By SHELLEY TOPP
Trade Aid co-founder Vi Cottrell found it difficult to accept an award in the latest New Year Honours list.
Mrs Cottrell was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Trade Aid and the fair trade movement. She said Trade Aid’s success was built on teamwork with paid staff and volunteers.
“I had a wonderful job, a paid one after the first five years, and the opportunity to travel a lot and meet people and go to places I would never have been to otherwise. So in that sense it has been a huge opportunity for me,” she said.
“You feel a little ambivalent at being singled out.” However, it was nice that the work done by the Trade Aid organisation had been recognised, she said.
Mrs Cottrell and her husband Richard established Trade Aid in 1973 after working with Tibetan refugees in Northern India for two years. Their vision was to take one step towards a world where trade is fair for all, to improve producers’ lives through trading relationships and also to raise the level of knowledge of trade justice.
At the time of their departure for India in 1970 the couple, who now live in Ohoka, were in their early 30s with two children aged three and 18 months. They were looking for an adventure away from their comfortable life in Christchurch where Richard was a partner in the family’s law firm.
But the reality of living in a foreign country far away from the comfort and security of family, friends and familiar surroundings in New Zealand was a huge culture shock for Mrs Cottrell, who initially became intensely homesick.
“We arrived in early summer and had very basic living conditions. It was quite testing,” she said.
However, during their time in India they quickly recognised that trade was the best form of aid and when they returned to New Zealand two years later they wanted to continue supporting the Tibetan refugees.
They began by establishing a not-for-profit importing society and holding an exhibition at the CSA Gallery in Christchurch of carpets handwoven by the Tibetan refugees they had worked with in India. The carpets were sold within 15 minutes.
“The idea was that we would bring samples in (to New Zealand) and we would excite importers, people who held import licences in those days, into buying products from people we thought they should be supporting,” she said.
Trade Aid now has 31 shops nationwide, including one in the Re:Start Mall in Christchurch, selling more than 3000 products imported from around 30 countries to create opportunities for disadvantaged communities by generating sustainable income through a fairer way of doing business.
They brought craft and food products from more than 60 trading partners, which represents hundreds of thousands of small farmers and artisans in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Palestine and the Pacific.
The success of Trade Aid, now one of New Zealand’s most recognisable retail brands, has surprised the Cottrells.
“It is astonishing how big it has grown. In the very beginning we never envisaged having shops at all,” Mrs Cottrell said.
Last year Zonta International named Mrs Cottrell as one of their 50 New Zealand Women of Achievement, and in 1994 she received a Queen’s Service Medal for her service to Trade Aid.
Mrs Cottrell said her work with Trade Aid had provided her with unique opportunities to meet many interesting people, including the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, learn about different cultures and improve the well-being of others.