This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Orphans in Africa and mass-produced Christmas decorations from China are two things you’ve probably never seen connected in the same sentence. But it turns out there’s a whole story connecting the two.
It’s a story about poverty, exploitation, and consumerism, among other things. If that sounds like a depressing story for the holidays, just know that there’s a happy ending: a fair trade social enterprise called Ornaments 4 Orphans that creates jobs and hope with hand-made Christmas decorations.
But like any good story, the happy ending is only heightened by some major conflict along the way.
Orphanhood is among the foremost issues affecting children across the globe. According to UNICEF’s 2015 estimate, there are more than 140 million orphans worldwide – over 6% of all children.
If that number seems impossibly high, bear in mind that UNICEF counts orphans differently in different parts of the world.
In industrialized countries, a child must have lost both parents to qualify as an orphan. In developing countries – where 1.9 billion of the world’s 2.2 billion children live – most orphans have a surviving parent, grandparent, or family member who simply cannot afford to care for them.
In Uganda alone there are more than 1.9 million orphans, according to UNICEF, and nearly 1.4 million are considered “critically vulnerable” to malnutrition, trafficking, and other dangers. Scott Laslo first encountered some of Uganda’s orphans during a college trip – an encounter he couldn’t shake after returning home to Birmingham, Alabama.
In 2006, Scott and his wife, Jamie, started a nonprofit to support a locally run school and orphanage in the town of Mutunga. Predictably enough, fundraising was difficult – and that’s where the idea for Christmas ornaments comes in.
Put a Loop on It
As avid collectors of Christmas ornaments, Scott and Jamie saw an opportunity to employ local makers and support vulnerable children at the same time.
It will probably come as no surprise that few African artisans were making ornaments before Scott began visiting markets regularly. But as he began getting to know some artisans, he noticed many of their smaller crafts could easily be adapted into ornaments.
“I would tell artisans that if they just put a loop on it, I could sell it as an ornament,” Scott says. “Many of them didn’t even know what Christmas was.” But Scott’s instinct proved sound.
It was easy for the Laslos to transport ornaments, along with jewelry and keychains, back to the U.S. in their luggage. The handmade gifts were an instant hit with family and friends, and over time they gained a broader U.S. customer base.
“We started getting more invested into growing the business and seeing the impact we were having,” Scott says. He found that the impact was even more powerful “because it wasn’t just a handout. [Artisans] were getting paid for the work they did for a fair value and we marketed their product here. Both parties were benefiting.”
Ornaments 4 Orphans was officially launched as a social enterprise brand in 2009. Thanks to sales revenue from the business, overhead expenses dropped on the nonprofit side so that 95% to 97% of all donations go straight to the school and children’s home in Uganda.
By adhering to fair trade practices like higher wages and community investment, Ornaments 4 Orphans is making an impact well beyond the orphanage that started it all. The business side alone generated about $100,000 in direct community benefit last year – about twice as much as the total generated through nonprofit donations.
“The investment was twice as much and went five times as far if you look at the impact,” Scott says. “That money gets invested in the family. The kids go to school. The family pays for their own care and necessities.”
Made by Hand, Motivated by Heart
If all of that seems like a perfect story for the Christmas season, it’s far from the norm, unfortunately.
Christmas décor is at least a $3 billion industry in China, but the industry is notoriously opaque, and many decorations sold in the U.S. are produced under sweatshop conditions. According to an investigation by ABC News, migrant workers in the “Christmas village” of Yiwu are expected to work 13 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The stories that have been written have exposed that probably two cities in China make the majority of that stuff sold each year and the conditions are just deplorable,” says Scott. “I remember thinking we could do so much better.”
One look at the Ornaments 4 Orphans website, and you’ll know you’re not in China anymore. The ornaments have a distinctive look that’s not just a matter of design but also materials – think tree branches, banana fiber, and felted wool.
“The majority of the ornaments and gifts made by us are made by natural or recycled materials. They’re not mass-produced. They’re all handmade. It’s a pretty stark difference in quality for a pretty close to the same price people are used to paying.”
“Over 500 children have been through the primary school in the last 10 years,” says Scott. “And over 80 kids have gone through secondary school, and the majority of those are girls having had their full education.”
No single business is going to rectify an issue of such staggering scale as global orphanhood. But the Laslos have learned there is immense and immediate value in preventing the desperate situations that often force families in developing countries to give up children to orphanages or trafficking.
Through their work with artisans, now in Kenya, Nepal, and Peru in addition to Uganda, Ornaments 4 Orphans is addressing poverty – one of the major factors that renders children vulnerable – at the community and household level. Their philosophy for remedying the exploitative industry built around Christmas decorations is similarly incremental.
“I know what we’re doing is so small comparatively,” Scott says. “But at the same time, that little bit has a greater impact on people’s lives.”
Spend for good: Head over to the Ornaments 4 Orphans website to learn more and shop the handiwork of artisans from around the globe. Christmas ornaments are Ornaments 4 Orphans’ bread and butter, but their collection includes a number of fair trade gifts for any occasion. Every purchase supports sustainable jobs and community development to keep families together.
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