, Christmas, we did basically everything. As the years went by, I just grew each sector of our product range to stop people, really not to stop them from copying because that is impossible really but just to make it so hard for them to copy the whole range. So, we have well over 1,000 products.

Alison Rentoul 
Oh my goodness.

Renske Carbone 
So, the ideas come from really from things that I see around me and you know and also I think a lot about the play value of the product that we produce. And my customers, they are really the greatest source of inspiration because they will ask for things or make suggestions and yeah, so that is really useful for me in terms of product development.

Alison Rentoul 
So tell everyone what are some of the ranges that you have, because I can picture them all but I know they are probably sitting there going, but what, what are they?

Renske Carbone 
Well, we have got probably about 13 sectors in our range, I won't go through all of them but one of them would be for instance dolls. So we do the dolls of all sizes and our dolls actually stand up, we make wooden feet for them to have a point of difference. 

Food is a huge sector for us so we do a whole range of you know, you name it, nearly all of the vegetables, all of the fruit that you could think of, probably not all of them but quite close to it, we do them in felt.

Alison Rentoul 
I absolutely love that collection and I don't know which was my favorite but I really love the sandwich because it is so gorgeous, it's got these two slices of bread and everything is made out of felt, and then you can open it up and it's got all the different sort of bits that go in it like the ham and the cheese and the cucumber and whatever else and you can make it up.

Renske Carbone
Yeah we also do a pizza which has got like loads of different toppings that kids can put on the pizza and as you have said, it is all made out of felt. 

Another popular range is actually our trees, we do a really nice range of different kinds of trees and some of them have wooden parts and some of them are all felt... Hand puppets... Finger puppets.

Alison Rentoul 
Oh I love the fairy houses as well that you have.

Renske Carbone 
Fairy houses, yeah, that's a good one. Yeah they are pretty popular. Personally it's not really my kind of thing I have to say but they are very popular with customers so I am forever trying to come up with new ideas that haven't been done before, it's always a big challenge you know to make something that is original.

Alison Rentoul 
And last but not least is of course the range that we carry which is your story books that come with the little felt toy, the main subject of the book and the stories are all written by you and the books have been made by you. Did you illustrate them as well?

Renske Carbone 
No, not that first range of six books, the ones you are talking about. They basically came about because a friend of mine told me the story about this little lamb that they rescued and they bought it up and they used to give it biscuits and you know and I was thinking about the story and I noticed a lot of the farmers out in Australia and everywhere probably that deal with these kinds of things and I thought, how can you make that into an educational story? 

So then, at the end of it, the lamb is shorn and it's cold so it needs a jacket so the farmer's wife you know, knits a wooly jacket. So that sort of closes the circle and when I showed it to my customers, they said listen it is really great, we love it but we can't sell one book, you have got to do a series so that's how the other five came.

We have got the two most popular ones which are Betsy the Chicken who doesn't know what it means to be a chicken until she lays her first egg so our felt chicken actually lays and egg and for the other one we were talking about, the lamb, she actually, you can take off the coat, her furry coat and put the little green jacket on her. 

So that was a fun range actually and lots of fun to do, so yeah I love it.

Alison Rentoul 
Yeah no they are absolutely gorgeous and they have been very popular as well with our customers and I just love the fact that you can take Baabaa's wooly coat off and then put her hand knitted jumper on afterwards, it's just adorable.

Renske Carbone 
Yeah.

Alison Rentoul 
So how do you know or how do you measure the impact that you are making through the Fair Trade collective that you are working with? Is that something that you follow or look into?

Renske Carbone 
Well actually over the years it all becomes normal if you know what I mean because you are dealing with it all the time but in the beginning, there was something really sweet that happened after about the first eight months or something and the guy that I work with, he said to me, Renske, you need to realize that the work that you give us, you have fed 300 families.

Alison Rentoul 
Wow.

Renske Carbone 
In the last whatever, I think it was about eight months, and I thought, what a fantastic way to really motivate me also but to express how something impacts on other people. 

The people that work for the Fair Trade company, they are just like everybody else, they just want to make a living, they want to have a good life and of course, there is a lot of women in this field you know, doing the craft work, there is also men by the way but mainly women. 

And to know that especially in a society like in Nepal where the men still rules the roost really, the women, they get some independence and they get a sense of value of what they contribute to their own family and you know, we have now grown beyond the 300 families well and truly, feeding them I mean. It is just a really heartwarming to know that, yes I make money because I am business and the company that makes my work makes money but also the people that work there, they all benefit. 

So everybody really benefits and that is a lovely way to work. Otherwise, it is just about dollars and cents and it's not that interesting actually, you know what I mean?

Alison Rentoul 
Absolutely I think that there is really room for us to change the whole retail paradigm and to make it win, win. That's really just all it should be, it should be everywhere along the chain, people should be benefiting from the transaction.

Renske Carbone 
Absolutely.

Alison Rentoul 
So yeah, so that's what we are all about as well and that is what gets me excited about working with lovely people like yourself who think that way too.

Renske Carbone 
Yeah.

Alison Rentoul 
So what is on the horizon for you guys? Have you got any new and exciting developments that you want to tell us about or are you just going to keep on doing what you are already doing, which is wonderful as it is.

Renske Carbone 
Yeah we keep going with what we are doing but we are also, I actually just had a meeting today, I have started working last year in Sri Lanka and I have a really beautiful business that is Fair Trade doing some cotton products, so cotton dolls and things like that.

Alison Rentoul 
Oh wow.

Renske Carbone 
And meeting this morning with another supplier who happened to be in Australia about some other wood products because we do a lot of wooden toys as well and we combine it with the felt that we make. And I was really quite excited because this is also a Fair Trade company and you know, we didn't set out to be completely Fair Trade and we are not at the moment because we still have suppliers that are out of Indonesia where they don't really recognize Fair Trade and they are not really that organised in that sense.

Alison Rentoul 
Yep.

Renske Carbone 
We are now dealing with a number of Fair Trade companies and my customers are interested and they support it and it's all about, as you said yourself, it's about everybody in the chain actually benefiting from the work. So, it is really exciting to add another Fair Trade supplier to our stable and I can't see that changing in any way, we will just keep trying to find Fair Trade suppliers and people to work with to offer our beautiful products that have some value and a bit more than just press a button on a machine and it comes rolling out. We don't do that, most of our product is hand made so, well all of our product actually, so.

Alison Rentoul 
Well I think you are a wonderful example of the fact that you can build a really thriving and successful business but still be ethical and contributing in a positive way to the world and the environment because all of your products as well are made from sustainable materials too and that is something else that we haven't touched on much but you are also passionate about, I know. 

So yeah, so fantastic and long may it last and let's hope that listening to this, people will be encouraged if they haven't already, to look into more Fair Trade collaborations and partnerships and to work with people like yourself. So if there are any shops out there that are watching this that are interested in stocking any of Renske's beautiful products, what is the web address that we should tell people to go to?

Renske Carbone 
It's Colours of Australia spelt the Australian way coloursofaustralia.com. You just need to register and wait for me to change your registration to wholesale customer. We do absolutely no retail online so we really need to be just business to business only. 

Alison Rentoul 
So thank you so much Renske, it's been absolutely wonderful chatting with you and I feel really inspired and uplifted by hearing about all of the wonderful and good things that you have been doing and yeah, as you said, what a beautiful way to know that you are impacting people's lives and literally helping to make the world a better place just through doing ethical business with purpose and passion.

Renske Carbone 
Yeah.

Alison Rentoul 
So take care, thank you very much Renske, wishing you all the very best and I am sure we will speak to you again before too long.

Renske Carbone 
Okay, thanks for having me Alison, thanks a lot.

Alison Rentoul 
Thank you, bye!

Renske Carbone 
Bye!

______

Aquamarine Home stocks Renske's gorgeous range of Papoose Books that each come with their main character in felt form. You can browse the range at Aquamarine Home here. If you're interested in stocking these beautiful Fair Trade toys yourself, you can register for an account with Colours of Australia here.

______

Want to receive our weekly blog articles directly in your inbox? Make sure you subscribe via the signup box at the bottom of this page. We'll send you weekly articles and news about new products and special offers that are only available to our subscribers!

______

How does Renske's story inspire you? What are your thoughts on building a successful business that still contributes in a positive way to the world? We would love to hear your reflections on this in the comments below!

Leave a comment