Tag Archives: ethical fashion

Kahindo Mateene: An African Designer Making a Difference

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches using scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches upcycling scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

When designer Kahindo Mateene came to the United States at the tender age of seventeen to attend college, her classmates couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had also lived and traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, the global nomad was a little taken aback by the attention she received for her vibrant, multi-cultural hand-made designs. After studying fashion at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, Kahindo was finally able to pursue her dream of creating a line that would fuse her African heritage with western design sensibilities. In 2009 she launched Modahnik, a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman. Besides earning her respect in the fashion industry and a spot in season twelve of Project Runway (yes girlfriends, the Project Runway), Modahnik has also given her a platform to share her culture with the world and give back to women in Africa.

Angeline sews a Modahnik clutch.

Angeline, a ‘mama’ from Mamafrica, sews a Modahnik clutch.

In 2011 Kahindo created a line in Kenya using fair trade practices, and just recently she launched a Kickstarter campaign for Mamafrica, an amazing organization (which I wrote about here) that provides economic opportunity, education, and healing arts programs for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These women, or ‘mamas,’ most of whom are recovering from trauma as both rape and war survivors, will be making clutches from the repurposed fabric left over from previous Modahnik collections. As Kahindo cites in her moving story about Aswifewe, one of the Mamafrica women who is a rape survivor, “the support of this Kickstarter project gives Aswifewe and other women like her the chance to have a new life, escape sexual violence, and support her family by finding work with Mamafrica in making our clutches.” The Kickstarter campaign ends April 20 and the time is running out, gfs!

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

I was thrilled to be able to talk to Kahindo more about her project with Mamafrica, her perspective on ethical fashion, and her aesthetic inspirations. Her passion and energy is contagious, and I felt like we could have easily chatted for hours. It was fascinating to learn about her design process, and from where she draws ideas for her collections.  She cites traveling to new places as a guaranteed form of inspiration for her, since it opens her mind and creativity to new tastes, sounds, culture, architecture, and people.  She also mentioned menswear, the shows Game of Thrones and Mad Men, and the sharp architectural edges of the Louvre in Paris as recent inspirations for her line. Of course she frequently draws from Africa, particularly the avant-garde art and culture of the Congo. She grew up admiring the spirit of the ‘Sapeurs,’ a sartorial subcultural group celebrated for their elegance, originality, and flair.

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The line has the tagline of "Modern. African. Ethical."

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The site has the tagline of “Modern. African. Ethical.”

The fashion world has long been fascinated by Africa, with designers from Louis Vuitton to Gwen Stefani pulling inspiration from the continent for their collections. While the clothes have often been gorgeous, many have questioned the potentially exploitative practice of using African aesthetics for the “financial and cultural benefits of the West,” especially if they are not incorporating African textiles in their designs or giving back to the communities from which they are derived. Even though Kahindo does think this can be problematic, she also sees the benefits of someone with as huge a platform as Stefani bringing attention to African fashion. Still, she does not want Africa to become a ‘trend.’ This is why she creates her bold prints from tailored pieces of silk that are sophisticated and classic. As she put it, “We’ve made fashion into this disposable thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I made a dress for a friend six years ago, and she wore it to an event a couple of months ago. The colors and cuts are truly timeless.”

She also believes in the importance of using her privileged position to give back to the women in her home country. This partnership with Mamafrica is important to her because as she puts it,

“I know that I’m blessed to be in the States to pursue my dream, and I know if it wasn’t for circumstance, it could have been me. My hometown of Goma has been the epicenter of the conflict in the Congo since 1994 and is where a lot of women have been raped. I truly believe in the healing power of the arts, and I would love to use my craft to help empower women healing from trauma. This collaboration will be empowering them with job skills while allowing them to take part in the design process with me. It touches on so many issues that I’m passionate about: job creation, the healing arts, creative expression, ethical consumerism, and empowering women.”

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Indeed, Kahindo believes that along with creating sustainable jobs, educating and empowering women is the key to poverty reduction in the Congo and Africa. Her late father instilled the importance of education in her, and pushed for all of his children to attain life’s possibilities regardless of their gender. It is no wonder then that the Brigham Young quote, “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation,” resonates so deeply. She hopes that this partnership will help create and strengthen educational and economic opportunities for the mamas that will allow them to provide for their families and give their children access to a better life.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

As for the future of ethical fashion, Kahindo believes times are changing. In the wake of global factory fires in countries like Bangladesh, companies are beginning to bring production back stateside as they are faced with human rights violations and growing costs overseas. With that shift in consciousness she hopes that there will also be more of a demand for African-owned brands that put money back into the local economies. The continent is not short of entrepreneurs (and boasts the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world), and it is certainly not short of tailors and creative people! Since almost 99% of African textiles are imported from overseas, she dreams of one day helping to revitalize the industry by producing quality clothing for export. And with her ties to different countries throughout the continent, she hopes to collaborate with other co-operatives in the future.

But for now, Kahindo is focusing on her Kickstarter for Mamafrica, which ends in 30 days, on April 20! If the amount is not met, then the project will receive no donations. Even a dollar helps, and you can get a Mamafrica clutch if you contribute a little more! If you can not donate, then please spread the word.  Come on girlfriends, let’s do this!!

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads "We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!"

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads “We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!”

Update: A version of this article was re-published on The Huffington Post.

My Related Posts:

Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

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“The True Cost”: A Documentary on the Global Fashion Industry’s Impact

am-bioFor many consumers, the tragedy of the Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people inspired a new consciousness about the ugly truth of the clothing industry that had rarely been exposed so powerfully. For director Andrew Morgan, the tragedy was an impetus to turn this consciousness into action and start production for a documentary on the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry, titled ‘The True Cost.’ The film incorporates the voices of ethical fashion experts such as Scott Nova of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney of the brand People Tree, and Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York to help illuminate the complexity of this dilemma while paving the way for solutions towards a more sustainable future.

Morgan’s film is in pre-production and he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his film. You can check out his trailer below:

Nadia: So, would you mind elaborating on the meaning behind the film’s title, ‘The True Cost?’

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

We’ve got to get out of this place … the Rana Plaza factory fire, April 24, 2013.

Andrew: As consumers, we are used to making buying decisions based on cost, or the garment’s final price tag. And what this film intends to reveal is a human and environmental cost to bringing that product to market that aren’t reflected on that price tag, and that we just don’t see. And we are faced with an industry that has banked on the reality that most people aren’t going to think twice about what they are buying, because they think there is an invisible cost to their consumption. Some experts have referred to the environmental and labor violations within the global clothing industry as one of the best kept secrets in the world. So we really want to make these costs clear in our film as we examine how we got to this place, its global ramifications, and what needs to be done to articulate a different future.

Nadia: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Andrew: For me, seeing the picture in the New York Times of the two boys  walking in front of a wall of missing persons signs broke my heart. It really put a human and personal touch to what is a complex global issue. I immediately started doing research and talking with people in the industry from all over the world, and was just shocked by what I found. I mean, we are clearly in a place where the situation keeps on getting worse, not better. Three of the worst tragedies of the clothing industry were in the past year, and the environmental side is also horrifying.

But at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of socially conscious business, and I’m excited by the prospect of that being the intended model. And the fact is, when we look at tragedies like Rana, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why we should be in this position where we are now. It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way—there is so much potential for good and for change that is truly attainable. And what has motivated me in this research is also speaking to so many of these pioneers who have laid the foundation for this film by doing truly amazing work for the past few decades.

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Nadia: Ethical fashion—treating workers humanely and producing garments sustainably—seems to make sense. Why then do you think there has been some resistance to the idea of ethical fashion? 

Andrew: I think there has been this tendency to view this issue through this two-sided lens of ‘capitalism vs. people who care.’ In the United States especially people can get very defensive whenever you start to mess with what is considered free market capitalism. We’re very afraid of ‘socialism’ and extreme terms that we don’t even understand. We’re quick to put that label which we think threatens a system that ultimately provides profit. And I definitely think there have been moments in our history where people get complacent, when we think this is truly the best we can get.

But now we are in this current cultural moment where I truly believe people are realizing that we can actually evolve this system to move forward. I don’t think anyone is coming forward to say anything other than that we’ve built a system that can advance human progress substantially, but we’re not done. So let’s think of a third way that goes beyond this idea that you have to choose between ‘socialism’ or ‘exploitation.’  Now that we know more today that we did yesterday, let’s just evolve the system and grow. And in a world in which people are more connected than ever, let’s include more voices around the table. Even generationally, there’s a move towards, “I’m tired of fighting you. Let’s have a conversation and get things done.” I think that’s happening in a lot of ways now. There’s another group of people who are coming along that feel like capitalism could evolve and it could do even more good than it’s doing now, and less harm.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, being interviewed for the film. (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: I love what you said about there being moments where we are complacent. Sometimes it seems like we have very short memories. For example, it frustrates me when I hear arguments against any kind of regulation, because it’s like we have forgotten that in the decades following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911, governments imposed basic regulations that greatly improved health and safety conditions in the factories! 

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 led to better safety and health regulations in the industry…so regulation isn’t exactly a new thing!

Andrew: Exactly. And to add to that, throughout history, industry has always rebelled against regulation. And so government and activists always have to push the tide back for more regulation. In the United States we regulate everything. No one would acknowledge that but we really do. Just think about the food industry, or environmental pollution. We really do regulate everything, and historically industry has always rebelled. People forget that industry even rebelled against the minimum wage! So when it comes to this outsourcing to factories abroad, we need to have a system where these western brands that are making all this profit aren’t just self-regulating, but that there’s actual accountability and traceability. Because at the end of the day, there’s a profound violation of human rights that needs to be accounted for.

Nadia: In the opening of your trailer, you mention that you were told this “simple story” about where your clothes were made—which was that they were “made in faraway places by these ‘other people’ and these people needed the work.” Do you think part of our cultural apathy and ignorance has to do with the geographical distance between people who buy products and those who make them?

singlewoman

Do we treat workers better when we see their face and we know who they are? A woman sews for Timbuk2 Bags in San Francisco

Andrew: The world has indeed moved to a more and more abstract a place. There’s actual psychology to this idea that if someone was in my village and made my shirt, I would never force them to endure what many of these workers in countries like Bangladesh are going through.  But because we live in a world now where we’re not in touch with anything that we eat or wear, it makes us capable of outsourcing not only the product but the consequences of making that product in an irresponsible way.

Nadia: Could you describe a bit more your aesthetic as a filmmaker and how you hope your film will take these abstract problems and turn them into tangible solutions for your viewers? What can film do that other mediums can not in educating people about this issue?

I am most interested in narrative and documentary story telling, and I really love to tell stories that are true and honest, that give hope for a better tomorrow. I often look for issues that have been decades in the work, where the groundwork and models have been tested. And I think with ethical fashion, there’s a potential here to break this out of the little corner that it’s been in, and to bring it to a wider audience.

Part of the problem has been in how we are telling a story, and I think film can really change that. When people are being entertained, they lower their guard, and there’s this opportunity to make them aware of really new and disruptive ideas. I’m after those moments. And in just an hour and a half, I have this chance to make a change. It means I need to pick out the key moments that can create a reaction in both their head and heart. I want to make these ideas accessible to the ordinary person without dumbing anything down, and I really want the place that we’re in right now to appear ridiculous. Because at the moral center, it is ridiculous. But at the same time, I don’t believe in motivating people through shame and guilt. I want to look at the world through a lens of hope. People don’t like being talked down to or judged. It’s better to say, “let’s imagine this better world we could live in today.”

What can film do that other mediums can't?

What can film do that other mediums can not? (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: In your trailer you mentioned how stories often rely on a strong protagonist and antagonist, but in this story you are telling it will be difficult to point out any one person or institution that is solely responsible. Will you be creating a new kind of story-telling with this film?

Andrew: Our approach is to include many points of view in the film creating a collage of ideas and implications. For example living life in the shoes of a garment worker in Bangladesh, a sourcing manager for H&M, a factory auditor in China or a village in India effected by improper dumping from leather tanneries. Rather then pinning one idea against each other and watching them fight it out, we are combining ideas into solution sets that are real and tangible. As I stated in the Kickstarter page, we believe that true change will only be sustained through the creation of a synergistic approach, one that involves the adaptation of policy, the improvement of industry standards and a shift in consumer consciousness. It sounds complicated but the result will be a film that moves quickly, and flows easily making the world feel as small as it truly is. Ultimately I want to acknowledge this complexity, while giving voice to a moral clarity.

What is it like to be in this woman's shoes?

What is it like to be in this Bangladeshi’s garment worker’s shoes? (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

Nadia: What message do you hope your viewers will walk away with after watching the film?

Andrew: I want to articulate a future where people in the global supply chain are more closely connected, and where factory jobs empower people through  good work rather than exploiting them. A future where people are more aware about the environmental implications, and buy fewer items that last longer. I would love for viewers to leave my film inspired to start conversations about what the cost of their consumption is, and to be empowered to help change it. And my hope is that by starting these conversations, eventually we will come to a place where ‘ethical fashion’ isn’t a niche, but the new normal.

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

There’s just a few more days to raise funds so that this film can be made! Donate here (even a dollar helps, and you get cool gifts if you contribute a little more) and share with friends! Let’s do this!!

Share on Facebook for a chance to win jewelry from the fair trade organization Global Girlfriend! (cause I’m all about supporting the girlfriends!) You can check out the giveaway here.

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Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

For many people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evokes images of poverty, suffering, and violence. And indeed, for the last two decades, the country has been plagued by conflict and bloody civil wars. It is currently among the poorest in the world, with 80% of its population living in poverty.

Is your mobile phone, computer, iPod, and gaming system fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

Are these minerals in our mobile phones, computers, iPods, and gaming systems fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

But the country is also incredibly rich in resources, especially in the eastern region. Home to some of the world’s rarest minerals including gold, coltan, carbonite, tin, and tungsten, the DRC supplies many of the key elements that are essential to our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. One would think that a country so rich in valuable resources would not be mired in violence and the resultant poverty, but in fact, it is these very minerals that are fueling this conflict and financing African militias, who are then selling them to middlemen who supply these key ingredients to companies world-wide.

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

How do these militias secure control of these mines and trading routes? By looting villages for resources, displacing communities, killing the men who were the providers of the families, and using rape as a war tactic to control and suppress the women.

Described as ‘the rape capital of the world‘ by the United Nations, more than half a million women and girls have been raped in the last ten years alone.

So, what can be done?

Here’s the problem. It is very difficult for consumers to gauge whether their purchases are funding armed groups that are committing such atrocities, given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain (Sound familiar? Fashion isn’t the only industry that suffers from ‘transparency problems’). This is why activists like Amani Matabaro and John Prendergast from the Enough Project have made it their focus to educate citizens about the conflict, and have recently released a company ranking system as a way of empowering consumers to make more responsible purchasing decisions regarding conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

And what about the people, mostly women, who have survived the horrors of war, who are displaced and lacking the community that previously existed in their villages? This is where non-profit organizations like Mamafrica, are making a difference.

The women of Mamafrica!

The women of Mamafrica!

Mamafrica is a woman’s sewing cooperative based in Bukavu, a city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda that has become a refuge for “internally displaced persons.” When Ashley Nemiro, an aspiring Ph.D in counseling and psychology, started her work at the Panzi hospital in May of 2012 to conduct research on the efficacy of group therapy treatment for women who had been victims of gender-based violence, she was distressed not just by the trauma these women had gone through, but by the limited opportunities there were for them to support themselves and their families. It was then that she was fortunate enough to meet Congolese activist Amani Matabaro, who founded a program (AFBEK) supported by the community development organization Action Kivu, which funds sewing cooperatives and micro-finance loans for women as a means by which they can support their small businesses and take care of their families. Through her conversations with Amani the idea for a holistic organization that would empower women by providing education, a healing arts programs, and economic opportunity, began to develop. Amani in turn introduced Ashley to Aline Malekera, a Congolese woman with a B.A. in English and a powerful voice in the community, who became a partner and was instrumental as a translator and Finance Administrator. The two formed the cooperative from three sewing collectives: Centre Ushini, AFBEK, and Action Kivu. Mamafrica now serves over ninety women in Bukavu, most of whom have fled from the violence of rural eastern Congo.

I was able to interview Ashley Nemiro in person and Aline Malekera via email about their work in the organization, and how they hope it will improve women’s lives in Bukavu:

Nadia: So Aline, could you give us more background about the conflict in the Congo and how it has affected women there?

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

Aline: Before the war started in 1996 everyone had farms and fields to cultivate, animals to raise, and parents were able to feed and pay school fees for their children. But when the war started, most of people’s means were stolen, their houses were burned, their husbands killed, and their villages and communities destroyed. Many of these women are rejected by their husbands, family, and community if they are raped. And even though they have no support, they have to be strong, be everything, for their children.

Nadia: Why did you want to get involved with Mamafrica?

Aline: I have lived through many years of war, and I wanted to empower these women who have been displaced and rejected by their husbands and families. I feel determined to help these women understand that they can do something in their society, that their lives can change, if they are determined.

Nadia: Ashley, can you describe a little more in depth what you mean by a ‘holistic’ program?

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley: Basically, Mamafrica is a three-phase program. When the women enter the program, they attend a six month healing-arts intensive course, which incorporates group trauma healing, meditation, counseling, yoga, and song and dance. They then complete a series of life sustainability education classes, where we teach nutrition, cooking, maternal child health, birth control, literacy, and financial responsibility. Then, we teach the women how to sew, tailor and embroider so that they can be employed by Mamafrica, where they make beautiful dresses, table cloths, and even yoga bags! And I should note that we allow the women to be independent and encourage them to be self-sufficient, so it is up to them how much time they want to invest in these programs.

Nadia: You mention self-sufficiency often. Do the women really have no other means of employment?

Good intentions gone wrong. Thrift stores like Goodwill are pumping clothing into Africa, making it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Good intentions with unintended consequences. Thrift stores like Goodwill make it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Ashley: You know what’s interesting? You know how a lot of the women make money here? By selling the overstocked items that are donated by Goodwill in the West to churches in the DRC. A lot of these items are soiled clothing or just junk, stuff that the women can’t even use. And so the women take these items and sell them in the streets, and while it’s true that they can make money that way, it is also difficult for people in the DRC to manufacture their own clothes and export their products when you have that kind of flooding of [free] products from the West into the country. And 99% of the fabric is imported from China, which is why it is important for Mamafrica to use fabric manufactured in Africa, that is from Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. We purchase this fabric in bulk from a fabric vendor in downtown Bukavu.

Nadia: So when we talk about ‘sustainable fashion,’ how are you trying to make Mamafrica sustainable?

Teaching the women how to sew!

Teaching the women how to sew!

Ashley: We are really trying to create a new generation of leaders. In our new healing arts program we talk so much about being a leader, and what it means to be a leader. Because in my mind, when people ask how to change the Congo, it’s not up to the US or USAID, it’s changing the leadership inside the country. It’s about Congolese people changing the system. And that isn’t going to happen if the women don’t have any means of empowerment and can’t support their children. In Bukavu it cost $10 per child a month to attend school and this creates a challenge since many women have more than 7 children and the average wage is .20 cents a day. With the wages that the women make at Mamafrica, they are able to afford to send their children to school, pay rent for their homes, and feed their families. Aline travels to each school and pays the school fees each month to ensure that all our Mamafrica children are attending school. Our hope is that by changing these women’s lives, that positive change will trickle down to the children and change a community.

Nadia: Do the women just make clothes for women in the West?

The women also make dresses for the community's children!

The women also make dresses for the community’s children!

Ashley: No, they make them for women in the DRC as well. We have a shop where many women in the community come to have clothing specially sewn for them including: school uniforms, wedding dresses, and children’s clothing. So many of these women love bright prints, perhaps because wearing these colors brings happiness to their lives. And since we have to tone down the colors a bit when we market to the West, it seems that these women really enjoy making brighter clothes for each other.

Nadia: Aline, do the women enjoy the sewing work?

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Aline: Sewing is a craft that a lot of these women connect to, so it’s wonderful that they can make clothes as a way to be independent, earn money and buy food for their children. In addition they are getting training that helps them to be independent, and their children who were unable to go to school are now attending school. They are getting food for their children and families after being paid each month. Also they are making friends and connecting with other women by working in groups.

Nadia: Could you share a success story?

"I was forced to flee my village three years ago and resettled in Buakvu. I was never given the chance to attend school or learn any vocational skills. I am a single mother with five children and thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

“Thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

Aline: Yes! Cibalonza is a woman with 5 children, and her life was honestly horrible before joining the center. Her husband abandoned her when he took another wife and left her to raise her 5 children alone. She was homeless and often times went days without feeding her children and herself. Since attending Mamafrica, Chibolonza has been able to earn money for her family, send her children to school and has made friends at Mamafrica that help her to care for her younger children when she is working. She rents a home for $10 a month and is able for the first time to provide for her childern. In October we referred Chibolonza to a partner organization where she started to receive microfinance loans and has been selling charcoal, avocados, and onions in the market and earning a living that is more than she could ever have imagined in the past. I visited her children just two months later and was shocked by how much weight they have gained. To my mind, this is a true success story.

Nadia: Any last words ladies? Anything in particular you would like readers to be aware of?

Ashley: When people buy these products, I want it to be not just because of the cause behind it, but because they really love our product. We all want good quality products that will last, and that are made with love. These women have come so far, and our products truly reflect that.

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting 'Fair Trade Tuesday' (my hat is not fair trade, but I'm a work in progress girlfriends!)

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting ‘Fair Trade Tuesday’ (my hat is not fair trade, but I’m a work in progress GFs!)

Since starting Mamafrica and traveling to the DRC I have become overly conscious about every purchase I make while in the DRC and back in the United States, which is why we decided to describe Mamafrica on our website as ‘consciously connecting.’ I think it is important, especially during the holiday season, to think about the people that are suffering when we unconsciously consume clothing or the latest technology. We need to raise awareness about companies that directly help the lives of others, and to make a concerted effort to support them. At Mamafrica we want everyone to know that when they buy our products, some woman’s life has been changed. If you check out our site which details how we invest the money we receive, you will see that your purchase helps send a child to school, and helps put food on the table.

That’s a powerful and ethical way to consume. When we talk about ‘ethical consumerism,’ it is ultimately about being conscious of what you are purchasing. It goes so much more beyond the fabric that is laying on your body.

Aline: I want people to know that I am determined to help women in the Congo, but I also need other people to understand why there are so many problems here, and why we need support.

I really wish the West knew why the people in the DRC experience war everyday and how severely affected we are by this. Even if we are not directly in a war zone, we are suffering from the effects of a country that has been in civil war since the 90’s. I have lived in Bukavu my whole life and I have seen things that you could never imagine.

Women in Bukavu do not have the education or the vocational skills to allow them to earn an income. These women have suffered greatly and they really need to make their lives better. This can come from support from the West by purchasing our products! When we receive support, we can continue to teach women new vocational skills, purchase sewing machines for them, and allow them to work independently and once again gain confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their children and give them a different life. I truly believe that if these ‘mamas’ are successful, that their children will have a better chance and the cycle of violence will be broken.

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

Mamafrica is currently looking to expand to a bigger building, which will allow for free drinking and bathing water, and more programs! Want to help? You can shop the boutique, make a donation, and contact the team for more information on how to get involved.

Would you like to learn more about the mamas behind the products? Click here to read about their amazing stories!

Looking for other ways to connect with Mamafrica? Check them out on Facebook!

Want to learn more about how the Congo’s conflict minerals make their way from the mines in eastern Congo to the cell phone in your pocket? Watch this informative video below that outlines how consumers can help end this violence:

Additional Resources:

  • Looking for an overview of the Conflict Minerals Crisis? Check out RAISE Hope for Congo’s page here.
  • Watch this inspiring TEDx talk by Congolese activist Bandi Mbubi, on the importance of pressuring companies for conflict-free phones.
  • Want to take action? Click here and here for the different ways YOU can help, including how to make your town and campus conflict-free!
  • Learn how the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires electronic companies who purchase minerals from the Congo to declare it clearly on their audits.
  • Check out the film Stealing Africa, a 55 minute documentary that details how multinationals like Glencore are ‘sucking the continent dry.’
  • Want to learn how the IMF and World Bank were involved in the sale of the mines that led to this conflict? You can read more here (‘Impoverishing a Continent’) and here (‘Why is the IMF Controversial?’)

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Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

This past summer, I decided it would be a good idea to clean out my apartment while I was moving to another place. It felt really good to ‘detox,’ so to speak, and I relished throwing out old advent calendars in the back of my storage closet, jewelry that was either falling apart or just kind of tacky (do you really need a huge gold peacock ring Nadia, do you?), and clothing that I wasn’t really feeling anymore. As I threw out everything with fervor, something hit me (I think when I picked up a pair of feather earrings that I bought before I began to think seriously about cultural appropriation). I realized that everything I was tossing out was mass-produced. And that when I came across a necklace given to me by my mother, or the Zuni ring that was made by an actual Zuni woman (instead of a ‘Native-inspired’ design made by factory workers abroad), or the Tagua nut necklace that I bought from an artisan in Puerto Rico whose face I still remember, I just couldn’t let it go. Not only did I consider these items art in the way that they had been lovingly hand-crafted, but I had a personal connection with the people who had made them or given them to me. It was easier for me to toss out the shirt I got from Urban Outfitters or the earrings I bought years ago at Forever 21, because I had no knowledge of who made them. They meant little to me.  I didn’t value the work put into these items as much because I knew nothing about it, or the people behind it.

When I wrote my first post on why I blog about fashion, I revealed my complex feelings about the industry, and I have started to document its many contradictions which I find to be both fascinating and so unbelievably challenging. Despite my appreciation for fashion as a mode of expression, I have always been disillusioned with the labor exploitation behind the glamorous façade of the industry. Even though I had been involved in anti-sweatshop campaigns before, and had enjoyed vintage and artisan made products, I still found myself buying into the status quo of retail that encourages mainstream consumption of ‘fast fashion‘ (or buying more clothes at a discount) on the one end, and the idealization of unattainable high couture on the other. Why was I bragging about the great bargain I had scored at the designer discount site, knowing that by doing so, I was also discounting the labor and people behind it? Or drooling over the latest purse Blair Waldorf carried on Gossip Girl, despite being aware that high couture is often a means by which the show reinforces class divisions? Why, girlfriends, wasn’t I connecting the dots?

The unglamorous side to fashion: A child jumps on the leather luxury waste products as she plays in a tannery in Dhaka

The unglamorous side to fashion: A child jumps on leather luxury waste products as she plays in a tannery in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Article here)

The revelation I had this past June standing in my room staring at all of that stuff (and given the total trauma of moving that mountain of possessions, I did wonder did I possess them, or did they posses me?!) was what I would mark as a significant moment in how this movement of sustainability started to truly penetrate my consciousness. Sustainable fashion implies that the product has been made with thought and consideration of its environmental and social impact, and in the following months, as I read about the textile fire in Pakistan that killed more than three hundred people, or the ‘apparel trend‘ report that revealed how companies like Wal-Mart and Forever 21 are ignoring claims of child and forced labor from their workers, or how exporting this cheap labor means a loss of industries and jobs in the U.S, I felt a need to share this information with others. When I read Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed, I was shocked to learn that garment workers overseas are earning just one percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce, and that the wages of garment workers could be easily doubled or tripled with little or no increase for American consumers. I wanted to understand if Nike could afford to double its pay to its thousands of shoe factory employees without raising any of their consumer prices, why weren’t they doing it?

Greenpeace Detox Campaign Image

Greenpeace Detox Campaign Image

Although I had always been aware of the exploitative labor behind the clothes we wear, I had never really considered the harmful environmental impact of the conventional textile industry’s manufacturing process. And then, once I learned about the cancer-causing chemicals that are found in the very fabrics we wear, I knew I needed to connect the dots not just between culture and labor, but between environmental sustainability and cultural economies. Jean Cocteau once noted that “style is a simple way of saying complicated things,” and indeed in today’s world, the clothes we wear should not be dismissed as merely frivolous things, but as signifiers of the truly deep social, environmental, and economic structures of unconscious consumerism.

For the last few weeks, I have been interviewing major industry players, from garment workers to activists to designers, who are making sustainability their focus. I will be incorporating these interviews in a series that I hope will expose the contradictions and lack of transparency in the industry, as well as the ways in which we can start to connect the dots between all of these different concerns and issues within this complex industry. This series will feature:

  • An interview with Marci Zaroff, who coined the term ‘Eco Fashion’ and has been instrumental in drafting Fair Trade and Organic textile standards for the industry in the U.S. In this interview, Marci will provide some basic information on the environmental impact of the textile industry, fair labor practices and why an Indian cotton farmer is committing suicide every half hour. I will also be asking Marci to help us respond to questions and critiques about sustainability, and to help us pinpoint which companies are truly committed to ethical labor and environmental practices, and which ones are just using social responsibility as a way to attract more people to their product.
  • I will then be interviewing Callie Brauel of A Ban Against Neglect (ABAN), a non-profit that empowers street girls in Ghana while helping to clean up the environment, by upcycling waste into adorable accessories and jewelry!
  • If that wasn’t enough inspiration for you, then stay tuned for an article on the non-profit MamAfrica, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The co-founders, Aline Malekera and Ashley Nemiro, created the organization to provide holistic services for refugee women in the town of Bukavu, and are incorporating the art of sewing in their mission to empower women both economically and socially. This post will also reveal how our technology consumption is tied to the conflict minerals crisis in the DRC, and will offer resources on how to become a more empowered consumer outside of the fashion industry.
  • Next, we will turn to issues of culture (because culture needs to be discussed!), and how television shows like Gossip Girl, magazines like Vogue, and brand advertisements influence not just how we consume, but how we see ourselves and shape our identities. Is new media and the rising influence of fashion bloggers challenging the false messaging of advertising? Or am I just a complete fraud? 😉
  • Then…get ready, because we’re going to be tackling the issue of labor, from sweatshops to social movements like Fair Trade and Ethical Fashion that are providing a counterpoint to exploitative labor. This section will highlight the textile company Alta Gracia, which produces university apparel and pays its workers a living wage (while maintaining very affordable prices) and is consistently ranked as having the best monitoring practices in the industry. I will be interviewing three people who have been active with Alta Gracia: Amy Kessel, a student and trade justice organizer from Temple University; Jim Wilkerson, the director of Trademark Licensing & Stores Operations at Duke University; and Maritza Vargas, who works as a garment worker in the Alta Gracia factory. She will be telling all – about her former struggles as a union organizer working in a sweatshop factory, and the truth behind the ‘Fair Labor Association’s’ monitoring practices (spoiler alert: the truth isn’t always pretty!).
  • Next we will discuss the connection between fashion and art, and question whether the artisan/sustainable movement brings the ‘art’ back to a textile landscape increasingly known for its homogenous and cheaply produced products. Also, do artisan-made products empower cultures that are often treated like trends in fast fashion? Two bloggers who created online boutiques as a way to counter cultural appropriation and stereotypes will weigh in on these questions. The first is Jessica Metcalfe, whose boutique Beyond Buckskin exclusively features Native-American designers, and the second is Enyinne Owunwanne, of the online site Heritage 1960 that has become a retail destination for an alternative view of African fashion, lifestyle, and design.
  • Then the series will turn to the different fashion/jewelry designers who make it a point to incorporate sustainable practices in their lines while empowering marginalized communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Interviews will include couture designer Kahindo Mateene from the African-inspired line Modahnik, former Harper’s Bazaar editor Ariela Suster from the El Salvadorian accessories collection Sequence, Native designer Kristen Dorsey from the Native jewelry line Kristen Dorsey Designs, and Eco-fashion designer Lusmila McColl from the line McColl & Clan.
  • Finally, how do we turn awareness into action? What is the difference between awareness that is merely used as a brand gimmick or a shallow substitute for engagement, versus one that can be a tool for positive change? Sophia Hyder, who has worked in development for the last ten years, will be weighing in on these questions. Her recently launched line Evolvemint sells Eco-friendly scarves made by women in Bangladesh, and she has also developed a ‘pink’ line that donates money to a breast cancer foundation that uses its funds not for awareness, but for financial assistance to underinsured women. I will also be talking with Rick Awdas, who created the site Ethical in Style so that people could learn more about sustainable brands and have access to an enormous database of ethical fashion options.
  • I will also be answering reader questions (umm…so excited!) about how to go about different sustainable practices, like DIY (do it yourself) clothing, thrift shopping, and/or just buying less. Want resources on where to get information on ethical fashion and sustainability in general? Don’t worry peeps, girlfriend will be hooking you up!
  • Oh, and I just might be throwing in giveaways of socially conscious items, cause it’s all about the extras that gets thrown in your gift bag, right? 😉

Basically, the reason why I began this blog in the first place was to start conversations, and my purpose for this series is not to preach perfection, but to encourage conscious choices through increased awareness of issues related to sustainability, specifically in regards to the garment industry. I truly believe that when we don’t know where our clothes are made, than we lose that sense of community and human connection that is so important. I hope to highlight the importance of handmade products that help to personalize the process of production and revive the relationship between those who make the clothes and those who purchase them. My intention is not to dismiss fashion (obvi), but to envision improvement by examining where culture and labor meet, and the effect that this has mostly on women. My hope is that by using fashion as my ‘example,’ I also can help create awareness on other related issues, like the environment, suspect practices in certifications and labeling, and labor.

So, let’s do this girlfriends!

Update: This series, and my blog in general, has been approved as part of my dissertation research on transparency in the fashion industry. So needless to say, it is going to be expanded – stay tuned! 🙂

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Girl Model: the Seedy Side of the Runway

In the film Girl Modelthere is a bittersweet scene of a wide-eyed, 13 year old Nadya excitedly pointing out pictures in her room of famous fashion models. To Nadya, these images seem to promise not just a fantasy world of glamor and beauty, but an escape from the dreary life of poverty her family faces in their small village in Siberia.

So when Ashley Arbaugh, an American agent representing a Japanese modeling agency, recruits the impressionable Nadya with the lure of an $8,000 contract, why wouldn’t her family support her? To Nadya, this is a chance not just to pursue her dream and turn her fantasy into a reality, but to also help her family “make things good at home.”

What Nadya’s family doesn’t realize however, is that this contract, which is presented in English and Japanese to a Russian-speaking Nadya, deducts the living expenses from the $8,000 she is promised. And as the film terrifyingly unfolds, Nadya’s dreams shatter as she is left in Tokyo, unsupervised, to navigate the city by herself. Running from casting call to photo shoot, she is repeatedly promised that these jobs, for which she is never paid, will give her the much-needed experience to become a top model in the industry. Ultimately, Nadya must leave Japan and return to her family in debt, and the film insinuates, both in interviews with the modeling agents and in its postscript, that many of these young models are forced to ‘repay’  their debts to the agency by entering into prostitution and pornography.

It’s an alarming documentary that lends fresh insight in to the current debate surrounding young models. While much has been written in the American press about the industry’s attempts to issue age guidelines in the United States and Europe, so rarely do we get such an insightful look into the transnational side of the industry. Shot in a naturalistic, almost gritty manner that shatters any glamorous illusions viewers may have had of the business, directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon  leave little space for discussion on whether the fashion industry is exploitative. Their central questions are ultimately more concerned with how this exploitation occurs, and why there is such a blatant lack of transparency surrounding these horrifying practices.

I was lucky enough to watch this film a few months ago at a local film festival, and the conversation with the directors that followed after the screening was almost as illuminating as the film itself. Audience members were rightly furious, pinning blame on the agents, on Japan for its idealization of youth and use of under-age models, and on the modeling agencies in Russia and Siberia for not being transparent with the girls and their families. The directors seemed a little unsettled by the questions, and were reluctant to place blame on any one person, agency, or government. As they tried to steer the audience to broader issues, I found myself looking around the room, and I couldn’t help but think how ironic is was that we were all so concerned with the exploitation of these young girls, when most of us were wearing clothes made in sweatshops, probably by young women of Nadya’s age.

And that, I think, was the central theme of the film: we are all complicit in this global labor exploitation that is the glamour industry. My intent on writing a previous post on the Pakistani textile fire that occurred during New York Fashion Week was to shed light on the dichotomous nature of an industry that often relies on exploited labor to fulfill its glamorous facade, as well as its transnational nature that makes it all too easy for key players to escape culpability when they fail to enforce regulations to protect the most vulnerable. But these key players are not just the designers, the agents, the factory monitors. They are also us, the consumers who fuel the need for the designer jeans made in a Pakistani textile factory, the luxury items made by undocumented Chinese immigrants in Italy, and the beauty magazines that feature the many underpaid, exploited models, both here and abroad.

It is significant perhaps, that David Redmon’s other film Mardi Gras: Made in China exposes the sweatshop labor conditions of Chinese factory workers who make Mardi Gras beads, an American cultural product that has come to symbolize frivolity and excess. While Girl Model opens with images of scantily-clad girls dissected by modeling agents at a casting call, Mardi Gras: Made in China focuses on the largely female factory workers whose bodies are pushed to exhaustion by their male supervisors. The two films are similar not just in their critiques of globalization, but also in how they reveal the commodification of female bodies by industries that view women as largely disposable.

Girl Model will be streaming online on PBS from March 25 to April 23. You can follow the film on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Watch extended video interviews with director Ashley Sabin and former model Rachel Blais here.

Take Action:

  • Check out the Girl Model website for ways that you can help fight model exploitation and trafficking, including hosting a screening and downloading an educational guide.
  • Click here to sign a petition asking the New York State Department of Labor to give child models the same protections as child actors.
  • Check out the SPARK Movement to join young women who are “demanding an end to the sexualization of women and girls in the media.”
  • Check out the site Miss Representation for more information on how young women can change beauty ideals. Check out their action ideas here.

Further Resources:

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Can Fashion Change the World?

“It’s quite incredible that we might save the world through fashion .” -Vivienne Westwood

In my recent post on New York Fashion week, I focused on the disconnect between the glamor and fantasy of the fashion industry with the exploitation that often hides beneath the glossy surface. I wanted to emphasize in this post, a few key players that are trying to work for more sustainable, ethical practices in the industry.

OK so first of all, what is ethical fashion girlfriends?? While I will no doubt touch on this subject many more times in my future blog posts, I really loved this definition from the ultimate in sustainable fashion information, the Ethical Fashion Forum.

” The meaning of ethical goes beyond doing no harm, representing an approach which strives to take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimizing and counteracting environmental concerns.”

Artisans at the Nairobi hub with Lisa Barratt, left, Jane Kabura, center, and Jeremy Brown, right, standing behind bags for Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Sass & Bide. Credit: Chloé Mukai/ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Obvi, that’s kind of amazing, but can it be done?  While the coverage of labor issues during fashion week was pretty paltry, The New York Times did run an incredible story on Simone Cipriani, head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Cipriani is connecting designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney with Ghanian artisans,  who are working to the fair labor standards of $5 to $11 a day, making luxury items for the couture designers. Besides achieving a living wage, the work also gives many of these women employable skills that can empower them and help raise their families out of poverty.

Sustainability is still not widely understood though, and many associate the word with hippie-trippy, unattractive clothing, and well … Birkenstocks. Perhaps that’s why the awareness created by luxury brands could prove to be influential for changing the consumption patterns of the mainstream.  When Vivienne Westwood of her Ethical Fashion Collective line and Ilaria Venturini Fendi of her Carmina Campus line ask questions at New York Fashion week like ‘Was this made ethically?’ ‘Are the fabrics green?’ and ‘Were the workers treated fairly?’, this can have an incredible impact by encouraging ethical consumption but also proving that being stylish doesn’t come at a cost to others.

Martin Luther King Jr. said 45 years ago that “True revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” What exactly is it going to take to shift our values, to create a shared paradigm of ethical labor practices and more sustainable consumption? If it seems to be impossible, consider the resistance towards smoking reform in the mid-century, to the current situation where almost 50% of the U.S. population lives with smoking regulations in all workplaces, restaurants and bars. Yup, change can happen girlfriends, we just need to believe in it!

And a revolution seems to be happening,  and it’s not just within haute couture. Just this month activists staged flash ‘faint-ins’ at fast-fashion retailers H&M and the Gap to protest sweatshop conditions in countries like Cambodia, and workers in Cambodia are in turn striking for better pay. Check out this website, Fashioning Change, a self-described ‘do-gooder’ website that offers cute, eco-friendly alternatives to popular designer name brands. Their ‘Wear This, Not That’ feature is an easy way to compare some of your favorite clothes with more eco-conscious lines that have transparency in their supply chain. What’s more, these lines usually come at a cheaper price-tag then their brand-name comparison! Aaaand, it’s time to go shopping. 🙂

We need to fix the bloated nature of a fashion industry that creates a lot of waste with too many products that end up in landfills on one end, and too little pay for those who labor on the other. Vivienne Westwood, who is using her fashion line to promote environmentalism, has argued that fashion and anti-consumerism don’t necessarily contradict each other if people buy less, and in a more sustainable way. Check out her show from the London Paralympics in late August, where she ends her somewhat haphazard collection with a pointed cry for environmental advocacy, rolling out of a banner that reads “Climate Revolution.” A nod to her punk roots, it had me thinking, “Where is Pussy Riot??”

Have any thoughts on how we can shift our fast consumption to sustainability? Do you have any links to share, or know any peeps who are working on this cause? Please share with me, either in the comments below or via email! 🙂

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