What does fair trade in sports mean to you?
Bala Sport was founded in Glasgow in 2014 and is a social enterprise and a co-operative. It was founded by Angus Coull after a group of like-minded individuals linked to the Scottish Fair Trade Forum got together with the shared aim of providing a fairer deal for developing country sports ball workers. Angus explains that some were passionate about sports and others about Fairtrade, so it was a good fit.
Angus’ own motivations began whilst producing a series of three radio programmes on the subject of Fairtrade for the BBC World Service. After seeing the difference in conditions for Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade coffee growers in Ethiopia he was convinced of the positive impact a simple ethical choice that we as consumers in the UK can make.
“We got together with a fellow Fairtrade enthusiast and Fairtrade sports ball pioneer in Brighton, Jamie Lloyd who was already importing balls from Pakistan,” Angus explains, “We partnered with him before he handed the business over to us. So, we’ve pretty much created an international sports ball brand from scratch with the unique selling point of being Fairtrade certified and allowing consumers an ethical choice in sports ball purchase.”
Since 2014 they have established a strong client base in schools throughout the UK and are seeing an increase in interest from grassroots football, futsal and rugby clubs. They are the official match ball of the Scottish futsal league having worked with them to develop the specifications of balls they need and have provided the match balls for the Homeless World Cup twice. This was in fact Fairtrade history with the tournament in Glasgow in 2016 being the first major international football tournament to be played with Fairtrade balls.
Further to this, their membership and community shareholders list has grown to 117 including two Scottish secondary schools. They are also proud to be expanding throughout the women’s game which doesn’t face the same commercial tie-ins as the men’s game at a higher level.
A PIONEER OF CHANGE
As an online retailer Bala Sports has the potential to sell all over the world. They have clients in Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Finland and schools from the very south of England to the Shetland Isles.
Angus explains that they started off by making only footballs but have expanded their range to include futsal and rugby balls. In 2014, Pakistan was the only country in the world where Fairtrade Certified sports balls were made, and this was only in six factories.
“We were instrumental in helping a factory in India to gain Fairtrade Certification and to become our hand-stitched rugby ball manufacturer of choice,” he says, “We have been working with the Scottish Volleyball Association to develop specifications for a range of schools volley balls, and we are currently researching and developing these along with netballs and footgolf balls.”
Bala Sports also make customised balls for corporate clients and clubs and have recently completed an order of specially designed balls for the Dennis Law legacy Trust and have produced customised volleyballs for schools in the Czech Republic. They’re balls can also currently be seen in the hit Netflix drama The Stranger!
With great pride, Angus reveals that while their product appearing on a Netflix show seen around the world is cool, it doesn’t come near to the top items on his highlight list from the last six years. These items are all to do with the community impact that Bala Sports has been able to make.
Partnering with the Homeless World Cup to make Fairtrade history in 2016, which was hosted in Glasgow and was the first international football tournament to be played with Fairtrade balls. These were specially developed with input from Street Soccer Scotland and made in partnership with fellow co-operative Scotmid (food retailer).
According to him this helped shine an international spotlight on their balls and was a perfect fit as that organisation is about changing the lives of those who’ve been effected by homelessness, and Bala Sport are about changing the lives of developing country workers.
“We also partnered with Skyscanner to provide the balls for the 2017 Homeless World Cup in Oslo,” he says, “We now partner with a smaller tournament, the Homeless Rugby International Cup. We’ve also provided balls for the British Transplant Games in North Lanarkshire and support some grassroots sports clubs like the inclusive rugby team the Glasgow Alphas.”
Most of the balls are hand stitched but as the big brands move with the times they must do the same so they have developed their “Elite” ball which is made using the new thermal bonding technology. And, while their ambitions extend to the very top of these sports, there are a number of hurdles in the way before their balls are seen on the big, international fields.
“With our USP being our Fairtrade Certification, this has restricted our markets,” Angus explains, “In order for a ball to be used in the higher end football leagues they must carry FIFA certification. They however do not allow any other certification mark on a ball, so we would have to choose to be theirs or ours. We can’t be both.”
While the footballs are made to exactly the same standards as FIFA Quality Pro, FIFA Quality and IMS (International Matchball Standard), they just can’t have the official certification. The good side of that though is that they don’t have to pay the high fees for that particular certification.
“Setting up a new sports ball brand in a market dominated by a handful of big brands is not an easy thing to do. We struggle to compete with the prices that these brands offer as we don’t enjoy the economy of scale in manufacture that they do, but we do strive to be as competitive as we can,” he says.
Their core customer base are ethical consumers and organisations. These do not amount to a big number but they are getting the message across to a wider audience that choosing Fairtrade makes a difference to developing country workers. It is meaningful work with a big impact on people’s lives and not bad for an operation involving just two people in Glasgow.
“A freelance designer designs our ball artwork,” Angus reveals, “And the factories in Pakistan and India employ hundreds of people. Even with this number we still consider ourselves a lean operation.”
As a Fairtrade organisation their goal is to continue to improve the lives of developing country sports ball workers. Adhering to the Fairtrade Standards means that workers enjoy better rates of pay, safe working conditions and enjoy the benefits of the Fairtrade Premium.
This is a cash sum paid to workers through a Fairtrade Committee and they decide which social development projects to invest it in. These typically include the likes of free eye and diabetes tests, free school books and backpacks for workers kids and free transport to and from work for those living in rural areas.
Fairtrade also has a strong focus on the empowerment of women and another benefit of the Premium is the part funding of water purification plants. These are built outside the factory gates and anyone can fill up a container of free, safe drinking water, not just workers.
Currently in the UK £6m is spend on sports balls each year, sadly only a very tiny percentage of these are Fairtrade. If Bala Sport could even reach 1% of the market the impact on these workers would be huge.
“We hope this year to be able to start the production of our netballs and volleyballs and to continue to support projects like Homeless Rugby,” Angus says.
As ever, the sporting spirit is about fair play and being the best that you can be. Angus explains that he has learnt that bettering yourself doesn’t necessarily have to involve making huge amounts of money, instead, for him it’s about personal fulfilment and making some sort of positive impact in some way.
“Don’t be embarrassed about thinking big though and having big ambitions,” he says, “Putting other people’s wellbeing at the core of what you do is one of the best and most rewarding things. Everything in sport should be fair.”
ADDRESS: Bala Sport, Office 233, The Briggait, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow G1 5HZ
TELEPHONE NUMBER: 0141 628 7424 or 07957 192222