Bringing Business To Life: Kalinko

Burma-based Kalinko launched in 2016 and works directly with Burma's talented artisans to create handcrafted homewares, cutting out the middle man so all purchase costs go straight to the people that make each piece. Founder Sophie Garnier shares the story behind her sustainable brand.
By Kelly Green

What inspired you to launch Kalinko?

My husband and I spent most weekends travelling around Burma when we first moved here. Our flat very quickly filled up with things we had found on our travels, from bamboo stools, baskets and fabrics, to glassware and mother-of-pearl (…not to mention the armfuls of Naga hunting spears and giant gongs!). We realised that the people making these things were struggling to find buyers, as local people tend to buy cheap, factory-made imports from China these days instead. This means they end up farming to supplement their incomes, spending less and less time working with their skills. So we decided to buy a bunch of things, fill a container, and take them to the hungry buyers in the UK.  Two years on, and we have shipped lots of containers, tonness more products, and are now working with groups of skilled crafters from all over the country.  

Who are the makers of your products and how did you meet them?

They are skilled crafters from all over Burma. We meet them by travelling to areas known for particular skills, and going house to house to find crafting families and workshops. It’s an ongoing process, and we are adding to our network of makers all the time. 

What are your sustainable priorities for the business?

Our main motivation is to ensure that the craft families we work with are best placed, socially and economically, to prosper as the country develops. For us, this means growing Kalinko into a company large enough to support whole communities of suppliers, helping them to preserve their remarkable talents for generations to come, to build sustainable businesses for themselves, and by doing so, take control over their futures.

To do this, we need to place enough orders with our artisans to generate sufficient income to support their families and allow them time to invest in the next generation. We want to keep them employed full-time in well paid, skilled work (as opposed to under-paid, unskilled farming).

Access to new markets is key to this survival, so we work very closely with them to hone their products to international taste, and to raise the quality of the finished product to satisfy global expectations. 

We buy all goods directly from our makers at fair prices. We therefore have no links in the supply chain, meaning that no money is wasted on agents and we can pay them more than we would be able to if we were working through third parties.  We also buy everything we commission, including faulty or damaged items; some products can take up to two months to make, so if we don’t buy them, they lose out on weeks of work. Often the fault or damage comes down to a lack of education rather than negligence, so we use each instance as a learning curve.

On a wider scale, talking about where and who our products come from is hopefully contributing to the rise in visibly ethically-minded homeware companies. We hope that this will raise the profile of sustainability in this area, giving people more choice for where they can shop ethically. 

How challenging is it to maintain your eco principles as you grow?

Working with handmade products is a slow-process, and prioritising eco/sustainable practices certainly slows it down even further. However we prefer to grow slowly and steadily, which allows us to maintain our focus on what really matters to us.

What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs so far?

The first container of products arriving safely at our warehouse in Wales was a huge moment. It’s incredibly difficult to get things off the ground in Burma, so to have managed to get enough products to an exportable standard completed, packed and shipped was one thing. Then to see them arrive 5,700 miles away in the Welsh hills was truly amazing. The first order coming through was also really special. It wasn’t even from my Mum, which made it even better! Two years on, multiple containers and thousands of orders later, we still get a thrill every time our order system pings, and when we hear that customers love what they have bought. It closes the circle, and allows us to reorder from the people that made them.

What is your mission or ambition for the brand?

An average family in Burma is made up of four people. 38% are farming families and live off less than $300 a month. However, adequate nutrition, healthcare and education for four costs around $750. Our mission is to close this gap through consistent orders. We are on the way to doing so with 96 families, and towards our goal of working with 500 families by May 2021. 

These families are some of the most talented artisans in the world. Their products are made slowly, by hand, using techniques passed down through generations. They are made to last and each piece is unique.  

However, many of these makers live in remote, rural communities, where the demand for their products is dwindling. Cheap, factory made imports are undercutting their trade, often forcing them into unskilled farming to supplement their income. Our mission is to reverse this.

What is your top tip for people looking to furnish their homes ethically?

Try and look for short supply chains, or companies who are direct to the makers. The shorter the chain, the easier it is to be aware of sustainable practices (or the lack of) at each stage. If you aren’t sure where something has come from, or who has made it, get in touch with the brand and ask them. Any company that practices ethical and sustainable sourcing and manufacturing will be happy to tell you all about it. Secondly, shop small; little independent brands are much more likely to be direct to their makers than large high-street brands. Instagram is a great place to find these smaller brands.  


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Bringing Business To Life: Kalinko