I’m just going to go ahead and say it: there is one major bonus of running a social enterprise as opposed to a straight-up fashion label, and that’s the bragging rights.
Fashion Revolution Week asks consumers to push brands to show them #whomademyclothes? We are stoked when people ask us this question, not only because we know the answer, but because we love the answer.
Our brand is not made up of faceless supply chains run through mass online ordering systems. Our brand is made up of real people, of skin and sweat. Of belly laughs and solidarity. This side of our business isn’t so sexy compared with champagne-laden runways or celebrity Instagram shout-outs: the things we ordinarily associate with the fashion industry.
But as far as we are concerned, the producers we work with are our organisation’s raison d’être: the reason the we are excited to go to work in the morning. Indeed, they are the reason why we started The Fabric Social in the first place.
If we don’t know who made it, we don’t want to know about it.
What it means to work in Myanmar’s Dryzone
Our latest collection is made in Myanmar, a country that lived under military rule until 2010. With some speed bumps along the way, Myanmar has rapidly opened up to the world, with development cash and corporate investments pouring into the freshly capitalist economy.
The Magwe region where we work has suffered from unpredictable seasons, and is now categorised as the ‘Dryzone’. All over Myanmar, irresponsible deforestation has left soil quality at death’s door, and climate change has sealed the deal for local crops in this area.
The region has been dealt a seriously rough hand, and food insecurity abounds. Dealing with water management is a huge challenge, and long term adaptive measures to move away from agriculture have been cited as a must to prevent the Dryzone from becoming the Dead-zone in coming decades.
This is why many international organisations are striving to create sustainable livelihoods in this region. And we mean sustainable in both senses of the word – livelihoods that can maintain decent incomes over generations, but that also don’t destroy the planet. The kind of work that doesn’t require ongoing support from aid agencies to keep it afloat and that doesn’t require the annihilation of natural resources. Easy, right?
What it means to not work in Myanmar’s Dryzone
Not so long ago, Myanmar was placed solidly in the pariah basket, and international corporations were banned from doing business. Now, from a capitalist mindset, Myanmar is a massive source of untapped resources and untapped, dirt cheap labour. One option for many women is to move to the cities and work in factories, responding to this new demand.
In just 3 years, garments boomed from a $770 million industry to a $1.5 billion one. Myanmar has the second lowest wages only after Bangladesh, which has seen pushback against exploitative labour since the Rana Plaza disaster (although we’d like to see a lot more). Myanmar, as the slightly more expensive option over the border, has no minimum wage, and a garment worker earns around $80 a month.
Industrialisation and urbanisation go hand in hand, and Yangon is creaking under the weight of this pressure. Housing in the city is poor quality, with average rental costs far beyond a single garment worker’s wage. The government has built industrial zones for workers to live in, but these fail to meet basic human rights and health and safety standards, are violent, and have contractual housing conditions likened to slavery. All in the name of the bottom line.
What we do instead.
We were lucky enough to bag an investment grant for this project as part of the Business Partnerships Platform: a program recognising that social enterprise has a role to play in Australia’s international development agenda.
The producers working with us are part of a women’s co-op called MBoutik, a project of ActionAid. These women support themselves financially and support each other emotionally. They know each other like sisters, and work, eat and gossip together – collectively setting their own price, and their own work load. It simply couldn’t be further from an industrial zone in Yangon.
We provided tailor training with our Mizo designer Siami Pachuau, and worked towards creating a new collection from 100% handloom cotton, woven by the MBoutik weaving unit. My Co-Founder Sharna is best at describing how extraordinary the feeling was when it all came together:
“The day the tailoring group leaders showed us the little production unit they set up there were jump hugs. On the last day of finessing the execution of the designs there were happy, proud, excited tears. These ladies are a deadset pleasure to work with – they are so smart, create such a supportive working environment, and are so ready to take over the world – it really just knocks my socks off”
Why You Should Care
To understand the project, we return to this concept of sustainable livelihoods. ActionAid approached us because they had seen what we had done in Assam, which was to create products with the Australian woman in mind. Products made with an emphasis on design, and with a pricing structure aimed at attracting those who are fed up with fast fashion, and want to invest in their wardrobe by buying clothes that will carry through multiple seasons. Women who want to buy clothes that spark joy.
The point of this week is not only to provide an opportunity for the good guys to celebrate: Fashion Revolution Week is about accountability. It is intended to hold a mirror up to the industry as a whole in the hopes that things will change for those women struggling on $80 a month in Yangon.
Projects like ours offer a real alternative. They provide an opportunity to turn the exploitative dynamics of the fashion industry on their head. Unlike their Yangon counterparts, these women are not doomed to languish forever at the bottom of the value chain. Indeed, they are our most valuable asset.
We will be celebrating Fashion Revolution Week by sharing a producer story with you each day, honouring their hard work and talent.
You can check out the stories here.