Fair trade legacy
Ganesh Himal Trading stands behind Nepal
Denise Attwood says running a small business demands the ability to switch direction “like a hummingbird” as circumstances suddenly change.
In the case of Ganesh Himal Trading, the company she and her husband, Ric Conner, started 31 years ago, abrupt changes have included a civil war and devastating earthquakes. That’s because Attwood and Conner import their inventory from Nepal.
Normally they receive three tons of handcrafted clothing, jewelry, textiles and paper every two months. Now they’re scrambling to fill orders while also coordinating relief efforts for their network of cottage-industry artisans who no longer have cottages.
The Spokane couple also plan to rebuild the remote medical clinic they helped fund in 2008.
During a recent interview, Attwood described how she and her husband nurtured the fair trade movement in Nepal, and how people here can help it continue to thrive.
S-R: What were your interests growing up in Spokane?
Attwood: Social justice. My dad, Wayne Attwood, was head of Physicians for Social Responsibility here, so I was involved with PSR and the Peace and Justice Action League, as well as programs for developmentally disabled people.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Attwood: Something in the environmental field. I started college at Wellesley, then switched to environmental science at Western Washington University, where I met Ric, an Alaska fisherman. Both he and I earned degrees in environmental science. But after graduation, I still had this social justice bent, so I decided to go to law school.
S-R: When did you connect with Nepal?
Attwood: Before I applied to law school, we took an eight-month trip through Asia and the South Pacific. While trekking in Nepal, we bought sweaters made by Tibetan refugees and were amazed by how well they performed in harsh conditions. When we complimented the family that made them, they said, “Do you know how we can market them?” They wanted to send their kids to good schools because they felt that was the only way they would ever get their country back. We didn’t know anything about marketing but agreed to try to find someone who did.
Attwood: We bought some sweaters and socks and had them shipped home while we continued traveling. When we got back to Spokane six months later, my parents encouraged us to present a slide show of our trip and offer the things from Nepal for sale. We did, and people loved it – the items themselves, and the concept that these people were making them to send their children to school. We made enough money to send Ric back to Nepal while I started law school, and we began this crazy business. Each summer we’d hit a bunch of festivals, and during the school year Ric would go to campuses and do what he called “guerilla vending” – sell sweaters until someone told him to leave. If he sold even one sweater, we’d be so excited.
S-R: What was the turning point?
Attwood: After I finished law school and passed the bar, we decided this is the best social justice work we could do – working directly with people trying to create a livelihood for themselves. So we started doing this full time.
S-R: How has the business evolved?
Attwood: At first we were strictly retail – on the road 270 days a year doing fairs and festivals. I also became a board member of the fledgling Fair Trade Resource Network, an educational effort to help North Americans understand their impact as consumers. As the products improved and people began understanding fair trade, stores like Global Folk Art, which I co-founded, started to pop up. Coincidentally, our son was born and we needed to get off the road, so we gradually became a wholesale company.
S-R: What did it cost to start Ganesh Himal Trading?
Attwood: We bought our first inventory for $400.
S-R: What’s your annual revenue now?
Attwood: Around $900,000. Of that, we return about 52 percent to Nepal.
S-R: Have you ever worried the business might fail?
Attwood: It could fail any time if we can’t get product out of Nepal.
S-R: How much did April’s earthquake and the aftershocks disrupt your supply line?
Attwood: We’ll see. But small businesses teach you the lesson of impermanence. You have to be like a hummingbird – be able to change direction very quickly. You have to know not just what you do, but why you do it. And the why of what we do is very much about social justice, so it’s not like we’re going to walk away from it.
S-R: How often do you travel to Nepal?
Attwood: It depends. Our 18-year-old son has been seven times. Usually I go every other year, but I’m constantly helping our people there design products and choose colors. I aim for what I call “the Levi’s of goods” – things people like to buy over and over, or that last a long time. Our goods don’t appeal to everyone, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what our customers are looking for.
S-R: How have styles changed?
Attwood: When we started selling sweaters, fleece didn’t exist. Now all our sweaters are fleece-lined, because young people today aren’t used to wool next to their skin.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Attwood: I love the people I work with in Nepal. And I love our customers. Right after the earthquake, shops all over the country put jars out and sent us money along with messages like, “We collected $2,000 for earthquake victims, and we’re matching it.”
S-R: How much have you raised?
Attwood: As of (last week), about $125,000.
S-R: Where will it go?
Attwood: A lot of people we work with live in Kathmandu, but their family homes are in the villages that were hardest hit. So we’ve already sent them money to make sure their villages have rice and shelters. And our clinic was completely destroyed, so a portion of the money will go to rebuilding that.
S-R: What can people in Spokane do?
Attwood: One thing is to join us (at 10 a.m. today) at Riverside Place, the old Masonic Temple, for a 90-minute Zumbathon earthquake benefit, followed by raffles, healthy food and fair trade items for sale. We’re suggesting a $12 donation, with all money directly benefiting the Baseri Rural Health Clinic and community in Nepal.
S-R: Anything else?
S-R: Looking back, what has surprised you the most about your career?
Attwood: Early on when we told people we had a fair trade import business, they looked at us like we were from Mars. Now they say, “Oh, that’s really great. My town has a fair trade store” or “I drink fair trade coffee.” The difference in just 30 years is phenomenal.
S-R: What do you suppose your artisans would think of our lifestyle?
Attwood: We took a good friend from Nepal to Costco once, and it was overwhelming. He looked around and said, “You need to stop developing and let the rest of us catch up.” I think he’s absolutely right.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone considering a career as a fair trade importer?
Attwood: Find a place that you love and fall in love with its people. If you do that, the hurdles will never feel too big.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.