A Wholesome Story: how Holy Tote & Paper Love Got Started

Pure and Wholesome is about the belief that if everyone only bought products that were made sustainably and by people who were treated well, the world would be awesome!  I interviewed Danielle O’Halloran, who started Holy Tote and the small cooperative that makes our Holy Tote and Paper Love bags.  Her products are beautiful and also truly wholesome and ethical, and this is their story.  Hopefully it’s inspiring! 

How did you come to start Holy Tote in Vietnam?
I am an Australian and I was living in Vietnam with my family when I started Holy Tote.  I saw an opportunity to create beautiful things from recycled stuff while providing much needed jobs in the community at the same time.

The woven bags are made by a group of women who work as a community, in their own homes.  It is in the true sense, a cottage industry.

Tucked away in District 8 in Ho Chi Minh City their neighbourhood is in a labyrinth of laneways. I spent many hours there sitting with them, working on designs and arranging orders for customers in all parts of the world. These women had only ever woven for the local market and producing for export was completely new and came with challenges. It took well over a year working together before we had the consistency and quality we needed.

One of the most satisfying things out of all of this is seeing these women develop their own business.  Now, as well as weaving bags for Holy Tote they export in their own right to customers in Japan.  So exciting.

Did you have help?  How did you find the weavers and suppliers?
I employed a woman to work with me from the get go, her name is Thu.  Without her I wouldn’t have found the weavers and couldn’t communicate with everyone I needed to. Thu has become a dear friend and still runs Holy Tote in Vietnam now that I am back in Australia.  A favourite memory from my time there is attending her wedding.

Did you have any experience before starting Holy Tote?
No, I had never worked in this area before, let alone in another country, and it was a huge learning curve. I had no idea about manufacturing, export or wholesale selling but I loved every minute of learning something new and I thrived on the relationships I was having with people in the community. 

I remember traipsing all over town, arranging cartons, silverware, leather, printing. There are so many things to do above and beyond the actual bags.  I have discovered perseverance is the most important attribute needed to run my business. All of the others skills can be learnt.  A sense of humour helps too. I remember receiving my first delivery of bags after careful planning with the weavers on designs. When I excitedly opened the cartons I couldn’t recognize the bags, 90% of them were completely wrong.

How did the Paper Love range come about?
One day I was at a local market when I saw a stall selling paper wash bags. I’ve always loved this material and was super excited to see it locally. I knew if it was at the market, someone must be manufacturing it in Ho Chi Minh. We were able to trace the bags back to the supplier. It turned out the workshop was close to my home!  The owner, Ms Nga, was running a small business with about six staff. I worked with her to create a range of bags from the paper she was importing from Italy. They were beautiful. The craftsmanship is so clever.  I loved to spend time in her workshop watching them at work.

What about Holy Tote’s environmental and social impact?
It’s important to me with Holy Tote to be mindful of the environmental integrity of my products.  I love the fact the paper for our Paper Love range is made from sustainably grown trees in Italy. This fit well with our woven bags that are made from recycled plastic strapping.

Most satisfying though is the personal relationships I have with the women and their communities who make them. Knowing that the work we have done together has actually made a real and lasting positive economic difference to them and their families.

What does the future hold for Holy Tote?
Now I am living back in Australia I miss the hot weather, the hustle and bustle and the can-do vibe of Vietnam but the business goes on thanks to the relationships I was able to form in my time there. 


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