Reinventing Fair Trade, Starting With A High-Design Paper Vase

Fair trade goes beyond its crunchy roots.

For four generations, a community of traditional basket weavers sat along Mumbai roads and sold their goods. But after it became easy to buy cheap plastic baskets from China, suddenly they had no work–and as “untouchables,” on the lowest rung of the Indian social hierarchy, they couldn’t easily get other jobs. With little or no education, young women from the community often ended up working in the red light district.


A Dutch bank employee who happened to be working temporarily in India decided to help, in part by creating a new international market for products made by the women. She decided to take a different path than the traditional fair trade project: Her nonprofit, the Tiny Miracles Foundation, is working with women to make designs that look nothing like what they might have made in the past–not crafty, or Indian, or even homemade.

Instead, Dutch designer Pepe Heykoop is creating custom products that a global market would want to buy regardless of where they’re coming from, not out of any sense of guilt or responsibility to support the workers, but because the designs stand on their own.

“From a design perspective we have always strongly believed that consumers should buy our products first because they like the design, secondly because of the story,” says founder Laurien Meuter. “In our opinion, this is the most sustainable way of creating many, many jobs.”

After experimenting with a few products, Heykoop designed a paper vase that can be folded flat to ship in an envelope. Sewn in a geometric pattern, the paper form can be adjusted to cover a bottle, making an instant vase. The construction is easy to make, but time intensive, so the women have plenty of work, and it can be sold relatively inexpensively at retail, so there’s a high volume of sales. Since it launched the vase last year, the foundation has been selling about 100 a day, providing full-time employment for 80 people. The women recently began producing a flatpack lampshade as well, and more products will follow.

Unlike many other fair trade projects, the foundation is also going well beyond employment. “We believe that to break a poverty cycle, you need to tackle issues in all areas of their life, not only just give them work,” says Meuter.

The foundation educates parents on the importance of sending children to school, and then helps send the children in the community to better schools where they can learn English and tech skills. Adults are given classes in money management, family planning, and dealing with addiction. The foundation also provides free access to health care.

Photo by Annemarijne Bax

Soon, Meuter hopes to set up a company in India so workers can become shareholders, earning savings that they will be able to access at a later point. “This is much better than increasing their salary to large sums today,” she explains. “It creates a mess if they suddenly start earning say $50 a day. It will lead to violence, addiction, and so on as they don’t know how to handle it.”

By 2020, the foundation has one goal: To help lift all 700 people in the community from extreme poverty to the middle class. Already, thanks to the success of the paper vase, they say they’re halfway there–an achievement all the more impressive because the whole organization is run by a small handful of people, with everyone who works internationally volunteering their time.

“We can make the world a better place,” Meuter writes on the foundation’s site. “How? By just rolling up our sleeves and doing it.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.