When Vi Cottrell went on an overseas adventure with her husband 40 years ago, she had no idea it would be the start of a successful organisation that would positively impact the lives of disadvantaged communities.
She also had no idea it would lead to a Queen’s Service Medal in 1994 and that she would be named as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s New Year Honours.
Trade Aid is one of the most notable fair trade businesses in New Zealand. If you mention the retail store in conversation with friends, most people will know it. If you mention its rich values of supporting impoverished communities, most people will know that too. What most people probably don’t know is the co-founder, Vi Cottrell, hails from Woodford House in Havelock North.
Vi attended Woodford House as a boarder from 1955 – 1958. During her time at school, she developed a strong sense of “good moral values” that have been evident in her Trade Aid journey.
“I also developed a love of learning, especially of reading, which has never left me. I was encouraged to go on to university which was a wonderful experience.”
She says living away from home as a boarder provided her with coping mechanisms that have been useful in life.
Woodford House Old Girl Vi Cottrell with master weaver Mrs Phurbu at the Puruwala settlement in Northern India.
After graduating from Woodford House, Vi completed a Bachelor of Arts at Canterbury University before travelling to Europe where she lived for two years.
She returned to Hawke’s Bay and taught at Woodford House for a year in 1964. The following year she married Richard Cottrell, co-founder of Trade Aid and, together with their two children, they travelled to Northern India and worked with Tibetan refugees in a resettlement programme.
“I came face-to-face with poverty and what it would mean to lose your homeland and the danger to your culture and personal sense of identity. I was incensed by the injustices suffered by small producers, especially women, at the hands of male traders and middlemen, and the gulf between rich and poor individuals and nations.”
She says one of the most profound learning moments in her career was working with the people behind the products.
“Experiences with the people who make our products and the realisation that illiterate and poor people have the wisdom and skills to provide for themselves and change their communities if they have the chance to earn an income, which is a fair reward for their work. These people have the same aspirations for their families that we do.”
Napier Trade Aide
At 76 years old, Vi still hopes for a fairer and more just world.
She wants the younger generation to know they live in a great country while being mindful of those who are less fortunate.
“Be aware of the inequalities in our society that are increasing each year, and in the world generally, and do your bit to fight them.”
She also encourages them to “keep an open mind and embrace opportunities when they come along – one may unexpectedly change your life”.
Despite her extraordinary career and the significant impact Trade Aid has made on people’s lives, Vi remains very humble. When asked how she felt receiving the New Year Honours, she replied: “I feel ambivalent about being singled out from all the staff and volunteers who have worked for Trade Aid over the years. However I do see this as an acknowledgement of Trade Aid and the impact it has made both here, and in the lives of thousands of producers.”
BIO: Vi Cottrell received the Queen’s Service Medal in 1994 for her services to Trade Aid. Since 1994 she has been an ongoing member of the Trade Aid Importers’ Board, was Development Manager for several years and continues to be a prominent spokesperson for the organisation. She has been a leader in the development of Trade Aid’s trading partnerships and is a member of its Development Committee. Trade Aid now imports more than 3,000 craft and food products from around the world, which are sold in more than 30 Trade Aid shops throughout New Zealand, as well as through organic retailers, supermarkets and cafes. It now manufactures fair trade organic chocolate under the Sweet Justice brand. She is an Honorary Member of the World Fair Trade Organisation and a member of its Monitoring Committee. She served on the Voluntary Agencies Support Scheme Committee of New Zealand’s International Aid and Development Agency. Ms Cottrell was named one of Zonta’s 50 Women of Achievement in 2016.