How We Got Here
When we founded Smathers & Branson® in 2004, we had no idea where the journey would take us. We had a business plan, but had not yet given thought to the social impact that our venture might have. Needlepoint is a remarkably time consuming and skilled art form, so our journey commenced with finding those skilled artisans that would eventually help turn this idea into a reality.
We found a man in Vietman who would soon become our partner, co-worker, and dear friend. He was raised in a small rice farming village and was fortunate enough to attend college and get a job at a state-run manufacturing company. His education and work experience granted him the knowledge to start his own business, which he hoped could bring opportunity and prosperity back to his home village. During our inaugural visit to Vietnam, he introduced us to the concept of a cottage industry. At our first few meetings, we listened carefully as our new partner laid out his vision to teach our needlepoint craft to 100 people (mostly friends and family) from his village. His idea of a cottage industry sounded wonderful—we’d be providing jobs for people in his community and they’d still have the autonomy to work from home and the flexibility to work around each rice harvest.
Over the next few weeks, we began to put his plan into action. Everyone worked together to perfect our product and adopt the lofty quality standards we had set. We witnessed the beginnings of a cottage industry that we were helping create and also felt inspired to be a part of something that was benefiting this village. Many of the women were so happy that they had found a way to stay home with their children while also being able to work on their own schedule. We came to know many of the families in this village and were touched that they were so grateful for the jobs we were creating in their community. At the same time, we felt such gratitude for the beautiful work they were doing and the part they were playing in the creation of our product.
By the end of our trip, we had a product to sell and a production chain that we were proud of. We went to Vietnam to find a way to manufacture high quality needlepoint and we ended up planting the seeds for a cottage industry that would grow beyond what we had imagined. Over the next decade, what started as 100 people in one small village would blossom into a thriving cottage industry spanning dozens of villages, providing us with thousands of reminders what we are trying to accomplish every day.
What We Have Learned
Through partnerships with licensing organizations like the CLC, we were introduced to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). This group’s charter states:
The mission of the Fair Labor Association is to combine the efforts of business, civil society organizations, and colleges and universities to promote and protect workers’ rights and to improve working conditions globally through adherence to international standards.
The FLA has encouraged us to have ongoing discussions with our supply chain, making sure that our relationship is mutually beneficial. Although all of our workers are compensated at a living wage, many of them still want to continue helping their families with the rice harvests throughout the year. The flexibility to work from home around the harvest schedule, combined with desirable pay offers our workers the best of both worlds.
How to Improve
We have come to understand that social corporate responsibility is an ongoing commitment. Our focus is taking steps to constantly find ways to improve the quality of life for those involved with our supply chain.
In 2010, we began working with One Step Vietnam – a corporate social responsibility monitoring firm. As our business and supply chain have grown since 2004, it was imperative to enlist the help of a 3rd party organization like One Step to ensure positive conditions for the artisans who create our products. One Step has been helping us by auditing our manufacturing process and educating our partner’s team in Vietnam about corporate responsibility.
Also in 2011, we began working with The Reading Glass Project – a US based nonprofit that was founded to help people whose diminished eyesight made it hard for them to work. We purchase reading glasses from this organization and during our annual visit to Vietnam, we give eye exams and distribute the glasses in the rural areas where our work is done. We experience first-hand the joy it brings someone to receive a pair of glasses which allows them to see more clearly than they have in years.
Why We Do It
Each year we travel to Vietnam, and the absolute highlight of our trip has become our visits to the villages where our artisans stitch. We have had the opportunity to witness the incremental improvement in living standards in the villages where our work is done, and so we truly believe that the work we provide is making life better for our artisans and their families. When we began, the idea of creating a business motivated us, but today we’ve found our motivation to be rooted in the thousands of wonderful people who help make our company possible.
Walking into the village where everything started during our first trip to Vietnam. October, 2004.
Perfecting our product with some of our first stitchers. November, 2004
Taking a moment to celebrate the completion of our very first finished samples! November, 2004.
It’s always amazing watching the children from the village grow up!(Left) Austin with Chan, age 4, and Ngoc, age 1, in 2004. (Right) Ngoc age 8 in 2011-- she speaks with us in English now!
Group shot after distributing reading glasses to the village elders.April, 2011.