After visiting the slums of south east Asia ten years ago, Leonie and Barton Walsh were determined to give Cambodian victims of domestic violence and landmines a better life.
The couple wanted to improve the working conditions of these Cambodian women so they set up a business and partnered with a non-government organisation to make that happen.
The pair own The Elephant Emporium in Picton which sells ethically-sourced fashion accessories, homewares, wood carvings and bags.
All the goods they sell started as Cambodian ‘waste’ products – including tyres, cement and fishing reed bags – and were recycled into handmade items.
The business arrangement keeps the Cambodian women employed and improves the environment.
“We found out that discarded cement bags and fishing reed bags ended up in rivers or were burnt, which released toxic fumes,” Mr Walsh said. “It is a massive environmental problem over there.
“Then we came across artisans that transformed these bags into new products.”
The artisans the couple work with also create beaded bracelets out of recycled magazines and wallets made from tyres.
The business owners travel to Cambodia four or five times a year and work with the artisans to plan new designs.
“The products are transformed from waste to wow,” Mr Walsh said.
“They are not mass produced. They’re handmade in people’s homes.
“We see where products are made and we know the artisans are fairly paid, work in decent conditions and work five days a week from 8am-4pm.”
Mr Walsh said their type of business was unique in Macarthur and adhered to the 10 principals of fair trade.
“Exploitation in the fashion industry is rife in Cambodia so that is why we deal directly with the workers,” he said.
“Over the years we have met the artisans and we have developed close relationships with them. We even go to their weddings. We have a close bond.
“We also keep our prices low so we can turn over stock quickly which keeps the artisans employed.
“As a result they have access to schools, to better health care and they earn money.”
The artisans’ photos and stories are featured next to the products they have made in the Argyle Street store.
“We are not trying to compete with big department stores who sell mass-produced and poor-quality products,” Mr Walsh said.
“The attitude we take is ‘one bag at a time’ helps to reduce the environmental impact. We have to start somewhere.”