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Gil Williams' green business, MacroSun International, was born in the summer of 1991 when he went on a dedicated buying trip through Thailand, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka. With no formal experience in international trade or retail business, he leveraged his deep friendships with artists in Asia, the support of local friends, and an unwavering commitment to the vision of a truly Fair Trade business.
"Our first actual storefront was opened in a tiny space in the Central West End of St. Louis, Missouri later that year," recalls Gil. " The response from the local community was heartening, and MacroSun International has grown and evolved through the years. We moved into larger retail, gallery, and warehouse locations in St. Louis, and now offer our pieces throughout the world via our online catalog, and to wholesale customers throughout North America."
We asked Gil to tell us more about the beginnings of MacroSun, and we learned about the surging popularity of Tibetan singing bowls, his next green steps for the future...
Green America: What does your business do?
Gil Williams: MacroSun International works directly with artisans, families, and co-ops throughout South and Southeast Asia – from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and refugees from Tibet, Burma, and Afghanistan. We offer a range of jewelry, apparel, artifacts, home décor and sacred arts at our retail stores and galleries in St. Louis, via our Web site and other on-line sales, and to our wholesale business partners.
At MacroSun, we have products ranging from incense and “Om” stickers for less than a dollar to beautiful Hindu and Buddhist sculpture and recycled teak furniture in the thousands. We’ve always wanted to make other cultures fun and accessible, yet authentic and honoring of the traditions we represent. We have extensive jewelry and apparel collections; home décor, textiles, incense, gifts; Hindu/Buddhist sacred arts, vintage Indian sari clothing, Tibetan tantric items, singing bowls, mantra jewelry, malas. All handcrafted, all authentic, affordable and all Fair Trade.
We offer a range of jewelry and stones, such as bracelets with Tibetan prayers and mantras, seed necklaces with a range of sacred prayer beads, Buddhist and Hindu statutes in a range of media and prices, beautiful wraps and dress in traditional Indian sari brocade, home décor items such as “Namasté” plaques to collectible artifacts.
What makes Macro Sun a green business?
Gil: Many of our products are eco-friendly by their own nature. For example, for much of our promotional materials and business cards, etc., we use tree-free Nepalese “lokta” paper, that both sustains a traditional art (of Nepal paper-making) and sustains the fragile eco-system in Nepal (when harvested properly, lokta paper has no more environmental impact than harvesting rice or wheat). We use beautiful old vintage India sari material, and recycle it into beautiful western wraps and skirts and dresses and tapestries. We use teak reclaimed from old imploding farmhouses in Java, and recycle them into beautiful traditional carvings and furniture.
Since our founding in 1991, MacroSun’s vision is to promote peace, knowledge, and respect both for our cultural differences and for the common humanity we share. We’ve engaged in “fair trade” since before the term was in popular usage; we’ve always believed treating people with courtesy and respect, in essence the “golden rule”, is a very practical and useful business policy. Our connections with the artists are person-to-person and based on mutual respect and social responsibility; many of our artisan-partners are dear friends we’ve known for a generation, in some cases, we’re working with the daughters and sons of the artisans we originally worked with.
We also sponsor visits to America by traditional artists of Nepal, India, and Tibet, and host events celebrating the music, dance, and spirituality of South Asia or discussing regional culture and human rights situations. For example, next month we’ll be sponsoring a visit from a very dear friend and business partner from Kathmandu, who is the “king of the Himalayan singing bowls”, and also a visit from the Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang monastery-in-exile in south India, who’ll be creating a sand mandala or butter sculpture for peace at MacroSun in St. Louis.
What is your most popular product these days?
Gil: Recently, interest has skyrocketed in our Tibetan singing bowls. We have carried singing bowls for 20 years and worked with the Tibetan refugee community since our inception, but sales of the singing bowls have grown exponentially in recent years. Singing bowls have been used in religious and shamanic practices for over 1500, and have been associated with Tibetan Buddhism since the 6th Century. The bowls create a resonant vibration traditionally used as an aid to meditation and enlightenment. The pure sounds from the bowls are used in holistic and chakra healing, sound therapy, feng shui, stress reduction and now in music from rock to ambient. While it takes some time and the right balance and focus, anyone in the family can learn to make the bowls “sing” with some practice, and is a great way for kids (of all ages) to learn about and feel the vibration of sound. It’s a great example of something that a few decades ago may have seemed exotic or too mysterious or “far out”, but now is something families enjoy and share with their other families, with the differences in sound and culture something intriguing and interesting.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Gil: The seeds of MacroSun were planted in 1990 when I returned from some volunteer projects in Tibet, Nepal, and India. This work-pilgrimage included an environmental project in Tibet near Lake Nam T'so and work at a hospital in Kathmandu. In India, I studied at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, as well as with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and various ashrams and monasteries.
In the course of traveling, I made many personal friendships with artists, craftspeople, and families. I gathered Traditional pieces in various villages in South Asia and gave them away as gifts to family and friends in the States. I was searching for a way to keep the intercultural connections alive, and share this beauty and artistry with others. One thing led to another, and the initial vision of MacroSun was created: to directly bridge the cultures of the Himalayas and South Asia with America through the medium of art.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Gil: Challenges for us have been both local and global. We are a member of the local business community, and have the usual small business issues, such as property, contracts, taxes, etc. Some of our challenges may seem rather mundane, but were very real in threatening the business. For example, a botched streetscape improvement project in St. Louis caused flooding and led to the loss of many thousands in irreplaceable treasures.
Our challenges globally have much to do with the economic and political turbulence in many of the countries we work with. The instability in Pakistan and civil war in Nepal threatened not only our “supply chain” but also our dear friends and business partners. We have also faced wildly turbulent exchange rates and global commodity prices like copper and silver (for jewelry and things like singing bowls).
Procuring the pieces is always a challenge – we have to deal with international shipping, customs, political instability in many countries we work in, turbulent currency exchange rates, the logistics of working with dozens of individual artists, families, co-ops; product creation, timing, quality control, etc.
We have had to embrace change is a constant in both the global and local environments. While it may sound trite, two principles to remember that have served me well in doing business globally and locally: go with the flow, and develop a sense of humor.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Gil: Two proud moments: The first is when MacroSun started working with the next generation of artisans overseas, the daughters and sons of the original artisans we worked with over 20 years ago, as well as the process of successful delegation from me as founder to my brilliant MacroSun team, so that the values and positives that we’ve created will endure beyond me, both locally and globally.
The second is the opportunity to help create and shape a children’s home in Nepal, Mitrata (which means “friendship” in Nepali, www.mitrata.org ), for which we have been a catalyst. Mitrata provides medical care, educational opportunities, and a loving home for disadvantaged children in Nepal, and has grown from a single child to more than 100 children. It was initially formed through one of our MacroSun suppliers that made traditional Nepali musical instruments.
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Gil: We look at “environment” to include not just the natural resources but the cultural resources; there are endangered “arts” just as there are endangered species.
Changes in technology and communication have been dramatic since we first opened in 1991, and regardless of how we judge these changes, they have shaped a new global awareness and hopefully a new global consciousness. Many of the products we offer that once seemed far out of the mainstream are now much more popular and embraced by mainstream folks. There is more of a sense of a connected global village. The media of art and textiles and jewelry are great ways for people to approach other cultures and traditions in a meaningful but non-threatening way. We see a real “green” opportunity to tap into this new cultural awareness in a positive way.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Gil: Though we have a very broad vision, it has been very important for us as a business to find a clear workable focus, yet still be mindful and lean enough to respond to changes in the marketplace. For example, we have focused exclusively on specific countries in South Asia, despite repeated opportunities to expand to other areas and other continents.
The business of MacroSun has been all about building relationships, strong and solid ones, with our artisans and employees and customers, so there really is a sense of “family” and caring, a sense that we are all in it together. For example, if we are successful, our artisan partners overseas are successful. If our customers are happy, then we are successful. While we are a “global” business, we still literally operate between families – our artisans families to our customer families.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Gil: My work internationally and locally in business and in human rights, has personally inspired me to pursue a new career in the legal field. I am currently studying at Saint Louis University School of Law and will be moving to full time studies in the fall. MacroSun’s vision remains strong, thanks to a brilliant and committed team taking over day-to-day operations of the business.
What green product(s) can you not live without?
Gil: Fair Trade coffee fuels my every move, in business and law school!
Gil and the MacroSun team.