Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Climate Change Killing the Thai Coconut Culture

Somehow you’d think that the day something as big and important as climate change started eroding the ancient Thai culture, that someone would have noticed or reported it or something. Sadly not. It strikes me that the huge changes in our lives and cultures do often go unremarked.

Before I explain how climate change is already having a huge impact on Thai diet, environment and natural medicine, I need to fill you in on a few basics about Thailand and coconuts. You don’t need to have ever been here to equate a coconut tree with Thailand and tropical bliss. Every Thai market has at least one coconut shop – “raan grati” – where they grind up the coconut meat to make coconut milk and sell various coconut products. Coconut milk is used extensively in everything from sweets to curries, and coconut oil has been used for centuries for cooking. It’s only in recent years that the incredible nutritional and skin benefits of cold pressed virgin coconut oil have been researched and publicized. But the wise Thai grandmothers always knew that. Traditional Thai medicine has always used coconut oil as a base for “ya mong” – the therapeutic herbal balms used for massage, headaches and natural healing. Sadly, in recent years, vaseline has become the “ya mong” base of choice among many Thai people because it is cheap and easier than blending hot coconut oil and wax. But Arun Thai Natural still uses and celebrates the basic methodology and ingredients – starting with coconut oil and beeswax – that have been known here for centuries.

One more bit of background you need to understand. Coconut oil is produced in 3 basic ways. (1) Virgin cold pressed, which is made under pressure and preserves the long-chain fatty acids, yielding a totally clear, fragrant healthful oil which solidifies at about 21C. Low yields and a corresponding substantial price. (2) Heat extracted coconut oil which is almost clear, also highly fragrant in a slightly more toasted way, but lacks the same quality of long chain fatty acids and is therefore higher in free radicals. High yields and a very fair price. (3) Chemically extracted coconut oil which is very, very cheap, a golden yellow colour and is often used as a massage oil base; even the unscrupulous vendors here sell it with a verbal warning, “No eat! Dangerous!”.

Arun Thai Natural sells virgin cold-pressed coconut oil and also uses it to make our Care+ Body Treatment Oil. But for our “ya mong” massage balms, foot balms and lip balm, we use the highest quality heat extracted coconut oil, since we have to heat it anyway to melt the wax into it and there is simply no value in using the cold pressed oil. We also use the heat extracted coconut oil as the base for our Phlai (warming) and Ginger Cassia (cooling) Traditional Massage Oils because, you guessed it, we make them the traditional way which involves heating the oil and therefore makes the cold-pressed oil a non-option.

So the last 7 weeks have been a total shock and mystery in our little Thai world. No heat-extracted coconut oil to be found, anywhere in Chiang Mai. For the first three weeks we thought our suppliers were just being very Thai about their ordering at the end of a long slow rainy season – cash strapped, unwilling to invest in new stock and fibbing a bit. Then came the stories from all the various suppliers, vendors, shops and agents we visited and talked to. The floods. No transport. Too expensive. Coconuts “paeng” (expensive) at the end of the rains. Now we do experience this little price glitch at the end of every rainy season, where the price of all things coconut goes up a bit, only to fall again, but it has never resulted in a complete drying up of supply all over Thailand’s second biggest city.

Now you also do need to appreciate that although coconut trees grow everywhere in Thailand, the trees in the north here don’t produce nearly as much oil due to it being less tropical and more temperate, so the northern coconuts are pretty much worthless for oil extraction. 95% of all Thai coconut production comes from the area just a bit south of Bangkok, with the real hub being located around Chumpon and Prachuap Khiri Khan. Now this area has just been hit by flooding issues from two sides. Massive water run-off from the north and north east, which collides with the two highest king tides of the year. Huge parts of Thailand have, in the last weeks, sustained the heaviest flooding in 50 years.

There have been articles in the papers in the last month suggesting that in as few as 7 years, large parts of Bangkok will be submerged. Being Dutch, knowing the power of the sea and also having seen the flood devastation this rainy season, I think that is beyond possible and moving towards likely.

Determined to get to the bottom of the coconut oil supply issue, we hit the road and the phones today to get past the frustrating veneer of Thai politenesses, excuses and downright lies. I schlepped through 3 different major markets to eyeball and confront the suppliers and vendors while Naa, my production manager, sat on the phone to growers and factories in Chumpon and Phrachuap Khiri Khan and also to the distributors of their products in the north.

And the story we finally pieced together is a sobering one. The coconut tree growers have been devastated by the floods, which are not yet fully receded. They are estimating 25-50% of their trees to be damaged to the point of them needing to be removed. They are not yet able to calculate how much can be salvaged. The growers and factories therefore, are using the fruit they have to obtain the highly profitable virgin cold-pressed oil (for that we are very thankful!) and then heat processing the dregs to produce the abundant chemically derived product, which is so awful we don’t even want to know about it. The volume of fruit left for heat extraction has shrunk enormously, resulting in a wholesale price hike of over 130% in the last week alone, and continuing to climb. The vendors in Chiang Mai are unwilling to buy this much pricier product and so have been fudging and fibbing and simply not ordering it in. And they’re not going to change that. Nearly every vendor I spoke to argued the benefits of palm oil - price and availability. The other Thai herbal product makers are embracing palm oil with open arms as an alternative to coconut oil – the vendors could not understand why Arun Thai Natural is vehemently opposed to and won’t ever be using palm oil.

So this afternoon we sat down and made some decisions. We will discontinue the use of heat treated coconut oil in our balms and traditional massage oil products, and substitute a mix of the used-to-be-more-expensive rice bran and cold pressed sesame oils instead. They are much better quality oils and, in combination, will produce a much smoother and richer product. Previously we have erred on the side of tradition and the price difference had been such as to support that choice. But because Arun Thai Natural is growing fast and we are producing more product, we will be able to buy our oils in greater volume and therefore should be able to hold our current pricing.

I should be delighted, and at one level, I am. Circumstance has pushed Arun Thai Natural to increase product quality, albeit in a way that moves us a little bit further away from the traditional Thai roots that we celebrate and cherish. But I can’t help feeling a little bit sad about the demise of the coconut culture. A couple of days ago I tried to order a fresh coconut for my daughter, Ploi, at a restaurant and was told “no have – too expensive”. Unthinkable.

Realistically, the Thai government lacks the resources and the funding to address the massive infrastructure issues that are needed to offset rising sea levels, subsidence and flooding from the north each season. In 10 months time, the remaining coconut trees will get another dose of very wet feet and another nail will be driven into the coconut culture’s coffin. Some climate and engineering experts predict as few as 7 years before parts of Bangkok will need to be evacuated. I wonder what the price of coconuts and coconut oil will be in 7 years time….? I wonder how much more pristine Asian jungle will have been slashed to plant more palms for palm oil, and how many species will have lost their habitat and be on the brink of extinction.

Sustainable. It’s an easy marketing word to toss about but today Arun Thai Natural came hard up against what that means. We think it means we have to change to protect the world we live in, and we’re ready to do that. We are even happy about the better quality product that we will be able to offer. But we’re just a bit sad about climate change and the end of the Thai coconut culture.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

You want me to rub WHAT over my body? WHY?

No, it’s not just a girl-thing and no, it’s not about just looking lovely and having glowing skin, although that’s a pleasant side effect. What are we talking about? Exfoliating. Ex… what? Exfoliating. The process of rubbing something mildly abrasive over your skin to remove dead skin cells and improve circulation. “Don’t dead skins cells fall off all by themselves?” I hear you asking. Well yes, they do. Eventually. But before they do they clog up the skin’s natural elimination processes and reduce the body’s ability to sweat effectively and release toxins.

The skin we’re in isn’t just a wrapper to hold all the bits together. Our skin is involved in a huge range of bodily processes that all combine for good health. Our skin is the largest elimination organ in the body, efficiently removing waste; it regulates body temperature, engages us with the world around us through touch, prevents infection and enables our bodies to absorb sunlight and produce important nutrients like Vitamin D. Making sure your skin functions at its best means that all those bodily functions will also function at their best.

In many ancient cultures, coarse salt or sand are used for exfoliation. Both are great but in the modern bathroom tend to play havoc with your drainage. If you do use coarse salt, you’ll need to pour a lot of hot water down the drains afterward to make sure it dissolves fully and doesn’t form a solid layer in your pipes.

If you use one of the many loofahs, mits or scrubbers on the market, please be aware that they bring a hygiene risk after the first use unless you boil them. Sitting damp in your bathroom for days on end and being full of dead skin cells and bacteria isn’t so great - the next time you use it, if you have even the slightest nick or cut on your skin, you risk infection. Brushes are good and can be used on the skin wet or dry, but also need cleaning after each use like a loofah or mit. Or you can use our new Clay Exfoliating Tablet – a bit like a big piece of soap but made from fine white unfired clay. It exfoliates gently and you also have the benefit of the clay helping to draw impurities out of the skin.

How hard should you scrub? Definitely you are aiming for nothing more than the slightest pink glow afterwards. Exfoliating is much easier after a soak in the bath or a longish shower, which softens the dead skin cells and makes them easier to remove. Be aware that areas of the body with poorer blood circulation, like outer thighs, knees, elbows, buttocks, feet etc, tend to have greater dead-skin build up and need exfoliating more often.

After exfoliating, dry yourself off and apply a natural plant-based oil all over. Why? The plant-based oil will nourish new skin, hopefully (depending on oil quality) add antioxidants and natural vitamin E to your skin and help to keep it soft, moisturized and also offset any dryness or irritation.

Think about adding regular exfoliation to your normal self-care regime for better health. Guys, that means you too! Stimulating your skin’s blood circulation and cleaning away the old dead skin cells is not unlike cleaning the filtration in your swimming pool or airconditoner. Everything works more efficiently afterwards, and you have the added benefit of glowing, smooth skin that is a pleasure for you, and others, to touch.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Toxic Romance?

Picture this…. It’s the ultimate evening after a nice intimate meal, cooked together and shared. You wander slowly upstairs and pause for a smooch on the landing. You take your time undressing and playfully quibbling about whose turn it is to be massaged. The massage oil is ready and you lean over to light the candle.

STOP. At this point the romantic evening has the potential to become very, very toxic.

How? Firstly, your massage oil. Unless you are using a premium, natural massage oil that has been correctly stored, chances are the stuff you’re about to slather on with such loving strokes will harm both you and your partner as it is absorbed into your skin. Synthetically fragranced oil is made using cheap, nasty and toxic chemicals. Lots of people don’t even know the oil they are using is synthetic. Rule of thumb? Unless it specifically says “essential oil” on the bottle, it’s a 99% chance to contain synthetic fragrance. A key word to be aware of is “fragrance”. In the cosmetic labeling industry, “fragrance” oil is synthetic. Also, the base oil. Most plant oils from cooler countries, like almond or olive, need to be refrigerated or stored under 30C and become rancid quickly. If they have not been correctly stored, they contain huge amounts of damaged fatty-acid molecules which are absorbed into your skin and then happily travel about inside your body through your blood and vital organs, creating havoc.

Another bit of terminology to be aware of is “mineral oil”. Basically it means “petrochemical waste that has been tidied up a bit”. Your kidneys and liver do not need little bits of bio-diesel waste ending up clogging your body’s filtration and waste management system! And the third thing you need to be aware of with commercial massage oils is that most mass produced vegetable base oils come from genetically modified crops. We do not yet know what this will do to our chromosomes or the DNA of our children’s children.

The other big romance killer – literally – is probably the candle. The lead-dipping of candle wicks encourages slow, steady burning and is still commonly practiced. Lead or chemically treated wicks are often quite thin in relation to the candle, whereas in a natural beeswax candle, an untreated cotton wick gets progressively thicker as the candle does. It has to, so that the wick is able to consume the greater volume of melted wax. If your candle is synthetically colored or artificially scented, the burning process will release those volatile chemicals into the air of your boudoir and they will end up in the lungs and bloodstream of you and your beloved.

But even more significantly, most commercially produced candles are made either largely or solely from paraffin. Why? Because it is the cheapest wax. What does burning paraffin discharge into the air? The smoke from paraffin wax emits significant doses of pollutants including benzene, toluene and ketones, which have been linked to cancer, asthma and birth defects. Suddenly I’m not feeling so romantic anymore. Even so-called beeswax candles are often blended with paraffin to reduce production costs.

So, what to do? Cancel the romance and soak up a bit of radiation and “dirty electricity” in front of the television? Heavens no! We all need romance and the healing energy of shared touch.

Make sure that your massage oil is produced from high quality plant oil with good shelf life that does not require refrigeration. ~ Shudder ~ … at the thought of cold oil being dropped onto my warm skin. Make sure it is not synthetically fragranced and contains no coloring agents. Arun Thai Natural Aroma Body Oils are made from rice bran oil, which is the most stable oil under heat of all known plant oils and has a shelf life of 18+ months without refrigeration. We make our oils using only 100% natural, pure essential oils and we use no coloring agents whatsoever.

Look for 100% pure beeswax candles, preferably in flame-proof containers. The amazing thing about burning a beeswax candle is it actually purifies the air while you burn it. Make sure it has a substantial, thick non-treated cotton wick and ensure you buy only candles that are fragranced with 100% pure essential oils. Arun Thai Natural will be releasing pure 100% beeswax candles in the coming weeks to add to your natural massage and natural romance experience.

Bring back the romance in your life… and in that process, make sure you are protecting your health and the health of your loved one. Cuddle. Massage. Snuggle away. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ingredient Insight: Menthol

We can mostly all conjure up the smell of menthol, or its taste, but do we really know what it is or what it looks like in its natural form?

Menthol is an organic compound extracted from peppermint or other mint oils. It is sold in its crystalline form and melts just slightly above room temperature (ie when you touch it). It looks like shards of glass or broken crystal and has the most beautiful fragile tinkling sound when you shake it out of the bag. Mentha arvensis is the primary species of mint used to make natural menthol crystals. It was first isolated from peppermint oil in 1771 in the West, but has been widely known and used in Asian medicine for far longer.

Menthol is to the cold sensation what capsaicin (extracted from chilies) is to hot. It triggers cold-sensitive TRPM8 receptors in the skin which gives a cooling sensation when inhaled, eaten or applied to the skin, without causing an actual change in temperature.

Menthol has analgesic (pain relieving) properties and helps to relieve skin irritations, sore throats and nasal congestion. It is also used to treat sunburn, fever and muscle aches. When menthol is used orally, it is used in the form of peppermint oil, and is widely used in toothpastes, cough medicines, lip balms, mouthwashes, chewing gum and cigarettes.

In traditional Thai and Asian medicine, menthol is used for nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, headache, colds, sore throat and muscle pain. Commonly in Traditional Thai Massage, menthol is used in conjunction with camphor.

Arun Thai Natural uses menthol in Phlai Traditional Thai Massage Oil and Beeswax Balm (warming) and Ginger Cassia Traditional Thai Massage Oil and Beeswax Balm (cooling).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's Organic....?

A lot of people want to see an “organic” label on a product, often without knowing what that really means. It makes them feel secure, confident of the natural quality… safe. You could argue that it frees the consumer from having to think. From a manufacturer’s or seller’s viewpoint, the “organic” tag is one excellent way to boost sales and gives permission to charge a premium price.

The “organic” tag actually means very little, while the “certified organic” tag is exceptionally difficult for a manufacturer to attain, and also varies from country to country in what it means.

The simplest, most general explanation of the certified organic criteria for food is, as one might expect, to be found in wiki:

All fresh and processed foods must follow national organic production standards and be certified by a USDA-accredited inspection agency. Only approved materials can be used in the production. No material can be used that harms the life of animals, people, or soil.

Specifically, organic farmers can't use antibiotics and growth hormones, fresh manure, genetically engineered materials and seeds, irradiation, sewage sludge, and toxic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Neither can they confine animals. So, for example, hens must be cage free.

A farm management plan must be in place. Detailed records must be kept. The USDA accredited inspection agency must carry out yearly inspections.

The devil is always in the detail: the farm management plan requires that there be a specified area of land as a buffer zone anywhere aerial or power spraying is used, and that area can be up to 100m or more depending on the geography. Special drainage needs to be in place to ensure any run-off water isn’t contaminated by pesticides used on neighboring properties. Water supply needs to be certified to ensure it is not contaminating plants.

In Asia, particularly due to small land-holdings, monsoonal flooding and the inability of the law to control the activities of one’s neighbors, certified organic status is virtually impossible to obtain. Those few people who have it are, almost by definition, the big, rich landholders. Doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people though, who still happily slap “organic” on everything to boost sales.

But that’s about to change.

Whole Foods Market in the USA, the largest chain of “natural” stores anywhere, recently made sweeping changes to their policy about “organic” body and personal care products. As of June 2011, they require any product claiming to be “organic” to be certified to the equivalent of USDA standards. They estimate 80% of the body care products currently labeled and sold in their store as “organic”, isn’t, and they require those manufacturers to re-label or to withdraw products from their stores.


Will it affect Arun Thai Natural? Not at all. We have never claimed to be “organic” and have resisted the temptation and requests of various customers to put pretty little “organic” stickers on our products. Our stickers tell it like it is: 100% natural. Our herbs don’t need pesticides or fertilizers, since they grow easily and naturally in their indigenous habitat. But our farmers do use animal manure and no, we can’t control that the manure came from an organically fed pig. And we have monsoonal rain that washes things into the canals used to irrigate farms. And our Thai farmers are gracious and honorable about their tolerance in allowing other people the right to do what they want on their own land, but in practice this means their neighbors might spray and use chemicals, even if they don’t.

So we don’t and can’t claim to be organic. Unlike the vast majority of “natural” body care producers.

Ironically Arun Thai Natural products could happily line up with the best of them at Whole Foods Market, because we don’t claim to be something we’re not. Most of what is labeled as “organic” isn’t, because if it really was they’d be “certified organic” and flaunting it. Buying “certified organic” almost by definition means you are buying from the richest and most privileged of land-holders. And it does little to redress the balance of power in global farming, which rewards the few that have education, lots of land and money.

Next time you’re out to buy natural products, please think about these issues. Don’t buy into the slick “organic” marketing hype and realize that it, too, shall mostly pass away as people like Whole Foods Market start insisting on integrity from their suppliers. Support the honest little guys who don’t lie to you. Think for yourself. Make that most political act (shopping) count not only for yourself and for your health, but for global equity and the farmers fighting to feed their families across the developing world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Skin You're In

How did we fall for this? Our logical brain, when presented with the facts, knows that our skin is far more important than just the way it looks. We learned it in high school biology, didn't we? That our skin is our primary detoxing organ and critical for temperature regulation of the body. That our skin is the barrier between us and infection, and absorbs compounds and passes them into the bloodstream. That our skin is our primary sensory organ - that amazing thing that interprets touch in all its forms. So how did we sink to this place where everything we see in the media is only about skin and the way it should look? Pimple free. Not shiny. Glowing. Radiant. White or tanned, depending which part of the world we live in. But obsessed with appearance and sidestepping the health aspects of skin - that wonderful thing that holds us together, literally, and protects us from all that is other.

We live in an information age where pretty much anything we want to know is out there, waiting to be found. So it's incredibly easy to find the information online that explains how Sodium Laureth Sulphate, a primary ingredient in most commercial skin care products, was proven to be carcinogenic in 1967. Its easy to find articles online that explain how petrochemical bases used for nearly all lotions and creams actually damage and dry out the skin... how many of these common, cheap ingredients actually are officailly registered by the FDA as skin irritants. How many of us who buy products containing glycerin to supposedly "soften the skin" know that it's really a petrochemical waste product and well documented to dry and damage the skin?

What is it about us - smart, savvy, educated 21st century people - that accepts this marketing spin and ignores readily available fact?

If you are conscious of your health, you need to switch off this commercial hype that focuses only on the face and the way our skin presents us to others. We need to go back to 9th Grade biology and remember that detoxing the body is what skin does, better than any other organ.

So how should we care for our skin if we're concerned for our health and not only the way we look?

Firstly, our skin will mirror what we ate for the last 3 weeks or 3 months - eat fresh, eat predominantly plant based foods, drink clean water, reduce known toxins like soft drinks, synthetic sweeteners and foods with chemical coloring and flavoring agents. If you drink coffee, drink only the best fresh organic coffee in moderation. If you drink alcohol, don't drink it with mixers other than pure soda water... and drink plenty of water afterward.

Secondly, our skin needs stimulation. Exercise to improve blood flow is number one. The fresh healthy pink cheeks post-exercise can't be bought anywhere. As Mastercard would like to say: "priceless". But you can also use a loofah or brush before or during a bath or shower to remove dead skin cells and improve circulation. Or have a massage.

Thirdly, sweat to remove toxins. Again, exercise will do it naturally but you may consider the decadent delights of a Thai Herbal Steam. Or a sauna. Remember to drink plenty of water.

And finally, keep you skin in premium condition by the sparing and regular application of oils all over... from head to toe. Your skin health is about more than that little bit of your face. Use natural, plant based oils only which will nourish the skin and allow it to breathe. Use it sparingly on damp skin before sleep and you'll be rewarded with silky, healthy, glowing skin from head to toe. If you use oils on your skin regularly and eat well, you'll be able to toss out all the expensive body creams and potions and enjoy the responsiveness of smooth, healthy, sensual skin.

It's your skin... that skin you're in. Think about it and take care of it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One change at a time

Creating a healthier, more sustainable life can be daunting if you try to do it all at once. It's like binge drinking or eating... you go crazy at the health food store or the green products store buying all sorts of food supplements, natural body care products, and things you know you should use. You get home and feel elated at your major strike for the environment and the future of the world, not to mention your own health. But tomorrow and the next day the euphoria wears off and you find yourself missing the body lotion you've used for years (toxic petrochemical base notwithstanding) ... longing for the foamy minty toothpaste instead of this awful herbal salty stuff. When everything changes at the same time you are easily discouraged, start reasoning with yourself that healthy bodies can manage modest chemical loads/fats/sugars and, before you know it, the healthy goodies are pushed to the back of the cupboards and the old habits in terms of spending and product use creep back.

A healthier, more sustainable life is really about gluing a string of better habits together, one at a time, until they feel like second nature. Or carefully piling the blocks and stones, one upon the other, in balance. Each good habit needs time to be reinforced before it becomes automatic. Repeat something every day without fail for a month and it's just about a habit. Autopilot. Then choose the next one.

Think about starting the healthy changes for your body and the environment by not only focusing on what you eat or how you exercise, but also about what goes on your skin. Make one choice - a small choice - maybe changing your petrochemical based cream body moisturizer for a nourishing natural oil used all over each night before bed. Or swapping your chemical toothpaste for a more natural alternative (that tastes good too!). Or throw out the nasty chemical formula shower gel (even though it smells lovely) and change to beautiful, nourishing 100% natural soap.

Why should what we put on our skin be part of the small incremental health changes we make? Think about people trying to stop smoking: the nicotine is delivered most effectively through a skin patch. Likewise long term hormone therapy is delivered most effectively through skin patches. What goes on our skin does end up in our blood and, subsequently, in our liver and kidneys.

Make your healthy life style changes small and practice them for 3o days before trying the next one. Drink a warm glass of water with lemon/lime every morning on rising. Do it every day for 30 days and then just keep on doing it without thinking about it anymore. Change just one product in your bathroom for a purer, healthier, less harmful alternative. Use it everyday for 30 days while you practice changing your shopping habits at the same time. Keep practicing. Don't deprive yourself - simply add one healthy habit and make it stick, until the new habits crowd out the old ones. It is surprising how focusing on the achievement of integrating one new habit empowers you and helps to set a solid platform for the next stone to be laid.

Pile the stones up slowly... make small, steady lifestyle changes for a healthier, more natural, more sustainable, balanced and enjoyable life.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Newest Currency

It should have been front page news, the day that the new currency became official, but somehow it slipped by unnoticed, as so many of the huge changes in our world do. Which day was it that a "Gee, thanks, great product and super service" was given an actual dollar value and when your "like" clicks actually tangibly increased someone's income?

The giving and receiving of praise is possibly the oldest currency... it starts from our mothers patting our backs when we've drunk enough milk and squealing excitedly when we take our first steps. At that point, the value of praise is priceless.

When my little girl gives her all in what she's doing, she frowns with delightful concentration. That might be during the dressing phase to become a magical fairy princess or when she's learning to colour within the lines. She looks to me for approval every step of the way, and it is given freely and abundantly and regularly. She looks up for a moment, gets the message that she's doing great and then she goes back to it with confidence and focus.

Unless you are someone learning to sell online, you probably don't really understand that all those little "buyer feedbacks" and "reviews" and "likes" are counted in dollars and cents by someone out there. At the most obvious level, say on eBay for example, you can't move past auctioning one item at a time till you get 15 separate 100% feedbacks on purchases made. When you get lots of feedbacks, eBay upgrades you to be a Power Seller which has direct financial benefits. On a more subtle level, search engines look for sites with lots of links and automatically rank a site higher which has more. So when you go into Trip Adviser and leave a lovely review and your email address against a given service provider, retailer, hotel or whatever, you are actually giving them something that will ultimately generate money for them. The simple act of rating an article on a blog will change the way the search engines display it in search results, which ultimately will mean more site visits and more sales for someone out there.

In a way it's sad that something like a smile and a spontaneous "thanks" has turned into an obligation. But like most things, you need to turn it around and reconsider. Think about the request for your feedback as a chance to support a new business, to tangibly give a tip to someone whose service or product you like and appreciate. Funny thing is, like encouraging a child, it makes you feel good and everybody wins.

So, consider that today you are like a rich woman strutting the town with a big purse full of "money" - your praise, thanks, clicks, stars and feedbacks. Fling it around! Start by rating this article... :) Click some "likes" on facebook and recommend the page to your friends... that business owner will be mighty grateful. But don't just do it in the faceless online world. Tell your vegetable vendor at the market that he has the nicest tomatoes. Smile at the car parking attendant who makes sure no-one breaks into your car while you shop. Send a note to a friend to say thanks for being supportive.

The best part of the new currency is that it never runs out... it sort of grows, actually. When you give nice thoughts and feelings, you feel better and then you feel like doing it more. It makes people smile and its the sort of currency that has always made the world go around.

Start small. Click a few times when you might have hesitated, become a fan of something you like, rate a blog article, remember to do your buyer feedback on eBay... and smile. Remember, this currency never runs out and you never feel guilty.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shopping - your most political act

Usually when we think of political acts, we think of voting and elections and political parties and maybe even political protests. Well, I'd like you to think about this premise: that shopping is the most political act you will ever undertake.

What?? (or, as the Thai love to shriek, "array wah??!!")

Politics is nothing more than the system we make for managing and governing groups of people, whether that be at the local community level or on a national level. And right at the heart of the growth of a community and the health of a national economy is the age-old issue of the flow of money and resources.

The choice I make of where and how I shop profoundly affects people, whether I am conscious of this fact or not.

Let me share a living example from Chiang Mai, Thailand. In my local village, there is a Thai mini-mart that sells everything you could ever want, next door to a newly established Tesco-mini mart. The Tesco is brighter and bigger and has better aircon, but is actually more expensive and has less products to choose from; it is also part of a multi-national retail group which ultimately siphons the profits back to the UK. So if I spend my 1,000 baht at Tesco, after costs and taxes etc are paid, the profit goes to the UK, which enriches the UK economy in the longer term. If, however, I choose to spend that same 1,000 baht at the Thai mini-mart next door, the same profit will be spent here in Thailand by the lovely Thai people who own that business. And then they, in turn, have the choice to enrich another Thai business, which grows the developing Thai economy.

When you buy fair trade products, you are literally buying into an ethos about all people having the right to a fair livelihood and fair employment conditions. You are literally putting money into the hands of a responsible employer so that they can go out and make another fair job for another person, which removes the financial burden from the state in the longer term.

When you buy direct from the manufacturer or grower, you are likewise making the growth of employment far more likely. With every middle man and distributor and level of administration involved in a financial transaction, you are reducing the amount that is returned to that person at the end of the line, the manufacturer, who is making something valuable and paying people to help them.

When you buy natural products that use ingredients directly grown on small farms and landholdings, you are supporting rural people who often struggle to get by. Conversely, when you buy a chemically enhanced non-natural product, you are using your money to support multi-national business, questionable industrial practices and, in the long term, depleting the health budget as the longer term results of chemical use manifest in our bodies.

Who would have thought that the simple, mindless act of a little retail therapy could have such a far reaching effect?

Next time you reach for your wallet to go shopping, think about what you're doing. Choose to shop wisely for products that will enhance the world we live in, not deplete and damage it further. Choose products that will put money back into the hands of responsible employers, not the greedy owners of a sweatshop somewhere. Choose products that will give long-term sustainability to our communities, countries and the world we live in.

So live, shop.... enjoy exercising your political rights! :)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Facebook Neck

So, we all have experienced the explosive development of social networking and social marketing. It's fun. We've probably all experienced the other new phenomenon that goes with that too, but not named it yet. Well, I'm going to. Facebook neck.

You know what I'm talking about. Burning and aching in the muscles starting from between the shoulder blades and searing right up into the base of the skull; tightness in the jaw and the tiny muscles around the ears; stiffness in the throat muscles at the front.

What causes it? Firstly and simply, poor posture. Peering at the computer screen when our eyes get tired. Craning the neck to look at tiny type instead of pressing the zoom button. Bad lighting. Leaning forward instead of adjusting the chair. Perching the laptop on pillows in bed and slouching at an odd angle. Hours and hours at the desk instead of regular mini breaks over the fit ball. Tension in the shoulders when we're arguing about free speech and the development of democracy on some political thread.....

How can we ease Facebook Neck? There are some simple, free things that can and will help.
  1. Switch off. :)
  2. Take a break - make a drink - hang forward over the fitball for at least 5 minutes every hour.
  3. Exercise - drop your chin forward as far as it will go and just hold it. Let the weight of your head gently pull your chin even further down. Gently rotate your head from side to side.
  4. Take a hot shower and let the hot water ease the stiffness.
  5. Apply a hot pack.
  6. Improve your computer work area.
These are the best and most effective long term management strategies.

But knowing that we have deadlines, e-businesses and that life isn't always optimal, we can also suggest two products that will help if your find yourself at the computer 10 hours per day crunching out a deadline.

Our Thai Herbal Massage Balls are little bundles of Thai healing herbs tied into unbleached cotton with camphor and salt; they are made wet and steamed till they are hot, and then applied to the sore areas, from the base of the neck to the skull line, up around the jaw line and on the front of the throat. We have a short youtube clip to explain what they are and how they work.


You can also apply all kinds of sports liniments and "tiger balm" type of products, which will promote circulation and ease pain. Be aware that most of these liniments are made with heavy duty chemicals in a petrochemical waste product base. Arun Thai Natural has 100% natural Phlai Traditional Thai Massage Oil and a Phlai Natural Beeswax Balm that will give rapid relief but without the toxic side-effects. You can find them on eBay or purchase directly through our website.

Whatever you do, you should not ignore facebook neck. Prolonged stiffness in the neck and shoulders will lead to jaw clenching, headaches etc and that will affect the quality of your life and work.

So enjoy your social networking (in moderation!), think about optimizing your computer environment and be smart about how you manage facebook neck.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Night and Fair Trade

"Fair trade" is one of those terms that's used a lot but not well understood. Most people, funnily enough, seem to associate the term with images of rows and rows of poorly paid workers slaving over sewing machines in some hot, sweaty factory making athletic footwear. And sadly, in the developing world, this is still very much a reality.

In Thailand, the exploitation of workers is harder for western people to imagine and harder for us to address. The vast majority of Thai workers are indivuduals - housemaids, waiters, massage therapists, gardeners etc - working in unstructured employment with no union representation and no understanding of their basic rights. Often those businesses are not registered and pay no tax which, in turn, means the very modest social insurance premium isn't paid and the workers are not entitled to use the government sponsored health scheme.

Our Arun Thai Natural workers are registered for social insurance and therefore can access hospitals and medicines very, very cheaply (even though it does often mean half a day's wait at the hospital clinic). The part of "fair trade" that is so hard to grapple with and explain is all the unspoken, poorly defined expectations that workers (quite rightly) have. "My child is sick." Fair trade says yes, by all means take a paid day off because we know you have no alternative. "I have thong sia (broken stomach) and need to go home". Fair trade says workers can't plan to be sick and in this tropical environment, our not-very-well-educated workers are coming to us legitimately with this one, rather often. "Tomorrow is a Buddha day and I have to go to the temple." Fair trade says expression of religion is important and a basic right, and so do we, regardless of the ridiculous number of Buddha days on the Thai calendar. "My cousin died and I need to go to the funeral for 5 days." Culturally, this is a hugely important rite and very often the funeral does go for 5 or even 7 days, plus travel time to another province. Fair trade says "Take your time and would you like some help with the bus fare?" During the intense phase of the recent political unrest, fair trade meant giving staff paid time off as schools were closed and safety on the roads was questionable. And early last week, while we still were under strict curfew, fair trade meant letting staff leave early so they could collect children, go to the talaad and still be home in time without worrying.

Tonight, as I sit pondering the huge backlog of work and which staff are coming in tomorrow, fair trade makes no business sense at all. The number of hours worked by our people in the last 3 to 4 weeks was abysmal. Fair to them, but abysmal in business and accounting terms. No western company in a western country would or could absorb all those extra costs; somewhere there would be fine print about a limit on the number of times one could have thong sia, or that one had to make up extra hours if you took time in lieu to go to the temple. Many would say we should deduct wages, but in a subsistence culture like Thailand, that would be literally taking food off the table, which isn't fair.

I think back to the weeks of political unrest, curfews, the start of the school year and the major Visacha Buja holiday last Friday; every single one of those events was critical and needed to be allowed for. I try to think how I will make up for the extra costs at a time when our Thailand based sales are way down post red-shirt violence, and I know somehow I will find a way. Or not, which will just mean some creative accounting required. When the harsh practicalities of fair trade weigh me down on Sunday nights, I like to think of Pa Mon. She works for us chopping and slicing herbs for drying, and she pounds and ties the Thai Herbal Balls. She has very severe epilepsy and now, at the age of about 43 (she's not quite sure of her age) she is, for the first time in her life, getting regular seizure medication. She has mild brain damage from endless seizures her whole life, but she's an incredible worker who never gets bored. Last Friday when all the other staff took the day off for Visacha Buja, she wanted to come to work. She lives with an alcoholic younger brother and staying home in their small one roomed "apartment" was not a great prospect. So she came to work on a tuk-tuk and enjoyed working alone, drinking our coffee and singing along to the Thai luuk thung music (think country and western meets heartbroken pop). She recently had her first paid sick day ever and was quite offended when I brushed away her almost prostrated wai on pay-day.

Arun Thai Natural is proud of its position on fair trade and proud that every single thing we make is done in such a way that not only are people not exploited, they are actively supported and trained and empowered. We think it makes our products better, and we like to think you will appreciate that difference next time you buy and use one of our products.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beginning again always starts from the dust....

A little over a year I grumbled at my friend, David, who stepped on a piece of orchid that had broken off as he moved his restaurant. I picked up the two little leaves, dusted them off and carefully took them home, poking them into a few bits of coconut husk. For over twelve months they have struggled and then about 2 months ago the growth spurt began. New leaves started - quite a few of them - and this weekend the very first flower. It's a smallish spray, not very glamorous by Thai orchid standards, but incredibly fragrant. And beautifully timed.

Today Thailand, similarly, is beginning to pick itself up from the dust after a terrible outbreak of political violence that has left over 80 people dead and 1,300 people injured. Not to mention a shattered national image and a massive amount of damage to its cities and people's livelihoods.

Arun Thai Natural has wanted to weep over the last months as the protests accelerated and the tourists dwindled. Our Chiang Mai based income dropped over 80%. This last week we have bene unable to trade due to the curfew. In practical terms, this has meant that I simply couldn't give our Production Manager the promised bonus to buy a new fridge after hers broke - in 42C early-rainy-season heat, to have no fridge is a disaster. For her, as a single mother with 3 dependent children, it has meant an extra 20 baht a day needing to be spent on ice for the cooler box we gave her and has also meant 2 hospital trips, medicines and several days off work and school while her youngest child, aged 2, struggled with food poisoning. These are the people costs of the political unrest that can never be measured or counted or, indeed, compensated.

For us, today, we see an end to the turmoil. Tonight is the last night of the curfew in Chiang Mai. On Monday, the banks and the post offices will be open again, so we can ship out the orders from mid last week that simply had to wait. We are blessed with customers around the world who were more concerned for our safety and our peace of mind than when their orders would ship.

Thai people are remarkably resilient and I look at my little blooming orchid as a symbol of hope. I pray that I, personally, may always be this resilient. And I pray that the Thai people as a whole may also pick themselves up out of the dust, grow some new political leaves and let the old, bruised, yellowing ones fall away. Thailand will bloom again as my little orchid has and Arun Thai Natural will be doing its part to support the ordinary people here in Northern Thailand. When you buy our products and help tell other people what we do, you are like the fine mist at evening watering times that allows the new flower spike to come. When you share our link on facebook or encourage people to follow our blog, you indirectly help us to build online sales income that offsets the economic impact that this political violence has, and will continue to have for some time. And that means simple things, like allowing us to employ an extra worker as our online orders build, or enabling me to give a valued worker a simple bonus which will allow her to buy a new fridge.

Time for the evening watering.... and new flowers.