Esther Founder of Theo The Label has one of the kindest souls I have ever met, and when she recently told me about her trip to Bangladesh to research social enterprise projects my heart exploded. She is just a good human.
Her clothing label Theo was established in 2016 with the desire to create sweatshop-free staples for the everyday wardrobe. Having studied the complexities of a fashion supply chain, ethical manufacturing was a non-negotiable if her label was to come to life. However the small batch approach to production saw limitations in approaching off-shore factories.
This limitation gave way to a simple solution - to omit factories completely and work directly with skilled makers.
I chatted to Esther about her trip to Bangladesh and her raw and honest answers about the country, culture, people and poverty will open your eyes to a country in need.
Let's start by telling us about Bangladesh the country and your experience?
The religious influence of Islam is very unfamiliar to me and it is a huge, ingrained part of Bangladeshi culture. I regret not reading up more on it in order to be better prepared and more culturally sensitive to how I should respectfully behave.
You basically only see men on the street, no women at all and this is because a woman's place is in the home with the children and women aren't seen to be of any value (for want of a better word), other than rearing children. Despite being obvious foreigners, I was rarely acknowledged in the few interactions we had. For example, in the hotel we stayed at, the men working there would always look to my husband Tim when we approached them for help, even when I was the one who had asked them for assistance.
Although I only experienced this for a few days and could already feel the inequality 'shushing' me to be quiet, conformed and unimportant. It was a terrible feeling, like I wasn't important or needed, and I've never experienced that despite visiting a few developing countries.
The only area I saw women in public were around the university areas, so they must come from families who could afford education for a female (a huge deal).
There's a huge division between the wealthy and the poor here in Bangladesh with 30% of the country living below the poverty line. From what I saw I would have thought it would be more than 30%. It seemed everywhere I looked people were living difficult lives, but through my first-world perspective this isn't so surprising.
The population of Bangladesh is 160 million on land roughly the size of two Tasmanias! Let that sink in. It explains the ridiculous traffic but also the desperation that comes with having no work opportunities. Many people live in more rural areas and catch buses to work with the trip being over 2-3 hours each way. Others will live close to where they work, far away from their family, and will only see them every 6 months for 2-3 days at a time. This is the case for many garments workers but even our driver was in the same situation. Talk about sacrifice.
The aim of your trip to Bangladesh was to research and visit social enterprise projects related to the garment industry, can you tell us more about the ones you attended?
So the few clips of sewing projects you see are from existing projects that I visited. I didn't do any teaching on this trip or contribute in any way really! It was the very early stages of sussing out how Theo could possibly be involved, how that would work and an overall introduction to the country and the needs there.
These sewing projects have been set up by human development organisations with the aim of improving the livelihoods of local people and building communities that can thrive rather than just survive. Sewing, English and computer classes are most popular as locals recognise these skills to lead to familiar pathways in office jobs or garment manufacturing.
Most the women attending the sewing projects already have children and want to learn to sew their own clothing to save money for their family, and then perhaps progress to sewing for other people to hopefully earn some income. Many women stated they wanted to learn to sew to simply be able to contribute something to their family.
One sewing project I visited was specifically a rehabilitation program for obstetric fistula patients (who are often young girls in low resource communities who give birth without the necessary medical assistance and physical complications result as well as emotional rejection from their partner and communities). Again, many of the girls just want to feel like they can contribute something to their family and community, emphasising the overall feeling that women contribute nothing and how this results in imbalanced communities and desperation.
Another project I visited was a successful social enterprise that sells home wares and jewellery around the world! It was such a holistic program that incorporated identifying at-risk women (sex slavery and prostitution are common because of desperation) and slowly helping them to find their self-worth, often by assisting with meals and childcare.
Whenever there is prostitution in developing countries there will be children, and women are left to care for them with no assistance, as well as likely being rejected by their family and community. This particular program provides the necessary care and routine to assist and educate women, and offers sewing classes as an alternative pathway.
It was incredibly encouraging to see the difference this social enterprise is making to so many women's lives simply by giving them an opportunity!
I fully believe supporting social enterprises will literally change the world.