The SOARÉ place mat is a popular product—which is the reason it nearly disappeared from store shelves forever. Sales had reached two million pieces a year, a number approaching the impossible when it comes to delivering quality, handmade, natural fiber products. The team responsible for SOARÉ was preparing to replace it with a machine-made alternative. But before they did, they took a trip that changed everything.
“We didn’t make a final decision on what to do until we went to Vietnam and reviewed the whole production process,” says Lillemor Franzén, a member of the SOARÉ team. “And we’re so glad we did, because we saw how SOARÉ is having a positive impact on the people making it. After that, we couldn’t discontinue it. We found another way.” SOARÉ begins its life in the Mekong River. The waterway is teeming with water hyacinth, the vibrantly green plant SOARÉ is made from. But the river is an important transport and trade route too, and water hyacinth grows incredibly fast, doubling its population if left unchecked for just two weeks. That makes it a valuable renewable resource, but also a potential hazard that can clog the river.
People living near the riverbank harvest and dry the water hyacinth and then weave the stalks together. Many women undertake the task in order to keep the river passable, to preserve the tradition of their handicraft and to earn extra money for their families. Lillemor and her colleagues found themselves sitting in the homes of these weavers, listening to stories about their lives and how SOARÉ has made a positive impact.
Nearly all of the weavers making SOARÉ are women and they often use the income from their weaving to better their families and give their children new opportunities. “One woman told us that thanks to SOARÉ her daughter is now training to become a teacher,” says Lillemor. “So, this is really good extra income.” The weavers have the freedom to decide how much and how often they work. Usually, two or three gather in one of their homes to work together. They chat, laugh, keep an eye on the farms and look after their children who are too young for school. The older children are in school nearby and come home for lunch, which their mothers prepare and enjoy with them. “I feel so proud working at IKEA when I see this,” says Lillemor, thinking back to the time she spent talking with the weavers. “It gets to your heart, really. And you feel, oh! We are doing good.”