We think you’ll relate to The Dharma Door story and, where choices are to be made about buying this thing or that, perhaps you might be tempted by it to look to Dharma Door first. They’re not the only business out there trying to make a difference of course, but founder Shannon Sheedy and her husband Mick’s ethos resonates loudly with us at Byron Beach Abodes. We know that by supporting them, we’re supporting artisans in Bangladesh to turn their real-time aspirations into a reality. As well, these artisans are the custodians of centuries old craft knowledge and through practising their crafts they're protecting the traditions to be passed on to future generations.
Join our chat with Shannon, who 15 years after recognising the plight of Tibetan refugees and reacting to it by designing The Dharma Door’s first product – a reinterpretation of the culture’s traditional fabric prayer bag, now fondly known as The Everything Pouch – now works out of their home in the hills of Byron with her husband and a global team. The model? Make the biggest impact on a community by placing ongoing orders and paying fair prices for their artisans works.
What is The Dharma Door’s ultimate goal?
To empower as many people as possible out of the cycle of poverty through Fair Trade. The female artisans who make our products hail from the poorest, most disadvantaged communities in Bangladesh and by partnering with the non-profit organisations that support them, we are able to make a genuine impact.
How Do You Work?
We believe that true Fair Trade partnerships have the power to transform lives. They allow artisans to use their own skills and to earn fair wages for those skills, and ultimately, to provide financial security for themselves and their families. In our view, this is the best way to work towards ending poverty. The Dharma Door's focus is on providing consistent, ongoing orders, and building a strong business, which enables artisans and artisan communities to experience the benefits of stable employment. Through trading regularly and over a long period of time, the artisans are able to make significant and meaningful changes in their lives. These changes include education for their children, respect within their community, better marital relations, improved housing and health conditions and the ability to plan for their future through savings.
To achieve this, we partner with non-profit Fair Trade organisations that focus on women’s empowerment. Being Bangladesh-run, these organisations understand the needs of the artisans and their communities better than we ever could. They support women in rural communities to benefit from their artisan skills by providing, training, access to global markets and fair wages.
We design our products after observing the artisans skills and our partner organisations act as a conduit, ensuring the women have all the materials they need, understand our designs and are meeting our quality expectations. They also work with the artisans to set their prices, based on the time each piece takes to make, the intricacy of design and the cost of the raw materials.
Natural fibres, quality and functional design are the essence of The Dharma Door collection. We consciously design products that are timeless and made to last. It’s really important that our products tick all the right boxes so we can be sure that every piece is a well-considered, sustainable and affordable option for our customers. Equally, aesthetics are important to us and each piece in our collection is designed to add earthy character, warmth and textural beauty to any space.
From show-stopping wall hangings to smart storage baskets, each item is made by hand – from start to finish – by talented artisans amongst the bustle of rural village life. By combining contemporary design, enduring quality and unfailing ethics, we create products that tell a much bigger story than just the item itself. A story woven within every stitch and fibre.
We travel to Bangladesh annually to visit the artisans in their communities and our designs are often inspired by what we see in their daily lives. For example, our Tala and Amua wall hangings were inspired by the palm thatching and matting that we see in and around the artisans’ homes. We observe the skills that are already being practiced and the local raw materials that are available.
With this knowledge we create contemporary and functional designs in collaboration with our artisan partners. We’re mindful of not imposing our design ideas on them - we want the artisans’ traditional techniques and talents to shine. The best way we can do that is by working with what they are already doing, rather than reinventing the wheel. Ultimately this enables artisans to feel proud and rewarded for their skills. There’s so much beauty and authenticity to be experienced in partnering with them at this level.
We always choose natural fibres like jute, hemp, palm leaves and grasses and natural dyes. That means our products are healthy for the people who choose to have them in their homes and also for the artisans when they are making them. The fibres are grown locally in the regions where the artisans live, so working with them is like second nature to the artisans. It also has wonderful flow-on economic benefits for local farming communities who grow and harvest the materials.
It would be great to follow the journey from jumping on the plane to arriving in a village to commission a new design...
Bangladesh is a very poor country with limited infrastructure compared to what we’re used to, which makes travelling a challenge for foreigners. It’s usually pretty tough going when we head out into the rural areas to visit our artisan partners and we have no choice but to abandon our creature comforts. Sometimes, we’ll even be accompanied by up to five armed guards due to security concerns. Despite all of this, it’s my favourite thing to do! This is where the true connection to our purpose is revived.
The villages where our artisans live and work are small and picturesque. Underfoot is fine, dusty silt and overhead are eucalypts, bamboo, coconut and mango trees. We walk around the villages, meeting the women, watching them make our products in real time, visiting them in their homes and seeing how they live. Their simple houses are made from bamboo sticks, palm thatch and tin and the floors are usually compacted mud. There’s a myriad of sounds - from animals, children and music - and smells, from cooking to cow dung. The broader vista is rice paddies, fields of jute or wheat, dams filled with pretty water hyacinth and wide river deltas.
It was March 2018 and we were visiting a remote community in Bangladesh with the staff from the non-profit organisation that we partner with to source our jute baskets. We were greeted by a sea of smiles of villagers who hung garlands of marigolds around our necks before being led to a building. On the doorstep was a perfectly formed circle of small brightly coloured thongs and we could hear the whispering of excited children inside awaiting their foreign visitors.
As we stepped inside we were greeted with hello’s and a beautiful performance of well-rehearsed English songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It soon became apparent that this building is the lifeblood of the community. It is a preschool for the first half of the day, ensuring the first stage of education for the artisans’ children and a weaving centre for the second half of the day, ensuring economic empowerment for the women. Having been purpose-built high off the ground by the organisation, it’s also the only guaranteed dry, clean space for storing jute - a pretty critical fact for this village which is surrounded by deltas that often flood during the monsoon season.
We spent some time with the children, giving them pencils and stickers and watching them learn. When school was finished and they went home with their fathers or grandparents, we spent time with their Mum’s while they were weaving baskets for our next order. Through translated conversation we learn the stories of their lives.
A favourite moment when visiting the artisans
We love sharing photos with the women when we visit them so they can have an understanding of where their creations find their homes. Sometimes I’ll print photos so they can keep them and sometimes I’ll get my phone out to show them. They all huddle around and point and laugh and chatter amongst themselves. There are always a few women who will insist that they made the product in the photo because they think they can tell from the shape or the stitching technique. It’s a heart-warming moment to experience.
Is there a particular story that makes you realise you’re making a difference?
Last year we met a woman called Mujida who makes our Mandala Wall Hangings - as seen in the dining room at The Bower House. She was living with her late-teen daughter in a small one-room hut, with a gas cooking stove on the verandah as a kitchen. She told us about her dream to improve her living conditions and send her daughter to university. When we returned this year, she had built a much larger home on a raised concrete slab and her daughter is now the first woman in the community to ever attend university. This is one of the many tangible examples we see of true Fair Trade in action - a direct and meaningful result of providing regular orders and fair wages to women.
Shooting at Byron Beach Abodes' The Lodge and Cabin.
We recently did a couple of photoshoots at the stunning The Lodge and The Cabin and they are our favourite shoots to date. The tones of the recycled grey-aged timbers and lava stone floors created the perfect backdrop for our earthy aesthetic. The high-end finishes and sophisticated luxury - combined with Taliah’s signature touches of natural elements and texture - are synonymous with all of the BBA properties. It was an absolute pleasure to style and photograph our products in these stunning properties. Once again, Taliah and Sein have created something truly special and I love that the decor was inspired by their year in New Zealand.
Partnering with Taliah and BBA
We’re proud to have our products featured and being used in practical ways throughout many of the BBA properties. To see pieces from such humble origins finding their way into beautifully designed, luxury accommodation is validation that with good design, handmade and Fair Trade products can sit beautifully in any environment. And it’s a testament to the incredible skills and quality of work of our artisan partners. There’s a lovely synergy with Taliah’s design style and the aesthetic of The Dharma Door - they just merge so well together. And it’s wonderful to know that guests from all over the world are able to enjoy them too!