Kunthear Mov & Hanna Guy, co-founders of Dorsu; Srey Mao Saron & Rachel Dodson, co-founders of Penh Lenh
Fast Fashion and mass-manufacturing brands have been subject to the uncovering of human rights violations across their operations and supply chains for decades. After witnessing the brief public statements blaming secondary producers and empty commitments to change one could be forgiven for believing that brands haven’t really cared. Until now.
Higher social and political engagement from everyday consumers and deep concern over the current environmental crisis could all be contributing to the growing demand for ethical fashion. Whatever the reason, we like it, but, what does asking “Who Made My Clothes?” really mean?
There is one approach to answering the “Who Made My Clothes” question that doesn’t sit so well with us- sharing intimate details of who the person actually is. We’re uncomfortable with the increase in brands selling the personal traumatic story of hardship of their makers. That’s not transparency, it’s something more like pity inducing marketing and poverty-porn. A brand does not hold the right to share, and sell, anyone’s personal story to sell clothes.
Rachel, co-owner of Phnom Penh based jewellery label, Penh Lenh:
“So why do you want to work at Penh Lenh?” I ask the young girl across from me. She took a day off work to make this interview. I know she currently works at a garment factory and taking time off work means an immediate dock from her salary, so I am impressed at her willingness to come for an interview. She says she has been married for a year, but lives more than an hour outside the city near the factory she works at and wants to find a job in the city so she and her husband can be together. She tells us that she is a hard worker, but even she has a hard time keeping up with the demands of the garment factory. “The daily production requirements are steep and hard to obtain, and if we don’t keep up we get yelled at and cursed at. I always have to work overtime six days a week to make a livable salary and I’m afraid if I work in the factory for a long time my health will suffer.” I’ve heard these stories before, not to mention much worse…
“When I asked to take a 15 minute break because my cramps were so painful, they told me to take a picture of my period blood to prove I was on my period.”
“We get blamed and cursed at for not meeting our production goals even when the machinery breaks and it is not our fault.”
“If I take one day off they deduct $20 from my salary.” (for perspective, this would be about 10-15% of the monthly salary)
“I got so skinny when I worked in the garment and shoe factories because I inhaled harmful fumes all day, always felt sick and didn’t have enough money to eat properly.”
“In order to get our Khmer New Year vacation days, we had to work every day until 9pm for 2 weeks to make up for the hours.”
Can you imagine the uproar, the indignation, and the outrage if employers in the western world treated their employees this way? So, why should it be any different here in Cambodia? I mean, human rights are human rights regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, religion or any other status, right? That’s definitely what we believe at Penh Lenh.
We believe through the simple act of treating our artisans fairly, providing safe and dignified work, respecting and fighting for our workers rights and abiding by local laws, and even going above and beyond to provide educational opportunities and additional benefits that we can actually move the needle in the right direction. As a social business, we aim to be a company that is transparent from the top down. When we are transparent and proud of our values as a company, our artisans are also empowered to be proud and feel dignified in their employment. We respect our staff and value their abilities and opinions. We work together with our artisans to create marketing messages that they can be proud of (and constantly share on Facebook because they too, want to show off the cool work they do)! When pressured by customers and outsiders to talk more about the personal stories and hardships of our staff in our marketing, we educated ourselves on ethical storytelling and had honest conversations with our staff about how that would make them feel. When most of the artisans told us it would make them feel betrayed, unsafe, and like their stories were being sold, we respected them and listened. As a company, we’ve decided to focusing on how bad-ass our staff is and the amazing accomplishments they are achieving in their life right now. If we take a cool shot in the workroom or a want to post a cute selfie of the artisans, we ask for their permission before posting. It seems simple, but all these little acts create an environment of security and empowerment.
Our hope is that sustainable or ethical fashion will no longer be a small section of products made to look over-the-top “ethnic or tribal” but rather, the norm. Why do stores even have an ethical section? Shouldn’t that inherently make us assume everything else in the store is made unethically? Why should ethical even be optional? It shouldn’t. It should be compulsory.
So this year, as you ask, “Who Made My Clothes?” don’t just ask for a name, demand transparency. We challenge you to be sagacious enough to dig deep and ask more. Knowing your maker means you know the workers are being paid fairly, that the work space is clean and safe, that their human rights are being upheld along with the local laws. On the other hand, don’t take it too far. No, you do not deserve to know your makers’ entire trauma history or the hardships of their life. Because why would that matter anyway? Human rights are human rights, right?
Knowing the maker isn’t about changing the life of one person or being motivated to save people from trauma through buying clothes. AskingWho Made My Clothes goes beyond to ask what is systemically wrong with this industry and to demand change.
We’re excited to work with Penh Lenh across Fashion Revolution Week, a brand that we admire here in Cambodia. Together, we hope to help you understand the context that our teams are working under and what we’re trying to achieve in this industry.