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In an age of “fast fashion,” the path our clothes take from factory to closet is often far from shoppers’ minds. But a growing number of clothing companies are putting both mission-driven ethics and profit front and center. Almost a year after a factory collapse in Bangladesh made some consumers more concerned about where their clothing comes from, we consider the ideas and realities that fuel consumer clothing choices.
- Robin Givhan Contributor, The Washington Post; style and culture writer, The Cut from New York Magazine
- Serawit "Cherry" Friedmeyer founder, Ellilta Women at Risk and Ellilta Products
From The Frontlines Of Conscious Consumerism
Serawit “Cherry” Friedmeyer on Ellilta Women at Risk and Ellilta Products.
From Ethiopia To Your Closet, Tracing The Origins Of A Scarf
The Art Of Handwoven Traditional Scarves
When the Kojo Show team traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year, they spent time with women in Addis Ababa who weave products that make their way around the world. The work is part of a program run by Ellilta to create more economic opportunities for women who are trying to leave the country’s sex trade. Here, a woman weaves colorful fabric into a scarf that will be sold by fashionABLE, a nonprofit that creates sustainable business in Africa.
(Michael Martinez/WAMU 88.5)
Making Scarves — And Opportunities — On The Weaving Loom
From spool to scarf, walk through the process of weaving and dying fabric into a product that simultaneously can be sold for a profit while empowering local women.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Following our food from farm to table has practically become a new American past time. The root our clothes take from factory to closet, however, has not, as of yet, inspired the same level of interest, the same fervor. Questions about ethical, safe and humane conditions in factories are occasionally brought to the forefront, which was saw after a factory collapse in Bangladesh almost a year ago.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut these issues tend to fade from most shoppers' minds when they're in pursuit of a good bargain or in the market for affordable clothes for their rapidly growing children. A growing number of clothing companies are merging a variety of charitable missions with fashion. Here to help us sort through the various mission driven business models out there, many of which marry philanthropy and profit, is Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's received the Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. Robin, good to see you again.
MS. ROBIN GIVHANGood to be here.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you know the routine. 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to email@example.com. Do you check the origin of a garment before you buy it? Are there certain places you absolutely will not buy clothes from? 800-433-8850. Before we talk about the more, perhaps, altruistic lines out there, let's talk about the way a lot of the clothing we buy is made and is brought to market. What is fast fashion and who is driving the demand for clothes made quickly and on the cheap?
GIVHANWell, fast fashion really, sort of, came about because people a, were looking for a bargain, but the distinctive thing about it is that it is trickled -- it trickles down from the runways, and it's meant to be a very inexpensive way of getting a trend that is very hot for a particular season. And there's an understanding, to some degree, that it's sort of disposable fashion, in addition to being fast. And the idea of fast is that it's immediately available. And to the chagrin, actually, of some of the luxury brands, it's often available faster than the idea that originally quote end quote inspired it.
GIVHANBut the idea is really that it was a way for people who did not have endless funds, endless disposable income, to be able to participate in fashion trends and fads for, you know, on the cheap.
NNAMDIFor relatively short periods of time, it seems.
GIVHANExactly. I mean, companies like H&M, like Club Monaco, like Zara. All of these brands really, sort of, helped to invent the idea of fast fashion. And the idea that, you know, on the one hand, a good part of it is that participating in a trend and having fun with it doesn't have to break the bank.
NNAMDIThe notion of farm to table food, that I mentioned earlier, has become nearly ubiquitous and pretty popular over the last few years. The idea of following the route our clothes take to get to us is less so. Why do you think that is, and do you think we are starting to see a change in the way consumers think about our clothes?
GIVHANWell, one of the things that I think is particularly somewhat unique to fashion is that so much of the way that it's marketed is based on a kind of romance and fantasy and exploiting our own sense of self esteem, status or lack thereof. And part of what happens is we are convinced to pay a premium for certain brands, because of the mythology that surrounds them. For instance, a brand like Chanel. I mean, once -- and this is no indictment of Chanel at all. I mean, some of their clothes are beautiful and are beautifully made.
GIVHANBut I'll never forget, once, having a conversation with a Chanel publicist about the cost of one of their lipsticks, which, at this stage, is 20 dollars or more. I can't even remember how much they are. And I said, well, why are they so expensive? And one of the things that she said was, well, you know, people pay for when you close that compact and it closes with that Mercedes Benz click. And I thought, well, you know, how much it would be if it closed with a Honda click.
GIVHANAnd I'm perfectly happy with that. But, a lot of it just has to do with the magic. And, you know, a lot of women will say, I feel better if I go out and I buy myself a great Chanel lipstick, because I've gotten myself a piece of the magic.
NNAMDIAlmost a year ago, that factory collapse in Bangladesh did cause a lot of consumers to do some soul searching about what they buy. Nearly a year later, what's changed?
GIVHANWell, I think some of the fundamental changes have been, you know, the results of many of the companies that were using those factories, forming a coalition to try and be more watchful and to take account of the kind of safety procedures that are in the factories and whether or not the workers of those factories are getting, sort of, their protections. And you can debate how successful that is, or ultimately will be, but I think with consumers, you know, I have to say that consumers, I think, have a very short attention span.
GIVHANAnd we've been down this road many times. We may have discovered child labor in certain factories or other unsafe working conditions, and they become an important cause, or a much discussed cause for a relatively short period of time. And then, people start to fall back on their usual concerns, which are how much does it cost? Can I get it cheaper? I want it now. And I want it conveniently.
NNAMDIYou make us sound so bad. By the way, I just discovered that you understated the Chanel lipstick cost. 35 dollars retail for Chanel lipstick at nordstrom.com. Our guest is Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor who's received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. Today, we're talking with her about conscious consumerism and inviting your calls. What matters more to you when you shop for clothes, the price point or the conditions for workers who made those clothes?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. A growing number of clothing and accessories companies, ranging from TOMS Shoes to product red items to feedbags and high end line Maiyet, which you recently wrote about, offer a product that purports to benefit someone other than shareholders, other than company owners. First, what is Maiyet and who's behind the luxury fashion line?
GIVHANWell, I mean, I just wanted to sort of also, to the previous question, just the fact that I think it is easier for a consumer to follow the progression of a chicken to their table than it is to follow the progression of a handbag to their closet. And part of that is because the chicken is grown and raised in Virginia or West Virginia or somewhere relatively close by, and unfortunately, most of the manufacturing for clothing does not happen here in the States. So, it's harder to follow it. But, Maiyet is a high end line that was started by a gentleman named Paul Van Zyl and Kristi Caylor.
GIVHANAnd the idea for it actually grew out of his many visits to the world economic forum at Davos. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say I think it's the only fashion line that had its beginnings at Davos. And he was there because he is, by trade, a human rights lawyer, and had spent many years working in that realm and had worked in South Africa, which is where he was born, on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
NNAMDIThis doesn't seem like the normal career path to fashion.
GIVHANIt is not. And truth be told, he was not specifically interested in creating a fashion line. He was interested in creating a business model that could create partnerships with folks working in underdeveloped countries so that they could participate in the profit equation. And he ultimately focused on fashion, because after some research and some conversation, realized that in his travels, he kept stumbling across all of these really wonderful, interesting artisans. And finally came to the realization that, sort of, the definition, the modern definition of luxury fashion is fashion that has this artisanal hand.
GIVHANWhere you can see or feel the fingerprint of the creator.
NNAMDIWhoa. And invariably, I suppose, all of the artisans that he was running into, around the world, during his travels, were not exactly wealthy.
GIVHANThey were not exactly wealthy. They were often working in very difficult, sometimes dangerous circumstances. One of his -- one of the partners, as they are deemed to be partners in the brand, he discovered them in Kenya, near Nairobi. And they were metal workers, he and his wife, but they were melting metal, you know, to molten levels in their home, which is not exactly safe and they had children there. And, but what they were doing was beautiful and they were experts at what they were doing.
GIVHANWhat they lacked, compared to say, metal workers in Italy, was a design sensibility that would connect with the modern consumer who's willing to spend thousands of dollars on a gold ring. And what I love is that as they, sort of, began this partnership and began to work with them, and began to have conversations about the brand and about creating jewelry for the brand, they got them subscriptions to Vogue Magazine. So, they could see, you know, they could be part of the fashion conversation and they could also see where their work was going, how it was being shown.
GIVHANAnd more importantly, they could get a very clear idea of how much people were willing to pay, which I'm sure must have been both shocking and horrifying.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Would you be willing to spend more on items if you knew they were being manufactured in good conditions and workers were well paid? 800-433-8850. It seems these companies all have slightly different ways of giving back in a variety of business models. How does one differentiate between the varieties of do-gooder companies out there? Because in my view, there are some companies that will, despite the laws about false advertising, they'll tell you just about anything they think you want to hear.
GIVHANWell, you know, I think it's a difficult thing. I mean, I, as a consumer, I don't think that I'm particularly any better at it than the average consumer. And, you know, I admit, first in my mind is not where was something made? Unless I'm thinking, oh, well, it was made in France, so therefore it must be extra special and fabulous. But the ways in which companies go about it range from deciding to give a percentage of their profits to a specific foundation. You know, companies like Tory Burch, for instance, have created separate foundations that they work with, that allows them to funnel their philanthropy through those organizations.
GIVHANYou know, there's the Toms model where, you know, buy a shoe, give a shoe. Similar things with Warby Parker. And -- but I think what is, you know, somewhat unique about Maiyet is not only that they're working in this very high-end world, which is, you know, at that level -- and we're talking about $2400 leather jackets -- is a very tiny piece of the pie. But they are a fully for-profit company. And they've taken on artisans as partners with the idea that if this all works out, as everyone, you know, is planning that it will, that as this company becomes more profitable so will the artisans that they work with.
GIVHANAnd ideally or possibly, you know, somewhere down the road, you know, Maiyet could become a publically traded company competing alongside, you know, the Guccis of the world.
NNAMDIHow does that help them? Skeptics might say, this is all just a marketing ploy and suspect that the people these companies purport to have don't really see a dime. How fine is the line between philanthropic goals and marketing strategy?
GIVHANWell, I think you get into a really murky and difficult-to-pin-down gray zone because absolutely this is part of my Maiyet's marketing position. And, you know, you could argue they -- on the one hand it would be ridiculous for them if they were doing this not to let people know particularly if there are those people for whom this really matters in terms of where they decide to spend their money. It makes sense because it certainly distinguishes them in the marketplace.
GIVHANAnd, you know, at the same time then you have to ask, well, what is a fair wage and how much should these artisans be paid? And, you know, and I ask that -- and this is a publically-held company at the moment, and I asked those questions, you know, to Paul that -- one of the founders about, well, you know, what's fair . And, you know, he said that they essentially allow the artisans to set the prices to determine how much they want to be paid.
GIVHANAnd I think that's great. How educated are the artisans on how much they're work is truly worth when you're talking about the ultimate consumer being a nice lady on the upper east side of New York, that I don't know.
NNAMDIBut how can consumers tell whether a company's claims are true or not?
GIVHANWell, I think they have to do their research. I think they also -- one of the interesting aspects, at least with Maiyet, is that they partnered with a company, a nonprofit called Ness which is a kind of watchdog in this realm. They go in and they do inspect factories and they do sort of assess whether or not people are being paid a fair wage, a living wage.
GIVHANYou know, for instance, with the artisans in Kenya, one of the things that Ness did was to go in and realize that their sort of, you know, makeshift factory situation was dangerous and provided them with a low-cost -- with a grant and with low-cost loans to be able to create a separate workshop outside of their home so that they weren't melting metal in their bedroom. And -- but also provided them with a grant to be able to rebuild a home so that it could accommodate a workshop.
GIVHANSo the kind of watchdog oversight is being done by a separate entity, but of course the founders of Maiyet sit on the board of that entity.
NNAMDI...of that entity. We're talking with Robin Givhan about conscious consumerism. You can join the conversation. You can send us a Tweet @kojoshow. What do you think about companies that have a mission-driven as well as a profit-driven motive, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking conscious consumerism with Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture and politics for the Washington Post and New York magazine. She's also received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. A lot of these mission-driven clothing or accessory lines are not, well, cheap. Many consumers might want to shop more ethically but they feel priced out. What would you say to those shoppers?
GIVHANYou know, I would say buy less and choose more wisely. That sounds incredibly harsh but I do think that we have gotten to a point just sort of culturally where our expectation is that we should be able to have, you know, ten cashmere sweaters over the course of a winter instead of just one. You know, there's an expectation that more and more and more is better. And that's one of the reasons why there's such pressure for such downward pressure in terms of pricing because people want to buy many, many, many things instead of just a few.
NNAMDIYeah, that's why our closets seem to be getting smaller when we get more stuff. Here's Christiana in Washington, D.C. Christiana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTIANAHi, Kojo. Hi, Robin. How are you guys?
CHRISTIANASo I'm a student at AU and I totally -- I've been following the story. I totally, totally agree. I think it's really, really hard to feed this trend of fast fashion, especially the college student. I know everyone shops at Forever 21, almost disposable. But I think that this trend of ethical fashion is really, really, really, important.
CHRISTIANAI know there's this near -- I know a lawyer actually in D.C. who started something very similar to Maiyet, but instead of people sitting on a board, she herself goes to Pakistan on these oceans trips and she makes friends with all these artisans and designers. And she helps them and she consults in them in what designs that, you know, work in the western world she helps them with distribution and she sells them in popular stores all over D.C.
GIVHANAnd my question for you is, how do you think that we can make this, you know, ethical business model, how can we make them last? Like, how can we make them at the forefront for young people, especially who care about where their clothes are from, even though they can't really afford them -- you know, really afford them.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Christiana.
GIVHANYou know, I think a couple things have to happen before we enthusiastically embrace ethical fashion. And I think in some ways we need to kind of get rid of the label ethical fashion or sustainable fashion because it ghetto-izes it.
NNAMDIIt sounds like political correct fashion.
GIVHANRight. It makes it a separate entity from just fashion. And the reality is that, you know, we're not talking about T-shirts and jeans. We're talking about, you know, quote unquote "fashion." And the essence of fashion is something that really speaks to a person's emotions. It speaks to them -- it causes desire and makes them make illogical decisions because there is nothing logical about buying a $5,000 handbag. But there is something romantic and magical about it.
GIVHANAnd I think part of the problem that has endured with ethical fashion is that it's often very precious. It often looks like, you know, sadly that politically correct crunchy granola burlap handstitched...
NNAMDIThose hearth shoes.
GIVHAN...fashion. I mean, it -- and so, you know, in that regard it's appealing to someone for whom ethics trumps aesthetics. And it would be lovely to think that, you know, that would be the vast majority of shoppers but the reality is that it's not. For most people who are buying fashion it's about the aesthetics. It has to get better.
NNAMDIElisa in Washington, D.C. -- sorry to interrupt you...
NNAMDI...Elisa, it's your turn. Go ahead, please.
ELISAWell, thank you, Kojo and thank you, Robin. I'm so excited that you're talking about fashion and conscious consumerism. I had a quick comment and then a question for you. I had the great privilege of working with an organization called Green America that works on issues of responsible consumerism. And I'm just really happy to report that there are a lot of companies that are getting into ethical fashion, even ethical high fashion -- because I like your comment about this shouldn't be in just one category but across categories in fashion.
ELISAAnd there's a lot of great stuff out there. Folks could look for the national green pages online, greenpages.org and see some of the great companies. I also really liked your comment about buying less because if you get a few good pieces and then go to a thrift store consignment shop and add in, you could have really great fashion. We -- I actually issued a challenge to our readers to come up with great fashion clips with a really low budget. And you should see the gorgeous things they came up with.
ELISASo I just really wanted to emphasize that it's really possible and there's a lot of folks doing it out there. And particularly among young people there's real -- I think real hunger for it because they understand the implications of their choices on people around the world, people who...
NNAMDIElisa, thank you for your call.
ELISAThanks. It's -- thanks for covering this issue.
NNAMDIBut Robin Givhan, where do you find this stuff? Often lines that have a charitable bent when you go to the store, they are hung or shelved next to others that don't in department stores. How do retailers respond to these products?
GIVHANYou know, the interesting thing about Maiyet, I had a conversation with a local retailer who went to look at the line. The line shows in Paris alongside all of the other high-end brands from Hermes to Chanel to, you know, Valentino. And that was a great point of pride for the folks at Maiyet because it meant that they -- they felt it meant that their brand was being accepted for its aesthetics and not because of its philosophy.
GIVHANAnd, you know, the retailer went to look at the line multiple times. And, you know, I said, well were you driven because of the philosophy of the brand? And she said, absolutely not. That had nothing to do with it. She went because she thought it looked really terrific. And at Barneys, which does sell the line and was -- and introduced the line to market, you know, it hangs right alongside other collections that, as you said, have nothing to do with ethical fashion. But, you know, there is a hang tag that sort of tells the Maiyet story.
GIVHANAnd the staff -- and certainly the staff in the Maiyet store are educated and they can explain the brand to consumers. But ultimately I don't think that Maiyet is a company that necessarily wants to shout its philosophy from the rooftop because...
NNAMDIIt wants to compete on the same playing field as the others.
GIVHANIt wants to compete on the same playing field but I think it also recognizes that as soon as it becomes known as solely an ethical fashion brand, it sort of limits itself. And people dismiss it as not being real fashion but sort of pseudo fashion.
NNAMDIThey don't want people to buy because they see it as some kind of responsibility.
GIVHANWell, I think about the brand Stella McCartney which, you know, you could say is ethical in the sense that she doesn't use animal -- she doesn't use leather. Even her -- the shoes, which are beautiful, are not made from leather. And when she was just starting out, one of the big issues was that her company was purchased by Gucci, became part of Gucci group, which is known for what, leather goods.
GIVHANAnd someone said, well how can you associate yourself with a company like Gucci? And she said, one, they understand what my brand is all about. And two, I can do more and influence more people by working within the fashion system and conquering the fashion system than I can by working outside of it.
NNAMDIFascinating. Here's Ben in Rockville, Md. Ben, your turn.
BENHi, and thanks for doing this show. I just wanted to comment, Kojo, on the point that you made about how can we tell if the companies are being straight with the consumers. And you mentioned Bangladesh, or I think Robin mentioned Bangladesh. In that case there actually is a mechanism as a result of the terrible tragedy at Rana Plaza called the Accord on building -- fire building safety in Bangladesh, which is legally binding and enforceable on those companies that have joined it, which is over 100 companies. But unfortunately doesn't include Gap and Wal-Mart as two of the major holdouts.
BENSo, you know, that's a case where there's really been a positive response on behave of consumers, labor unions and NGOs around the world too that need to have an independent third party way of telling whether the company -- what standards the companies are applying and whether they're really giving the consumers accurate information. Robin mentioned the alliance. Well, that's kind of the corporate response to the accord which unfortunately doesn't have binding standards. Thanks.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment at all, Robin?
GIVHANYeah, just to point out that the alliance is -- includes more U.S.-based businesses versus the accord which is more European businesses. But, you know, and I agree. I think that, you know, with legally binding agreements you definitely make advances. But, you know, I would also, you know, sadly to be the naysayer but, you know, sweatshop labor is illegal in the United States. And, you know, that doesn't make it nonexistent.
GIVHANSo the fact that, you know, things are legally binding is an enormous step forward. But the reality is that it takes consumers to sort of relieve some of that pressure that entices manufacturers to create substandard working conditions.
NNAMDISpeaking of which, we got an email from Barbara who writes, "When we were growing up our parents checked every garment for the union label. As I was raising my own children, I could almost never find clothing with a union label. I still look because I think this is a way to ensure worker safety." That's a blast from the past, is it not?
GIVHANThat is a blast from the past. I could start humming the...
NNAMDIYeah, same here, I know the song.
GIVHAN...the union label song.
NNAMDIHere is Paulina in Arlington, Va. Paulina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULINAAbsolutely. Well, thank you so much, Kojo. That's -- it's a pleasure to actually be able to call in. My comment was actually on the issue of pricing. So I would actually describe myself as an activist in the area. I've done blogs, I talk to friends about it all the time whether -- and what I mean is, you know, it could be about cause marketing, fair trade, all of that stuff. I'm a member of Green America. I used to go into 10,000 villages, et cetera.
PAULINABut what's interesting to me that even I -- you know, I read labels, I do all of that -- when it comes to price and budgeting that even I sometimes have to sacrifice my values. And, you know, I assume that this program talks more about the designer -- the really, you know, high-end fashion type. But, you know, this actually goes even for, you know, the H and Ms, the forever 21s given my budgets and yet my values. Even I who, you know, not only did I want to do it for my own, but really encourage my friends and family and everyone that I, you know, can potentially encourage...
NNAMDIYou still find yourself doing what?
PAULINAI still find myself sometimes really sacrificing my own values because of the price, and feel that sometimes companies use this idea to jack up prices unfairly. Kind of use, you know, people like me, my values, you know, to use it to their advantage rather than come through, you know, sort of the -- what they are able to make from it over to the artisans, the people who, you know, being important...
NNAMDISo I'm not sure I understand. You're saying you think prices are jacked up unfairly, but you pay them anyway because you like the items?
PAULINANo. The first, yes, I do feel that it happens sometimes. But number two, I wish I was able to pay more and know that I'm simply paying...
PAULINA….more, but sometimes even I -- I really, really do care -- but sometimes even I have to let it go and go for the less expensive item, because that's what I can afford.
NNAMDIShe wants to shop with her conscience, but you can't always afford to do that.
GIVHANYeah, I think somewhere there is this vast middle ground in the fashion industry, where pricing is fair. But for the most part, you know, you -- at the high end, where pricing is based on this strange formula of labor, materials and magic and branding and advertising and the fashion show and the models and everything else, you get these just really outlandish prices.
GIVHANBut what is interesting in that arena is that there is also this understanding that, for those customers, if a garment is not priced at least at a certain level, there's an assumption that it's not good -- that there's something wrong with it -- that it is not as unique and well made and as wonderful as they expect it to be. So there's this kind of mark-up expectation that's there. And then, on the other end, you have these incredibly inexpensive garments that we all know, in our heart of hearts, there's no way that someone could have manufactured a $5 t-shirt and been treated fairly.
GIVHANBut a $5 t-shirt, when we're thinking, oh, I just need something, you know, to garden in; who can resist that?
NNAMDIRobin Givhan, we're talking conscious consumerism with her today. She writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor. She's received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. We're still taking your calls at (800) 433-8850. Have you ever purchased an item you didn't really even like, because it helped support a good cause? Give us a call. (800) 433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Robin Givhan about conscious consumerism and taking your calls at (800) 433-8850. On a recent trip to Ethiopia with two show producers and the international aid group, CARE, we met Cherry Friedmeyer. Cherry is the founder of Ellilta Women at Risk and Ellilta Products. That's a charity and business that trains former sex workers in a number of job fields, including weaving. The scarves that they make are sold in the U.S. and the U.K. by the label, fashionABLE. She talked to us about the rules governing charitable businesses in Ethiopia.
MS. SERAWIT "CHERRY" FRIEDMEYERLegally, about four years ago, the government had a legislation that say -- that changed a lot of rules around charities, how we function, how we work, how we should be transparent, all that. But alongside that, a new policy was put in place that allows charities to own businesses -- for-profit businesses -- with a very strict rule that 100 percent of the profits go to the charity. We like that. We really like that policy. So, with that, we established Ellilta Products. We are probably one of the first charities to set up a business.
MS. SERAWIT "CHERRY" FRIEDMEYERSo we're still going through a lot of -- because the guidelines are not really straight -- all the way down to all the offices that we need to work with. So our goal for Ellilta Products -- Ellilta Women at Risk is the name of our charity and Ellilta Products is the business. So we have -- we would hire women coming from the program who want to be reversed, who want to die, who want -- who choose to use this profession. So Ellilta Women at Risk, the charity would train the women, as we would train any other -- and then they would come to the Ellilta Products and they would be interviewed.
MS. SERAWIT "CHERRY" FRIEDMEYERIf they are capable, like any other business, they would hire them. But the -- one of the objectives of Ellilta Products is for the women -- their lives to thrive, not just survive. So this -- the way we've set up the business is as each woman, as each weaver, and as each woman works harder, as she grows in her productivity, her salary grows. Because the more she makes, the more she gets money. But it's -- we're trying to really set good business principles, good business guidelines around the business, so it doesn't become another charity. It has to be a competitive business that exports, that sells locally.
NNAMDIFascinating to watch the women weaving and a few of them spinning. You can visit kojoshow.org to hear more about Cherry -- or hear more from her about the organization and see the images and video at the Ellilta weaving facility. Robin, we heard Cherry Friedmeyer stress that the jobs they provide through Ellilta are not just charity. Their goal is instead to train and empower women, follow good business practices within the organization. What kinds of challenges do clothing lines that rely on artisans working halfway around the world face?
NNAMDIAfter all, they're navigating laws and social norms and unfamiliar cultures.
GIVHANWell, you know, one of the interesting things in the establishment of MAAT was that, you know, I sort of automatically assumed that, you know, this company comes in and says -- hey, you know, we want to partner with you -- that the artisans would, you know, say, yeah, absolutely; how fabulous. And it wasn't, you know, they weren't that enthusiastic, all of them, because, you know, for some, it was important to maintain tradition and history, rather than trying to rework their sensibility to appeal to, you know, a Vogue or Bazaar or, you know, sort of audience.
GIVHANAnd, you know, for others, they'd heard it before. They'd had a company -- a Western company come in and explain all the wonderful things that they wanted to do. And then, they were left in the lurch. So, you know, those were some of the more sort of psychic hurdles. But some very basic things had to do with, you know, with weather conditions and the fact that some of the artisans who were working on things like batik, you know, couldn't do it -- couldn't do block printing and things like that -- when the weather was especially humid, because they weren't in environmentally controlled, air-conditioned buildings.
GIVHANThey were working out of their homes. And one of my favorite stores was, you know, just a weaver who also was working out of -- they were working out of their home. And when it extremely warm, they had to leave the doors open because, again, there wasn't this air-conditioning situation. And, you know, goats would come wandering in and get tangled up...
NNAMDIGet tangled up.
GIVHAN...in the looms. And, you know, it's a situation that, you know, you generally don't have to deal with. And then there are the other sort of more, you know, sort of typical hurdles: things like Internet service that might be intermittent or phone lines that aren't great.
NNAMDIOh, we found a lot of that in Ethiopia, infrastructure...
NNAMDI...where they said, you know, you've got a product and you've got to ship it someplace. And then the power goes down for a while. And so you're sometimes delayed by days. And the person on the other end won't -- oh, yeah -- all kinds of problems that we don't think about here. On to Arlene in Washington D.C. Arlene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARLENEHi, thank you. Good show. I kind of lost my voice, but -- haven't talked to you, Kojo, since you had Magarry Mace (sp?) on and I called you.
NNAMDIOh, that was awhile ago.
ARLENEThat was a time ago. But anyway, I am concerned about the workers -- the people who make these clothing. I was in a Nordstrom in Annapolis, oh, a couple of years ago, and the sales rep brought me up some dresses. And two of them were made in America. And I bought them even though I didn't like them that much. However, after I got them home and I wore them, everybody complimented me on those dresses.
ARLENEWhen I think about our own history and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Factory in New York and women jumping to their death because they were locked in and so forth, I was reminded -- I think somebody alluded to it here -- in Bangladesh, was it?
ARLENEThat it was a fire.
ARLENEYeah, I think there must be -- should be much more respect for the workers. And I often wonder what's happening with the ILO? Are they -- International Labor Organization -- are they involved at all in any of these cases overseas, where workers were really disrespected?
NNAMDIWell, you know, the ILO was an outgrowth of organized labor.
NNAMDIAnd even though it was a national institution, I do not know the extent to which it is active overseas. Because when we're talking about places like Bangladesh, we're talking about places in which there was, in that situation, no organized labor organization involved. I don't know.
GIVHANYeah, I don't know -- I don't know either. I mean I -- I have to, you know, I would hazard a guess to say that, you know, the American companies that have been involved have, you know, to some degree, you know, had interaction with labor unions. But to the extent that there's been any kind of active participation, I don't know.
NNAMDIThe fact that the labor movement here, in this country, is itself much less powerful than it was three or four decades ago, is reflected in its influence both on national policy and in its influence abroad. But, Robin, a lot of clothing brands are propelled by a personality: the star designer whose name has become familiar or by a legacy brand that's familiar by virtue of its longevity. For a newcomer to the industry, does having a mission, so to speak, help to at least attract some attention?
GIVHANYeah, it helps to attract attention and it helps to, you know, give them -- it gives them talking points, you know, a reason to -- a reason for it to stand out. But, you know, the reality is that, you know, that alone, I don't think will do it. I mean I think that people are relatively selfish in their -- in the way that they spend their dollars. And while you might be willing to, you know, make a donation to a charity, you know, I don't think that's how you built a business.
GIVHANAnd so for companies that are trying to establish themselves as ethical or sustainable or what have you, and there's not a personality behind it, they -- the product has to really speak for them and -- or the advertising has to speak for them in some way. I think about, you know, Product Red...
GIVHAN...and the way in which, you know, that was really about a stellar advertising campaign. And coincidentally, one of the cofounders of MAAT worked on Product Red.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Charlotte in Manassas, Va., who tells us about what happens when you do it yourself. Charlotte, your turn.
CHARLOTTEHello. I'm a person who tries to sew at least half my own clothes and some of the other items that are cloth-based I make myself also. Therefore, Robin Givhan has been very important to my life because she has the reports that I can depend on to set me in a direction that's inspiring and also attainable as a home sewer.
GIVHANWell, that's nice to hear. Thank you.
CHARLOTTEHowever, it's also true that if I were to go and try to buy a garment new, and even sometimes at the thrift stores, I can definitely buy something much, much less expensively than I can to make it. So my making of things is partly because I like to make things. And it's also partly a matter of, if I want anything beyond the basic jeans and t-shirt or tailored pants -- those things I want to be able to choose the color and kind and I want to be able to have the control of at home.
NNAMDISo you do these things because of your artistic preferences or your preference for making things and not for economic or financial reasons.
CHARLOTTEWell, it can't be very much for financial reasons.
NNAMDIHow about that, Robin? She makes them herself, but it costs more when she does that.
GIVHANWell, you know, we all went to our own personal dressmaker...
NNAMDIThat's true. That's true.
GIVHAN...we could be certain of the ethics of our attire. But I don't -- and I think our closets would be a lot skimpier in terms of how much was in them. I mean it's -- I think what -- her comment really illustrates the reality of, you know, what it really means to sit down and create a garment.
GIVHANIt is time consuming and it is expensive. And as we obviously have become ever more industrialized, and it's become faster and faster, and it's, you know, become one person who just, you know, sort of sticks the button on, the price has gone down substantially. But you realize that the amount of effort that actually goes into it hasn't really gone away. We're just paying less for it.
NNAMDIA lot over the years that has not. Now we move on to Jackie in Washington D.C. Jackie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACKIEHi there. I was wondering, what is the basis for the name of the company? It's tied to...
GIVHANYeah, it is -- it was inspired by I believe an Egyptian word for truth and justice. And I think honesty is also one of the -- it's one of the meanings.
JACKIEIt is. It's an Egyptian goddess name.
GIVHANI'm just curious, because there's another company with that name that does something completely different. And I also wanted to get a sense of how does it then tie to what you're trying to promote. So I just thought it'd be a wonderful -- that you could expand on the goddess and the principle of truth, justice and cosmic order.
GIVHANWell, I am not an expert on the goddess herself. But the fact that she is a representative of principles like truth and justice certainly (a) connects to one of the main cofounder's background as a human rights lawyer, and it also sort of speaks the idea of the company itself and the idea of justice in terms of, you know, fairness for workers and for those that contribute to the process of creating the shoes, the jewelry, the clothes.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. Robin Givhan, who knew she had expertise in international cultural symbols. Robin Givhan writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor. She's received the Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. Robin, always a pleasure.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show." It's produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Stephanie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer, Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments with us, email us at email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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