A New Chapter in Cebuano Furniture
Text and Photos by Verne Ahyong
Holistic Coalition of the Willing (HoliCOW) is a sustainable furniture and housewares company based in Cebu City.
The company opened its first gallery-store at the Crossroads in Banilad in 2015, but its story began back in 2011 when five Cebuano furniture companies joined forces in an attempt to escape the export slump afflicting the local furniture industry.
This group is a product of the collaboration between the AFOS Foundation, Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Cebu Furniture Industries Association.
“When we came together, we consulted with the AFOS Foundation for Entrepreneurial Development Cooperation. This was the German arm of the program,” explains HoliCOW communications officer Kae Batiquin. “We realized that there was nothing happening for us because we failed to see how the market was changing.”The profile of today’s furniture market is vastly different from what it was a generation ago. For one, buying power had shifted to the domestic market. Secondly, international buyers who used to buy in bulk from Cebuano furniture companies are getting smarter by focusing on quality instead of quantity.
Batiquin says technology may have contributed greatly to this market change: “People are more informed about the consequences of mass production on the environment, and they want to either give back or mitigate the damage. It’s the same with labor and fair trade. That’s why they’re smarter now and feel the burn, so to speak.”
Following advice from the AFOS Foundation, the group engaged in an experiment to cater to the needs of this new market. They curated a furniture collection that fulfills to the letter the traceability, sustainability, and fair trade standards of Europe. They then reentered the European market under that context.
“There were more than five of us at first, but many backed out. That’s why we’re the Holistic Coalition of the Willing,” Batiquin stresses. “The others wanted to stick with what’s safe, but we’re fine with that. Like Richard Branson says, ‘Being safe is not actually being safe.’ You need to do something new. The world is always changing.”In 2011, the group curated its best pieces and measured them against the Good Agricultural Procedures (GAP) assessment. Then, a third party assessor came to the office, conducted interviews, and visited the sites where the furniture pieces were made.
A copy of the 26-page Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire the group used to assess every one of their furniture pieces can be downloaded from HoliCOW’s official website (www.holicow.ph). The group adheres to five key sustainability criteria: sourcing of raw and additional materials; production process (social, environmental, and safety compliance); outbound supply chain; internal control system; and fair trade relations. The whole assessment process was thorough and time-consuming, with the biggest challenge being how to marry sustainability and design.
“There’s always the creative aspect to it. We wanted to include pieces we felt represented our aesthetics and our brand,” Batiquin shares. “Unfortunately, some of the group’s most popular and best-selling pieces were tagged with GAP assessment violations.”
Batiquin explains: “The assessors would tell us to change our design and trim down our carbon footprint or choose another furniture piece altogether. Or else we would end up paying an arm and a leg for various fines and legal fees.”
To culminate their experiment, the group embarked on a European road show in five known furniture-making cities in Germany. Their show coincided with the Cologne Furniture furniture events.
The group expected little from the show. “We thought that, at least, it would make the Philippines look pretty.
However, the response we got was quite unexpected,” Batiquin shares. “We were expecting calls from wholesalers wanting to buy in bulk. What we got were inquiries from designers based in Europe and Germany who wanted to work with us, sell our furniture pieces in their ateliers, and send their interns to our Cebu workshops for training.”
The European market for Cebuano furniture had shifted greatly. There was a new group of people who were interested in and appreciated completely different aspects of Cebuano craftsmanship. The experiment was a success in Germany, but would it work in the Philippines as well?
The group joined the 2015 Philippine International Furniture Show in Manila soon after coming home. Since they had already sold most of their pieces during the road show in Germany, they had to remake these pieces for the Manila show. “We wanted to show our friends in the local furniture industry what we realized and what we felt they should adopt as well. We were at the cusp of something different and we really needed to adapt,” Batiquin explains.
Once again, the group had a successful show. They received inquiries from non-government organizations focusing on the environment, entrepreneurship, and urban rehabilitation. Both local and international markets were clearly interested in this new wave of sustainably crafted Cebuano furniture, but how would the group respond?
“We decided to make a transition toward a more sustainable circumstance, which was, naturally, a business,” Batiquin shares. “We were invited to open a store at Crossroads, and we opened around August of last year. That is how HoliCOW was born.”
In addition to Cebuano furniture, the Holicow Gallery-Store carries fashion accessories and soft furnishings, every item having gone through and passing the GAP Assessment: “So that’s where we are now. It is part of our advocacy, going back to the three things that changed our perspective as designers and manufacturers: traceability, sustainability, and community relations,” shares Batiquin.
The GAP Assessment takes care of the traceability aspect of the business, but what about the other two? One thing members and partners of HoliCOW share is their love for working with found materials—those existing in the immediate environment—including trash.
Hacienda Crafts, for example, upcycles materials sourced from retired sugar trucks in Negros. Trucks used to transport tubo daily from plantations to processing plants, typically break down after three years or so. These discarded trucks are then left to rust in junkyards.
The company took the metal that wasn’t rusted over yet. With help from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and another German company, Hacienda Crafts developed a formula that works like a transparent powder. This allowed the company to freeze the metal in its natural state, which is very beautiful, without having to overlay it with color. The company then manufactures furniture pieces like tables and bar stools from these metal sheets.
“Apart from being in tune with our environment or whatever it is that’s there in our environment, we are also very sensitive to our communities,” Batiquin shares. “Everything in our store, I am proud to say, is handmade. It’s people using tools, not tools being operated by people.”
HoliCOW and its partners continuously work with grassroots communities in various stages of the furniture making process, from sourcing materials to manufacturing products.
Hacienda Crafts is located in the middle of a sugar hacienda in Manapla, Negros. There, famers and their families face the same problem each year: how to earn money while waiting for the sugar cane to grow.
“What happens is, men borrow money so their kids can go to school. Then, they will add to their debt until they get paid for the next harvest,” Batiquin explains. “Hacienda Crafts designer, Christina Gaston, works with the farmers’ wives. She teaches them handicrafts, so that year in and year out, their families have income.”
These are only two of the many inspiring stories behind the products sold in the HoliCOW Gallery-Store. From the Debbie Palao Bounce Stool made from upcycled bamboo scraps, to the Fantasized Desk and Hanging Lamps made from discarded electric fan frames, each piece has its own story of traceability, sustainability, and fair trade.
“I feel like it is happening. The Creative Council of Cebu—where I represent the furniture industry— recently hosted our counterparts from Penang, Chiang Mai, and other ASEAN cities in Cebu City. They were very impressed with our Cebuano craftsmanship. They would say there is bamboo furniture like this in Chiang Mai, but it’s different and you can definitely tell it’s Cebuano,” Batiquin shares.
“It’s always scary to be onto something you can’t quite articulate yet, but you can feel in your bones is right. I hope HoliCOW projects to a more inspired creative community in Cebu, and I hope that being aware of what we are already doing right means we can do it better. That’s my wish, more than anything else: That we can appreciate ourselves, our identity, our culture—who we are— through Cebuano furniture.”