Sally Webster talks to women bringing a socially conscious fashion bag business to New Zealand

If there is a small New Zealand business message of sharing and winning this Christmas it is the story of Belinda Muir and Jo Bigham bringing Cambodian up-cycle and socially conscious bag brand, Smateria, to New Zealand.

“If we make money, they’re making money. If we sell a bag, we’re supporting someone in learning new skills” says co-owner of Smateria New Zealand, Belinda Muir.

In the perpetual heat of the vibrant, crowded Phnom Penh, the Smateria factory offers a thirteen month a year haven – 12 month’s salary plus one to help celebrate Khmer New Year’s Lunar Celebration – to over 100 women. The governmentally acknowledged social enterprise sews high-fashion handbags from recycled broken fishing nets or leather off-cuts. They also crochet trendy Holdalls from black plastic. Workers are trained in every aspect of the industry from sewing to sales while their children are offered a place at the on-site crèche. Health insurance tops off a package that makes it all sound too good to be true.

But it’s not. The thriving factory has been operating since 2006, the brainchild of two socially conscious Italian women with a love of fashion and unusual, sustainable materials. The range of colourful bags are now sold in 19 countries. Since August this year, the mid-North Island of New Zealand is among them.

Muir, an HR consultant and volunteer firefighter in Tairua, Coromandel, explains that since she and longtime friend Bigham visited the Cambodian factory together it didn’t take long to realise they needed to be a part of the Smateria family. Smateria New Zealand launched not 12 months ago and it’s been a style-meets-story-telling success.

“People want to be a part of a socially responsible business. We’ve noticed this fashion revolution getting bigger and bigger, people are more conscious of how and where things are made. These products however speak for themselves in quality – they are beautifully made, to a high quality standard – but the story behind them adds to the appeal.”

“An example of this is that, through a fashion designer we were working with recently, I took part in the Langham’s November ‘High Tea.’ I was able to get up and speak several times. People who bought a bag said it was the story as well as the product that clinched buying one.”

Bigham, a lawyer, first saw the bags in Phnom Penh where she still lives with her husband and children. She began lending a charitably legal hand to the enterprise and soon after asked Muir to be the New Zealand half of a business that could give New Zealand women access to products of fashionable up-cycling and social conscience.

While it ticks all these ethical boxes, it is important to remember that Smateria is not a charity, says Muir. Because of the ASEAN Free Trade Area, a trade agreement under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Muir and Bigham can import the goods free of the kinds of duties that can swamp importers in their first year of business.

If Muir could reach out to would-be socially conscious business owners about investing in a socially responsible business, she’d say it has significant mental wellness benefits. This adds to the “hand on heart” aspect when selling – there is genuine human goodness generated in the making and sale of every product and this translates to sales authenticity; it’s a joy to be selling these bags.

 “This company is empowering women with skills. We can see the real tangible rewards that come from sales in NZ. We don’t label the business as eco-friendly or greenwash it in anyway because to say that we would need to claim that label for the whole supply chain. We use good quality zips, and lining and fly bags round the world so we say socially responsible.”

On a global scale, Smateria has also come to the party by agreeing with a New Zealand request to become Child Free Labour accredited.

“They have now started this New Zealand process and it is so beneficial to the entire global Smateria family” says Muir.

To exercise your social conscience along with your sense of style, visit www.smateria.co.nz or for trade enquiries phone Belinda Muir on +64 21 244 5008 or email info@smateria.co.nz