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Interview: Six (6) Lessons We Have Learned

We have had some recent questions from customers about how we started, what is important to us, and our approach to running a sustainable business model. Particularly one in which we straddle continents and cultures, and operate in China.

Previously, we gave an interview with Green America, the non-profit group that supports sustainable businesses. bambu is one of a few Gold tiered businesses recognized by the Green Business Network.

This interview was picked up by Sustainable Business Oregon. We thought we would share and post the interview here in completion. 

[excerpt from Green America Newsletter, 2014]

IN THE BEGINNING

We started with a single idea, a lot of passion, and a bit of blind courage: To turn people onto renewable materials, and to lessen the impact we place on the earth’s limited natural resources. That’s what inspired my partner, Rachel Speth, and me to leave our US jobs, move to China and start our business a decade ago.

Our company, bambu, is headquartered in Shanghai where our team oversees development and production. We are an American-born brand. But we have a unique business structure in that the principals reside at the location of production. We couldn’t do what we do without being “at the source.”

The product range is comprised of cutting boards, serving trays, bowls, kitchen tools, office and travel products—all made from renewable, low-impact materials. Everything in the range is handmade, or has a high degree of “handmade-ness” in its creation.

Our company values are reflected in the products, instilled in our processes and are supported by our team. A common belief system and a well-defined process can overcome culture gaps and language challenges.

In the beginning, we didn’t have the wisdom to avoid the early pitfalls of operating a business in China. But patience, persistence and passion have served us well in helping overcome the challenges that all businesses face starting, and operating successfully in China.

Living in China, we work directly with our production partners. We guide, learn and interact with the craftspeople on a daily basis, and work to build in high quality standards, socially responsible practices, and greater efficiencies into our work processes.

Twelve years in China, we learned a few things along the way.

 

#1. Learn to be local

On-the-ground experience is invaluable. As Americans in China, we have had to orient ourselves to conducting business in China. While we share many similarities,

it is important to understand the cultural differences. The rules are different. You have to adapt to the ways and means of the local culture. And that is not always easy.

There is a high degree of commitment required to doing business here. A commitment to the community, and to the people we work with. We are obliged to know and follow the laws, stay current with regulatory requirements, be informed on tax issues, and comply with complicated labor laws in China.

 

#2. Treat people well. Create strong relationships

We work hard to build and maintain strong lasting relationships.

We meet face-to-face with our suppliers as often as possible. Getting to know the people we work with, spending time together, understanding their views and challenges - these are important aspects to working with others – and of particular importance in China. Strong relationships, and mutual respect create positive and lasting bonds.

 

#3. Sweat the details. Know your supply chain

There are many things that cannot be controlled. But the issues that you can – should get your full unwavering attention. Double check and triple check, read between the lines. Know what is being said, by not being said.

Manufacturing in China and Vietnam is not transparent. It is not easy or clear navigating suppliers from a distance. You will be told what they think you want to hear. You will not have all the facts unless you visit your suppliers.

Regular visits, inspecting production, quality checking, instilling labor and environmental requirements and monitoring progress are important. These types of checks and balances are required to ensure transparent and acceptable working practices. And they give a business owner peace-of-mind. No matter where you produce, you have a responsibility to know what is going on.

 

#4. It’s more than a product

We think holistically about every product and ask a lot of questions. Where does the material originate, what’s in it, how is it processed? How much waste is generated? How much energy is consumed? What packaging is required? How does it ship?

We consider all aspects of a product from the very beginning of our design process, through to production, sales and marketing. It is a fairly rigorous process. We have developed several products from waste and excess material. Being on the ground, seeing and knowing the process gives us insights and “ah ha” moments that we couldn’t get long-distance.

Operational transparency also extends beyond the product, and is increasingly important for a growing number of our customers. For instance, companies such as Fair Trade Original in Netherlands, FairTrade in Sweden, and Oxfam in the UK, require in-depth knowledge of their partners. Detailed information about our business; operation profile, production details, financials, detailed labor reports must comply with their standards and principles. We are pleased when customers seek to know the company behind the product it sells.

 

#5. Build a strong foundation

Building a strong foundation is an on-going project. And it takes extra effort when you operate outside your home country.

bambu has adopted large company systems into our lean organization. This include detailed production planning, capacity utilization, order systems, QC inspection reports, clear sales contracts, tight controls on finances, detailed labor agreements, and a solid legal framework. These are all essential tools for building a solid foundation. 

Team generally work on a day rate that provides salaries that are well above the average for the area. Housing subsidies, unemployment benefits, and medical coverage is provided. We employ husband and wife teams, and promote job sharing too.

The safety equipment initially available locally was sub-standard, so now we source better equipment we can find overseas, and bring it back ourselves. The staff appreciates the care and support, but it is an on-going challenge to get everyone to use it regularly.

The factory manager, a wood worker himself, had the ambition to manage his own factory. We are able to support him in this new venture. Wangjie has been working with us for five years and has been able to buy his first home for himself and his family.

 

#6. Be vigilant about what is important to you

Business is filled with compromises and negotiations. You will be challenged. You will not always know the full picture.

Be very clear about what you stand for. Articulate your values to others. And make sure everyone in your supply chain has an understanding of your goals and your priorities. Make believers out of others.

Be willing to let some of the less important things go. Know your “non-negotiables” and stick to them. Carelessness, misinformation, corner cutting, incomplete information, will all conspire against you at one time or another.

Business has the ability and the responsibility to push for positive change. And we firmly believe that socially responsible businesses will lead the way.

There are a few other brands out there that inspire us, that set the bar high, that we aspire to. Patagonia is one. Kind is another.

Here is a great article with the founder of KIND. Their experience? You CAN build a company that is kind to its workers, its distributors and investors. It's a good approach.

Spark any thoughts or questions? 

 

 

 

 

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