Ethical fashion interview #1: Mulberries from Laos

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a big fan of sustainable fashion. I’ve just launched my own fair trade accessories label, but rather than telling you more about that just yet, this post kicks off a series of monthly interviews with sustainable fashion leaders. This month, I’m chatting with Boby Vosinthavong, the director of Mulberries, a fair trade brand from Laos. It just so happens that I’m friends with Boby and her family, and they are actually the reason I was able to start my label, but I digress. Let’s find out more about what’s going on at Mulberries!

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Style Wilderness (SW): At the Mulberries shop in Vientiane, tourists love buying colourful handicrafts and traditional Lao textiles, but it seems your work is more about expanding the company’s operations to include agricultural projects. What does your position at Mulberries involve?

Boby (B): As the director of Mulberries [Boby is the daughter of Kommaly Chanthavong who founded the company], I oversee work at our mulberry farm, meet new villagers to recruit staff and oversee the management of the company. This means I travel a fair bit to districts surrounding the farm [in Xieng Khouang province] and meet with the local government to discuss potential projects, then I visit villages with local government staff. Typically we meet with the village head, who calls a meeting,  then we hold a seminar to promote our projects and after a little while go back to meet with the village head again and find out who from the village is interested in being involved. We then write up contracts and start training in the various projects we run.

SW: So apart from the silk and textile handicrafts stocked at Mulberries, it sounds like the company has quite a few projects on the go that are providing employment in rural areas of Laos?

B: Apart from the mulberry trees which are of course used for silk production, we’re trying to get villagers to grow organic produce just for themselves, but if we can build it into a business, this is a project that could go commercial and possibly supply the domestic market. It takes 1-2 years for mulberry trees to be ready to harvest, so we’re planting rows of soybeans between the rows of trees for a cash crop, because soybeans can be grown after the rice harvest in wet fields or with the mulberries and if there is still irrigation water left over, they can also be grown in the dry season. Long-term, we’re also wanting to plant trees for timber. Soybeans improve the soil, grow quickly and can be used for animal feed domestically and for food products as well, for the Lao and Thai market, so they are a good short-term cash crop while the villagers wait for the mulberry trees to grow.

SW: What you’re doing isn’t necessarily something that the villagers are used to, in terms of both the crops and the farming methods. What sort of training does Mulberries provide?

B: When we work with a village on silk production, we choose a team leader (often the team includes members from a women’s union) to work with directly. We train on the ground at the village and pick the best team members to come back to our farm for more training. Then those members go back to the village and train others. We follow up again at the village to make sure that everything is being understood as there are quite a few steps in silk production – planting and maintaining the mulberry trees (Mulberries provides the villagers with saplings), composting, raising the silkworms, feeding them properly and collecting the cocoons. We take 15-day-old silkworms to the village and teach them how to raise them, then we purchase the cocoons from the villagers. Our company can sometimes also get government funding to help the villagers buy tools and timber and construction materials to build a reeling house for the silk.

SW: And apart from silk production, what kind of business is Mulberries involved in?

B: At the moment we’re trying to expand a new centre in an area close to Thailand that was a special zone until recently, it’s just opening to tourists and business and more families are settling there due to being relocated because of hydro electric schemes so people are going to need jobs. We’re also trying to prevent slash and burn agriculture by providing alternative work in handicrafts and growing organic produce. It’s an area where weaving is still practised, so there are many opportunities related to silk production, but we’re also planning to make it a harvest centre for soybeans and maybe a production centre for mulberry leaf tea. We want to service the surrounding villages too – there are more than 600 families who could be involved so we see it as a potential job centre and tourist hub. At the moment rice is still the main crop but we want to show the local people how the land can be used more efficiently to provide additional income.

SW: It all sounds like a huge job! What has been the main thing you’ve learnt so far?

B: I’m Lao, but because I’ve been living in Australia for most of my life I have had to learn about the people’s work ethic and I get impatient. A lot of the time we train the people in more efficient agriculture but it takes a while for them to believe that it’s better than the ways that they are used to. I have to get used to their concept of time and their way of doing things, let them learn from their mistakes and remember that this isn’t Australia!  My mum’s my best mentor, she’s teaching me to be patient!

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Boby with her daughters Laura (left) and Abby outside a house in their family compound in Vientiane, Laos

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