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Ethical design: The company celebrating African artisans

At Grace & Green we believe that a business founded on ethical principles has the capacity to change the way both the consumer and the maker live. 

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Makers from the ethical Kenyan brand 'Soko', stocked by Native Interiors

Sometimes that inspiration straddles continents. Native Interiors is an Australian-based homewares and accessories company that grew out of South African roots. It’s underpinned by a firm commitment to ethical and sustainable design and business practices, as well as the makers behind the products.

Founded by South Africans Barri and Nikki Stear, their raison d’etre is to showcase African and artisanal design, as well as empower the makers and their communities by ensuring all their products are made in ethical working conditions and workers are paid fairly for their time.

It’s an ethos that is gaining traction across the world, as conscious consumers are becoming increasingly burnt out by fast fashion and furnishings.

Nikki Stear has worked personally with many of the artisans and designers that form part of the Native Interiors product line. This connection allows her to vouch for the ethical working conditions and the quality of the products:

“I am passionate about interiors and fashion but most of all believe that you and your home should be able to look good but not at the expense of others. I love that our business can make our customers feel good about themselves whilst uplifting and preserving other communities all over the globe.

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A maker from Soko Jewellery, Kenya

There's an innate beauty and richness to be found in a product that has a story behind it; of a piece that you can be proud of owning. We sat down with Nikki to talk about their sustainable approach.

Nikki, ethical manufacture is a guiding business principle of Native Interiors. How does this work in practice?

The core principles of our business are: handmade, ethical and sustainable. All the products we source are thoughtfully designed, ensuring minimal impact on the earth and the communities that make them. The skills involved in making these - often intricate - designs are passed down through generations. Buying Native Interiors' products are a way of preserving ancient traditions and craftsmanship, as well as ensuring these skills are not lost on the younger generations. It also means they may stay in their communities instead of moving to the city to find more lucrative work.

Fair wages motivate artisans. All the suppliers we work with subscribe to fair trade principles and are actively working towards a living wage for their artisans. We support businesses where artisans can work with dignity and pride. Most of the businesses we work with are owned by women and employ mostly women, many of them single mothers who are the sole income earners in their families. This was another very important business goal for us, supporting female empowerment and women in business, in Africa and across the globe.

What are the major challenges involved in operating a sustainable business?

When you are sourcing handmade, ethical and sustainable products, there is a lot you have to take into consideration. Lead times for independent makers are longer than products being manufactured mechanically in big factories. Your costs are higher as you are paying artisans a fair wage and you need to invest time in educating your consumers as to why it’s important to support businesses such as ours and why 'trace-ability' and transparency is key.

Over the last couple of years there has been an increasing demand for goods that are traceable, authentic and made to last. More and more consumers – especially so-called ‘millennials’ – are also seeking products with a story and a conscience; that cause less environmental and social damage. There is definitely a demand for these types of products in Australia but as mentioned before, one has to constantly be educating consumers everywhere, not just Australia, as to why it’s important to support businesses such as ours.

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Gorgeous woven baskets from label 'Khokho', Swaziland

You source many of your handcrafted products from artisans in Africa. Are there any places that are particularly special to you?

I’m lucky enough to call the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa “home” so all the products we source from there are very special to me. But I also just can’t get enough of the exquisite products we source out of Swaziland - the best weavers I have ever seen – and the gorgeous handcrafted accessories we source from Kenya.

You have a strong background in ethical fashion and design. What advice to you have for the consumer seeking to shop sustainably? What do they need to look out for?

Be on the lookout for “green washing” – i.e. making an unsubstantiated claim about the environmental benefits of a product - it’s rife! Research the brands you buy from and ask questions… find out who made your clothes/décor/beauty products etc. If brands are hesitant to offer this information, move on and find those that provide transparency.

Grace & Green are committed to transparency and thoughtful products that are good for your body, communities and the planet. Our big picture has a lot of brushstrokes. 

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