I am working on a post about wedding fashion and labor practices, but before I get there I wanted to write about why I believe these things matter. This is the first post in an occasional series about ethical fashion.
Sunita was married when she was only fourteen years old. She became pregnant with her first child three years later, but tragically lost her baby shortly after his birth. Depressed and isolated, Sunita says she felt numb after the baby’s death. She was expected to continue having children, but not expected to do anything on her own or make any of her own decisions. Not long after the loss of her son, Sunita gave birth to her daughter, Vandana, and for the first time began thinking about her future.
"Every family wants a boy. The same was the case with my family," Sunita says. "I was afraid for my daughter. I really wanted to do something for her in case I wasn’t around in a few years."
Out of a desire to make sure her daughter was provided for, Sunita joined a local jewelry-making group. The work was far from easy--Sunita was abused and never paid a fair, livable wage. Many of her workdays ran late, sometimes lasting more than 9 hours. Throughout the three years Sunita worked for the group, she never earned more than 40 rupees, or about $0.65 per day.
Last November, inspired by a series of events and exposure to various companies and resources, I began researching and really looking into the world of ethical and Fair Trade fashion. I read stories about the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh--a place where some of my clothing was probably manufactured--that killed more than 1,100 people. I read about the deplorable conditions and miniscule wages of workers around the world whose handiwork I am thrilled to find on the rack for $5.
It's easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged when we look at an industry that seems so far gone. Fast fashion is the name of the game, but even designer brands many times lack transparency and devalue the workers producing their garments.
BUT, then I began to see a way out of this mess. I am continually learning about individuals and companies who dare to work for a different world--a world where every person is valued. And this matters not because the heroes of the West can come in and rescue people and give them dignity. I unwittingly believed that for far too long.
Rather, it matters because every person already has dignity. Each person in this world is made in the image of our Creator--imago dei--and has inherent value and worth based on that fact alone, regardless of their contribution to society. So when a company or individual partners with an artisan group that abides by Fair Trade standards, they are saying, "You have value, and we want you to have dignified work to reflect your inherent dignity."
And when we choose to purchase from these companies, we are saying the same thing.
Sunita eventually heard about one of Noonday Collection’s Fair Trade partners. She contacted them and learned she could continue making jewelry, but earn a livable wage while also taking part in the group’s other educational and social programs. She quickly quit her other job and began making jewelry for the Fair Trade group.
"You can’t imagine how happy I was. It was the first time I managed to do something on my own," she says.
Once Sunita began working and earning an income, everything changed. Her confidence grew as she learned more about what it meant to stand up for herself. She was finally able to provide for her two children as well as her in-laws and husband. Through Noonday Collection’s partner group, Sunita also learned about the difference that health, education and Fair Trade programs could make in her community. Suddenly, Sunita saw the change that had happened in her own life as something bigger than herself, something that could change the lives of those around her.
As Sunita began recruiting other women to join her in a jewelry-making co-op, however, she ran into trouble.
"None of the husbands were convinced to send their wives to work."
To prevent them from leaving their homes, Sunita says the men were beating up their wives and personally threatening her. In 2012, India was named one of the worst countries in the world for women, in part because domestic violence there is often seen as deserved. According to a UNICEF study from the same year, 57 percent of Indian boys and 53 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified. Sunita was not just fighting to get women to work, she was fighting against domestic violence—the cultural norm keeping women from working.
"I didn’t give up. I went to the neighbors in the absence of their husbands in order to convince them to come to the co-op. I told them if they can do this, it will work."
Sunita’s persistence paid off. As more and more women began to join her as artisans, their husbands realized the benefits of their wives earning money. Fair Trade jobs not only allow women to provide for their families—sometimes as the sole breadwinners—they also create a supportive community strengthened by the talents and abilities of all members.
This small but vibrant woman says she will continue to work to change others’ lives for the better. Sunita is thankful for the meaning that her work has given her life and wants to make sure others receive the same opportunities.
"I’m able to support many others when before I wasn’t even able to support myself," Sunita says. "Now, I am living for others." (From Flourish, the Noonday Collection blog)
From time to time I hope to highlight businesses and organizations who are leading the way in seeing the world become a place where the value of each person is recognized. My involvement in Noonday Collection has been the catalyst for much of this, and I'm thankful for the community of Ambassadors--women who are teaching me so much about loving well in all areas of life, even my purchases. It doesn't take risk to purchase clothing and accessories that are ethically made. It doesn't make us heroes. It's just a basic way to live out what we believe--that our Creator loves us and gave us value by creating us in His image.
This isn't a system where we come to aid helpless others. It's a system where they are helping us just as much as we are helping them. We are connected--they create beautiful things, and I get the joy of telling others about them and creating a market for their handmade products.
If you have any favorite companies that are seeking to use ethical business practices, please let me know in the comments! I am constantly learning more about all of this. And I will soon write about how this applies to wedding fashion as well.
To learn more about Noonday Collection and shop the handmade accessories made by artisan groups around the world, I invite you to use my website: catherineparks.noondaycollection.com. My hope is to make it to India this fall to visit family, and maybe even meet Sunita and other artisans in person!