Liz Cook is too modest. Ask her to tell you what her company does, and she’ll pull an (admittedly beautiful) flower with a bendy stem out of her enormous purse, straighten the leaves, and present it to you for inspection: “I make felt flowers.” Felt flowers? That’s cool, but what does it mean for me? In fact, these flowers are not just the fanciful creation of an indulgent artist, they are the products of one of the most innovative, meaningful, and heartfelt business models you will ever hear about.
Henry and Jayne is a UK based company that makes objects d’art, flowers and stones, of felt. The company is entirely vertically integrated, beginning with a community of sheep farmers in India, from shearing through felting the wool, dyeing, cutting and sewing the flowers. All of it happens with a community that might not otherwise have a product for sale, at least one that can fetch a pretty penny in a UK department store.
“I like flowers because they are colorful and happy… really I like to explore hyperreality especially within a natural context!”
Lest you think that Cook is just another opportunistic westerner taking advantage of cheap labor abroad, think again. The workers in her collective own 51% of the company, while Cook provides the distribution channels and advertising necessary to reach western markets. Additionally, she’s got the discerning eye of a UK shopper necessary to dream up beautiful objects that are suitable for the finest credenzas.
Of course the next question is, how did this thoroughly British woman come to partner with a small impoverished community in rural India? I had difficulty pulling the story out of her: “I believe we have no choice and are given what we need to complete a task!”
The story begins with an Indian village and a boy.
I first met Pankaj when he was four years old. I was visiting a colony of homes whilst on holiday in India. Pankaj has quite a posh house compared to some, it has mud walls and a tin roof. I don’t think the colony was often visited by tourists, so many children came up to see this novelty! I said hello to everyone. Pankaj appeared from under the bed with his school book, signaled to me to sit down and proceeded to show me his work. He didn’t learn English at his school but he was really proud because he knew “one,” “two” and “three” in English. He made me sit until I had learned my name and “one two and three” in Hindi!
I find it very difficult to decide which one of us has everything and which one of us has nothing in our relationship, but I do know that he is one clever boy – he saw an opportunity and grabbed it!
Cook formed a connection with Pankaj’s family, and several years later, the patriarch died in an accident. “I found myself with a sister, some children and some sheep!” and she did what she had to do.
The community had traditionally engaged in feltmaking, but the work had dried up due to competition from synthetic carpet makers. Cook helped them find other uses for the raw product they already knew how to create, and the business was born.
The revenue generated by Henry and Jayne flowers pays for Pankaj and other children to attend school.
If you have a look around the website (please do!) you’ll see that this incredible story is noticeably absent. When asked why, Cook states:
I set out to prove that I could make a good quality, fair trade, environmentally friendly product that would retail for under ¬£10 with a decent margin for retailers that is what I hope I have achieved. I don’t want people to buy our flowers because they are made in the right way. I want them to buy them because they like them!
What are you waiting for? Go buy some flowers, impress your mother-in-law, and send some kids to school.