Fashion as a Social Justice Vehicle

By Becky Garrison 2-08-2010


On his blog, international missiologist Andrew Jones made this prediction: "Emerging church energies will be re-directed from creative worship arts to creative social enterprises which will enable long-term sustainability. In both realms, women will come to the front as some of the most successful missional entrepreneurs." In light of Andrew's analysis, I set off to interview Shannon Hopkins of Sweet Notions and Alissa Moore of Nomi Network to get a sense of where the spirit is at work in 2010.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, how do you define "social enterprises"?

SHANNON HOPKINS: I describe it as a business set up with a vision beyond the bottom line -- to make a social impact using enterprise to accomplish missional aims.

What led you to create your respective ventures?

ALISSA MOORE: Nomi Network engages the marketplace, and specifically the fashion industry, to break the vicious cycle of sexual slavery. Our motivation is a deep desire to create sustainable economic opportunities for survivors and potential victims of human trafficking. Our plan of attack builds bridges between the private, public, and nonprofit sectors through our three-fold strategy: 1) Identifying and partnering with on-the-ground organizations that provide basic job skills, training, and living wages to our target population of women; 2) Designing and developing high-quality, market-ready products; 3) and partnering with designers. This multi-facetted approach was developed through taking the time to listen very carefully to the needs of a range of organizations working with survivors of human trafficking, from small start-ups in South East Asia to well-established international organizations that have been working for decades toward creating equitable opportunities for women entrapped in systems of abuse. We discovered that many of these organizations were creating jobs for their women in product production, but that these products were difficult to sell and unappealing to mainstream consumers. Our talented design team works to close this gap and the increased revenue from sale of our products goes back into career development and apprenticeship programs for the women we partner with.

Our vision to create a network was inspired by wanting to better harness the vast pool of talents and resources here in the States, but also to inspire collaboration and partnerships in places like Cambodia where our pilot program was developed. My co-founder, Diana Mao, and I were also personally moved to action because of some of the devastatingly young survivors of trafficking we had the priviledge of meeting in Cambodia, and particularly, one little girl who we've named our organization for who was rescued from a brothel, and now suffers a mental disability due to her abuse.

SHANNON: We are passionate about seeing lasting social chang; however, fundraising for projects is neither sustainable nor predictable. If we were able to generate income through a business model, yet use that income for good, we'd be in a better position to help those we wanted to help. In addition, we wanted to capitalize on our experience (in fashion accessories) to make a positive impact... to actually create change. And we wanted to show we can all start where we are at!

Briefly elaborate regarding how you see fashion as a social justice vehicle.

SHANNON: The fashion industry is one of the largest industries in the world. (Many say it is the second biggest behind the arms industry.) The fashion industry cuts across economic, environmental, and social issues. If we can create good practice and meaning in the fashion industry the impact of that can be huge. But beyond that, beyond every decision being motivated by that standard to do our best, and to think about every decision as if it mattered to the world, we can take our profits and do even more good. That is what we are trying to do with Sweet Notions. We are aiming to take 100% of our profits and invest it into new initiatives -- the first of which are our design camps. These are workshops designed to equip marginalized women (through abuse or addiction) with skills to design and make marketable accessories. This will be part art therapy and part skill development. This was our aim from the beginning, particularly influenced by Shannon's work on The Truth Isn't Sexy.

ALISSA: I've come to realize that whether we like it or not, we are all consumers caught in the sticky web of globalization. America in particular is defined by its consumer culture. Fashion is a consumer-friendly platform that allows people to publicly declare their identity -- it can be an attempt to control how others perceive you or an opportunity to visually express personal creativity. It can display status and class by reflecting your environment, employment, income, or the company you keep. And although not everyone is aware of the power or intricacies of the fashion industry, it is without a doubt a large part of our daily existence.

I believe that social justice in action is largely about transforming systems of empire into opportunities to bring relief to the oppressed. Currently, fashion seems to be an industry that promotes an unsustainable empire where the haves keep getting richer and the have-nots continue to get abused in the negotiation for a lower bottom line price. But if this industry was re-routed down a road of creating opportunities for equality instead of oppression, the results could be significant. Transparent supply chains being demanded by educated consumers could create a ripple effect of real change.

What's your definition of "fair trade," and how do we encourage people to consider purchasing fair traded products given the current state of the economy where consumers look for the cheapest product which isn't often the most ethical?

ALISSA: Fair Trade Certification empowers farmers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting their environment, and developing competitive business skills through several fair trade principles. When I think about fair trade I think about the importance of encouraging consumers to take responsibility for every purchase they make. Nomi Network desires to make this process easier for consumers -- we have an online map that we are currently developing that flags retailers who sell fair-trade items. Eventually we hope to list slave-free products as well. Nomi Network is also working hard to demonstrate our commitment to transparency in all aspects of our operation. We want every customer to know the complete story behind their product and the hands that created it.

SHANNON: We are so inclined to want something for nothing. The marketing industry wants to disconnect us from the reality of what goes into our products. When I think of Fair Trade I think of having a visible supply chain that you know what and who were involved in getting the product to you. And that everyone along the way was treated fairly and given a fair price for their contribution.

How do you encourage people to move from being consumers of fair trade and organic products to becoming advocates for social justice change?

SHANNON: Addressing consumption is the place to start. Slowing down and thinking about what you are buying. Do you really need it? Where did it come from? Realize that every dollar you spend supports someone, somewhere. What are your purchases supporting? Justice? Equality? Fairness? Peace? Or is it creating a bigger divide between rich and poor?

[to be continued...]

portrait-becky-garrisonFollow Becky Garrison on Twitter @JesusDied4This

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