In 2008, Cassandra Haigh and her husband Iain traveled to Hong Kong with the intention of going to a trade fair to source statues, pottery, and other garden decor for their business, Paradise Plants in Courtenay.
When they landed, the air pollution was so thick that Cassandra turned to her husband and said, “I’m not buying anything here.”
That moment helped clarify for the Haighs the standards they’ve since set for themselves when importing products to sell at their garden centre.
“What I noticed after is that every single show I went to in my industry, everything was from China,” Cassandra says. “I decided if I wanted to make myself different, if I wanted to do something that’s a little more ethical, I’d have to figure it out on my own.”
The Haighs now source statuary, pottery, water fountains and giftware only from businesses that employ or are run by women, are mindful of their environmental impact, and operate ethical workplace conditions.
In 2012, she followed her intuition and travelled to the Indonesian island of Bali where she met female entrepreneurs whose quality of workmanship exceeded her expectations. She and Iain have returned every year since, if not with each other then with one of their three adult sons.
Cassandra makes an effort to buy pieces she hasn’t seen elsewhere on the North America market, and says Paradise Plants is the only Canadian company that imports from the approximately 25 Balinese businesses she works with.
When asked why, she muses that trade agreements make importing from other countries like China much simpler.
“We’ve had trouble with customs. It’s a little haphazard sometimes … We’ve had adventures with containers, for sure,” Cassandra says.
There have been other adventures as well. This past October, Cassandra and one of her sons were in Bali when a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the Indonesian islands.
Fortunately, they nor the people they’ve gotten to know over the years were hurt.
The Haighs also do business with a company in Vietnam.
“Vietnam was easy, because I noted the best pots I received were from Vietnam,” Cassandra says, adding they only deal with the one Vietnamese business because “we just felt we hit it out of the park when we met them.”
Key for the couple is whether a business owner will let them visit a factory on short notice – for instance, Cassandra says, some have told her their factories are closed for the season due to heavy rains.
“You can meet in a fancy office but that doesn’t mean the people working for them are being handled ethically. So the number one question is, can we see your factory? Even if it means you have to spend a day driving out to the factory, you still have to do it.”
This year, she ordered three shipping containers worth of product: two from Bali and one from Vietnam.
“I love the big statuary. We have these big pelicans and big Buddhas, and our water features are just really peaceful and calming.”
Cassandra studied landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia and has been designing gardens in the Comox Valley since 2002.
She describes herself as the sensitive, artistic one in their venture and her husband Iain as the one with business acumen – but both are on the same page when it comes to valuing sustainable business practices.
For instance, when the couple took ownership of Paradise Plants in 2002 they were alarmed by the chemicals legally permitted in gardens and nurseries.
“I just thought, we don’t have to do this, and took a completely organic approach. We’ve never used toxic pesticides or herbicide sprays in our nursery business in 17 years … I didn’t want my staff spraying, I didn’t want to spray.”
At home and abroad, she can see how sticking to their values has made a mark. In Indonesia and Vietnam, that impact is felt by the families of the business owners she works with.
“Even if I’m a small person doing this, I’m making an impact. I’m improving on the education of many children in Bali because I’m supporting their moms.”