Ethics Before Bigger Profits In The Business Of Chinese Paper Lanterns

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In today’s world where everything is about profits, margins, ROI, cost cutting and cheap labour, you may well assume that in order to run a successful business all of the above must be the pillars of that success.

“Not necessarily” says Oliie Brodie of UK Paper Bag Lanterns Ltd, a Scotsman who moved his head office to Thailand from where he runs his UK and Australian online wedding and party supplies stores. “It all depends how you define successful”.

Having shipped over 40,000 orders in the few short years since the website The Australian Paper Bag Lantern Store was launched, Ollie does not believe that the primary focus should be on ‘the numbers game’.

He explains. “I’m not saying you can ignore the costs and the margins etc., of course not. I do however believe that if you focus on ethics, your staff and doing the right thing, then you have the building blocks in place to be a success right from the get-go”.     

Thai Sky LanternsIn 2009 the Australian government banned the sale and supply of Chinese Floating Lanterns, which had surged in popularity thanks to movies like The Beach with Leonardo Di Caprio.   ‘We were selling and shipping thousands of these every month from our warehouse in Thailand and the profit was excellent but when I heard about the Australian ban and looked into the ecological reasons for it, we stopped selling them immediately. We could have continued because it was only Australia who banned them but I just felt it was the right thing to do. We still have a few thousand of them turning to dust somewhere at the back of the warehouse’.

So what do you do when you lose a major product line like that overnight? ‘We moved sideways with what we already knew and stocked up on the round hanging rice paper Chinese lanterns and especially the wedding heart design paper candle bag lanterns’. “These now fly off the shelf so maybe everything really does happen for a reason”. 

Plain white tea light paper bag lanterns

Thankfully at the time Ollie already sold many other products so business continued as normal. However some items like the chair sashes used to tie bows around chair covers make no profit at all. But there’s a good reason for this explains Ollie. ‘Above a certain price point these just don’t sell at all. Where they do sell is bang on our true cost price’.  Then why bother selling them? “The first reason is that we buy the fabric from a tiny little shop in a local village so it helps the local economy. The second and more rewarding one is that we employ a local seamstress, who is a young mother and widow, to sew all the hems on the chair sashes”. “We might not make any profit but it puts food on her family table every day and she does a wonderful job”.

Ollie has two small warehouses and 7 permanent staff in Thailand. Some of them and their families live in the specially built accommodation on the premises. He says this serves two purposes. ‘We had the space and to be able to give staff free accommodation as part of their employment so it’s a bonus for them and also provides some security for the stock. “I could hire a security guard and charge the staff rent or I can let them live there for free and they make sure the inventory is secure”. It costs the company a little more but the good karma is worth the expense.   

Success is not something that has a definitive level or something can be measured while standing on its own. Ollie see’s it like this. ‘I could run the business in a ruthless manner focusing only on maximizing profit and growth at the expense of all else. Selling lanterns that float up and come down and cause fires or the wiring in them get’s into bales of cattle feed and the digestive systems of our farm animals causing pain and suffering and much more, and maybe I could achieve 25% growth per year’.

“Or I can settle for a lesser, say 10%, growth where everyone gets a fair wage”. ‘The staff are happy and will do the right thing by us and the team and I sleep well at night knowing I’m doing the right thing by the environment. I’m also providing jobs and housing in a poor part of the world to good people’.

“There will be good years and there will be tough years but when I look back I want to look back and say, I did the right things.”    

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