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Interview: Justinna Pank on selling ethical accessories in Singapore

By: Verne Maree

Justinna Pank and Emma Thomas’s partnership, White & Black Trading, has come a long way since the two British women first established their kids’ outdoor fun business here in 2007, distributing Mini Micro scooters, balance bikes, skateboards and such. We asked Justinna about their latest product – “lifestyle bags” from an innovative social enterprise in Cambodia that was set up by another couple of expat women, these ones Italian.

What’s been happening since we last chatted?
A lot! But what we’re most excited about right now is taking on the distributorship of Smateria’s beautiful, stylish bags, produced in Cambodia in an inspirationally sustainable and ethical way. It’s the first Asian brand to join our mix of mainly European and Australian brands, and we feel it’s a truly worthy addition.

How did you hear about Smateria?
It all started while I was engaged in a house-building project in Cambodia, during a UWCSEA school field trip with my two younger children. After the work had been done, the organisers introduced us to some NGO-run shops. Smateria was one of them, and I was deeply impressed.

When we got home, I showed the bags to Emma. Coincidentally, she happened to be going to Cambodia the very next weekend, so she was able to see the setup for herself. Not only did the two of us fall in love with the products, but we were bowled over by the story behind the brand.

Tell us more.
Founded in 2006, Smateria is the brainchild of two expat Italian women in Phnom Penh – Jennifer Morellato, who runs the creative side, and Elisa Lion, who runs the business side of things. Touched by the plight of disadvantaged and exploited local workers, mainly women, they decided to set up a self-financed social enterprise that would uplift the community.

Since they started it in 2005, Smateria has grown into an international brand that is distributed all over the world. It also has five stores in Cambodia, including one at each of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap’s international airports.

As their website explains, “Smateria is not a charity organisation but a producer that, through its activities, demonstrates its care for the social context in which it operates.”

 

What does that mean in concrete terms for its employees?
Put simply, Smateria is run in accordance with First World working conditions; it’s exactly the opposite of a sweatshop. From what we’ve seen at first hand, we can confirm that it has brought a whole new ethos to the garment industry in Southeast Asia.

All employees receive a month’s annual leave, paid maternity leave, a year-end bonus and private health insurance. Some 80 percent of the staff are young mothers; they bring their children to work, and Smateria provides free pre-school daycare.

What’s more, Smateria outsources work to members of its employees’ families, while financing at no interest the sewing machines required to do the job. Both the seamstresses and their families receive free training, too. No wonder people who get a job here just don’t want to leave!

How are the bags produced?
They’re made from materials sourced from local markets, the main one being a light, strong, close-woven fishing net used by local fishermen: it’s dyed, cut and reformed in various ways. Motorbike seat leather is another important component.

The result is a collection of “lifestyle” bags that’s updated every year. Apart from women’s fashion bags, you’ll find swim-bags, laundry bags, kids’ backpacks, household accessories and more. The unmistakeably Italian design shines through, and each item is expertly constructed by skilled seamstresses who are trained at a Garment Industry Productivity Center, a local project run by USAID.

As the bags are all priced under S$110, the hope is that you might buy a few to go with different outfits: looking good and also feeling good in the knowledge that you are supporting a wonderful social enterprise.

It’s great for Cambodia that this sort of business is blossoming, and we’re thrilled to be part of its growth and success. Though Smateria is neither a charity nor an NGO, it’s at least as good as one when you consider the hugely positive spinoffs for its staff and the wider community.

 

Will you be going back to Cambodia to build houses with your children?
I hope so; it’s a wonderful thing to do as a family. This last time was Daisy (11) and seven-year-old Gabriel’s first such experience, but my eldest, Freddy (13), has done it several times. In fact, walking around the Phnom Penh school where he once volunteered, I was touched to see a photograph of him playing football with the local children. The experience does something for youngsters; they come back changed for the better.

Emma’s eldest son, Jude (11), has also done a field trip to Cambodia; and she herself is a regular visitor, as she has been sponsoring a Cambodian child for some years. Our lives seem to be intertwined with that country.

What are you looking forward to?
Apart from Smateria products being available through our website, we’re busy expanding into shops, too: Motherworks at Tanglin Mall, Chillax at Turf City and Children’s Showcase in Cluny Court – with more to come!

 

This story first appeared in Expat Living’s April 2015 issue.

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