As recently as yesterday I found myself struggling onto a bus with a pram and a bag of plastic toys for my kids’ Christmas presents so comically large I had to double back to the footpath and load it separately. Christmas is the season to live and celebrate some of the most important values we have: family, generosity, hope and waiting. But looking at the giant plastic mountain taking up its own seat I couldn’t escape the depressing thought that all I’d really purchased was a contribution to tomorrow’s landfill. I felt like I’d missed an opportunity to do it better.
This tension was part of Penny Stephens’ thinking when, in May 2017, she took the plunge and launched A Little Good, which sells fair trade and ethically made toys. A local West Footscray mother of two boys, Penny had deep experience in marketing for corporates and World Vision and saw that Australians wanted to do the right thing, but lacked an efficient market which sold unique, fun and beautiful gifts for kids that also addressed the problem of inequality in the developing world.
Penny has an understated and elegant personal style which flows through to the quality and aesthetics of her business. She describes herself as an ‘ethical entrepreneur’ and has curated products from fair trade and ethical businesses in some of the world’s poorest places - Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Colombia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Everything she sells is made by free people (no child labour is involved) and most of it by women and by hand. A Little Good differs from other fair trade stores by focusing exclusively on children's products. Also, other children's stores might include some fair trade products, but not 100% made in the developing world.
Providing women with an income does more than just support the individual person. Penny points to research that shows when a woman receives an income, she invests an average of 80 cents in every dollar in her family, whereas for men this is only about 30 cents. So, by purchasing toys that pay women you not only support the makers’ children, you gain the unique opportunity to develop your own children’s understanding of the world. Penny says “As a mother myself I want my kids to grow into compassionate people. So, if a treasured toy has a story behind it of a real person who has been positively impacted, then this can easily be shared with a small child who is still some time away from learning about international development.”
Penny’s pathway to launching A Little Good is both professional and personal. Growing up in Horsham, Penny backpacked around the world before marrying Rohit, an engineer from Kathmandu. “Getting to know him and his family and friends has given me a new perspective on life in the developing world. After a number of visits there I’m getting used to the way people live, but each time I see the hardships my heart still breaks a little.”
Penny also turned her back on the corporate world in marketing for large corporates in London to take a job with World Vision. “I took every opportunity I could when I was there to learn about international development – the complexity, the wins and losses. I also got a great insight into how Australians respond to this and a large extent of this is understanding that so many people feel helpless. Their hearts want them to do something, but the problems seem so massive that they’re easier to ignore. This led to wanting to create a way for people that makes it easy.” Penny points out that positive action means people have to do something - and liking something on Facebook doesn’t really count.
For a venture that is in its first year, A Little Good is impressive. Not only is the quality and breadth of goods high, Penny has developed her online venture in the margins of a busy family and paid work. A one woman show she has had to apply her marketing experience to a new field as well as learning new skills (like accounting). Like any start up she has had to be nimble and get used to just giving something a go. She sells online and at market stalls/pop upshops where she enjoys connecting with the public. “When I can see that someone might be shifted to buy something because they now understand that it a real impact on someone else, I’m reminded that change happens one person at a time and I feel my sails fill.”
Most of the pre-launch stage was spent investigating suppliers. “We had a long list and only a handful made it through. That meant a lot of communication and information was exchanged through the process. My suppliers fall into one of two groups. The first group are members of the World Fair Trade Organisation. The WFTO have very stringent criteria for membership. The second group of organisations are typically smaller businesses that could demonstrate that they operated under fair trade practices.”
“I initially wanted only WFTO members, but after understanding more about the process of joining the WFTO (including visiting them in Nepal) I realised that it isn't quite so black and white. For example it takes time and resource to achieve this, which is beyond the means of a lot of small organisations. Last year we visited our suppliers in Nepal. This was great experience (although business meetings with my husband, my two preschoolers, and my mother-in-law in tow were a bit new to me). We also visited a number of other suppliers that didn't make the final cut - this taught me a lot too.”
We talk a little about what makes a business ‘ethical’. For Penny, these are businesses who minimise their environmental impact, treat their workers fairly and produce something that has a positive impact on the world around them. She points out that each of the organisations she works with has a different business model, but they each achieve this.
Penny’s motivation is to make a real change in the lives of some of the world’s poorest women. But there is also a very personal ambition: “I tell my children stories about where the A Little Good products come from and they see how clever the people must be to make such beautiful things. I also want them to appreciate how good their lives are, how they are just plain lucky to be born into such a prosperous country.”
Speaking to Penny I understand that seasonal gift giving is as much opportunity as an obligation. Trying to avoid the season with a “bah humbug” is just as negative and contrary to peace and goodwill as gorging on commercialized junk. A positive way to celebrate our prosperity is through restraint and targeted spending. Particularly at Christmas, doing A Little Good is a conscious choice we can and should all be making. So, in addition to the bag of plastic, my Christmas shopping list now includes the following:
Newborn twins: Mandala Sunshine Rug (Nepal), Rocking horse garland (Nepal)
3 year old boy: Building block wagon (Vietnam), Wooden Farm set (Sri Lanka),
4 year old boy: Skittles (Sri Lanka), Lion Scuplture (Kenya), Wooden Pirate Ship (Vietnam)
To shop and for information visit www.alittlegood.com.au
Interview by Caitlin MacLeod