I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the founders of Pakistan and New York based ethical clothing company, Victoria Road, for a conversation over Skype. Victoria Road specializes in stunning, modern Pakistani clothing design. Most of their pieces incorporate traditional embroidery and handwork, and everything is impeccably edited for the contemporary consumer.
Outside of the occasional chat with the leadership team of the Ethical Blogger Network, I rarely get the chance to have a face-to-face with people who are just as passionate about sustainable manufacturing as I am (I'm sure a lot of my volunteers at the shop tune me out immediately whenever I start ranting about worker rights and textiles processing pollution), so I naturally thought everything we discussed in our hour long conversation was absolutely fascinating. That being said, I didn't think most of you would want to read for the next 30 minutes, so I've saved the best parts of our conversation for this post. If you'd like to read the extended interview, you can check it out here.
Thanks to Victoria Road for sponsoring this post.
Why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself, Shannon.
Shannon: I’m a lawyer. I still practice law. At my last job, I spent a lot of time in emerging markets, so I have a lot of experience working in Africa and South Asia. In 2010, I started working in Pakistan.
I knew all of the bad things that were reported on CNN [about Pakistan], but I didn’t learn about the positives of the country until I started looking into it. My first trip was in July of 2010 – I traveled to Pakistan and stopped in Karachi on the way. I spent 2 days in Karachi – it was the time of the floods, which were devastating to the country – so I didn’t get to explore as much as I’d hoped to, but something in that visit clicked with me. The people were really, really warm – they embraced me as a foreigner.
Every negative stereotype I had heard was completely turned upside down.
I found myself back about 6 weeks after that and I got to understand what was happening in the country on multiple levels, and I got into the fashion scene.
I was looking at your website and I appreciate the fact that it's focusing on artisans. It paints a picture that very much feels like an equal representation of people. Many social enterprises and fair trade companies seem to put the western audience on a pedestal and separate themselves from those “poor people over there." They’ll even take the photos from above the person, which makes them look small! I think that may be one of the biggest problems right now in the ethical space.
Megan: I’ve thought a lot about that when putting together and writing stuff for the site and I don’t even have Shannon’s perspective because I’m not there on the ground. But everything I write and try to portray, I try to think, if they were reading it about themselves, would they like it, the way I’ve written about them? Or would they be offended? I’m really sensitive about that, and I think a lot about that pedestal issue and I don’t want to come off saying, “Oh look! They had nothing and we’ve given them everything.” No!
Shannon: They start with a lot, we just want to help them build with it.
...I constantly keep it in the back of my mind that generally I don’t know better; it’s usually the people who are doing the work that know better.
It’s so important for me to listen, to just be quiet, and the thing that enables us to do that – and I think where we feel really strongly – is having local people work with local people.
You work with a lot of Pakistani designers, right? How do you find them and how do you work with them, and what’s that process like?
Shannon: Pakistan is a huge bubble. It’s a country of 180 million people and pretty much everybody that’s within a certain demographic is somehow connected to somebody else, whether through the university systems or others. And social media is just rampant in the country, so most people that are in the fashion space are fairly well connected and know each other. When I first started working in the design space, I was introduced to one of the leading designers in the country. He was interested in expanding more into the west. Just by virtue of getting to know him, I got to know most of the top tier designers in the country.
We’ve tried recently to shift away from working with the more prominent designers because we’ve found that some of the more emerging designers are more interesting and more fun to work with. We like to keep it well rounded. Deepak Perwani, who is one of the first designers I worked with, is like a brother, so he’ll always be a part of our company. He’s also just a great, great supporter. There’s also a huge amount of talent coming out of the design schools.
Where our role comes in working with the designers is simply helping with the shapes, the silhouette, and the fit. And then with editing, we say, “That’s great, except nobody [in the west] would actually wear that.” It’s over the top! Great to wear while you’re there, but in Charlottesville, you might stand out.
Changing course a little bit, a lot of sustainable or fair trade companies focus on women’s empowerment and you mentioned briefly [in the full interview] that it’s not so important to you that there’s a specific gendered goal. Can you speak more to that point?
Shannon: I’m a huge proponent of employing women, without a doubt. I believe wholeheartedly in all of the data that’s been put out and I completely believe that if you can empower women, you can change ecosystems much faster. It’s shown that they invest in their children; all of the data points are there, and I believe that there’s no doubt that that’s the way to fix a lot of problems, and particularly to alleviate poverty.
Realistically speaking, it’s very difficult for us to employ women at this point in time just because of our size, so we have been trying to hire a female HR/Manager that can bring in a female work force. In some cases, depending on where we hire from, we’ll need to have a divided workspace. A lot of husbands and fathers won’t let their women come in and work in a space that’s co-ed. There was a husband and wife team we used to work with that worked in a co-ed working space. Just logistically, since we just set the factory up in January, we’re still trying to figure out how to make that work. But it’s an absolute priority of mine.
I do believe that economic development, while it may be fostered more efficiently by women - I still think that providing jobs for men who then can support their families is key.
At the end of the day, I think it’s about getting money so that people can eat and educate their children and have access to healthcare. I think of our 6 workers now, 3 of them have children, and they show up on time and they work hard because they’re providing for a family. They say they’re working “so they can provide for my children, provide for my family.”
There are a couple places where we have more immediate goals. Particularly for handwork and hand beading, we’re targeting specifically to hire women Adda artisans [the people who work on the traditional wooden Adda frames to do beading and hand embroidery]. There’s a lot of women who work in that space and they’re used to working in a mixed gender space, and so, as we bring Adda workers in house, we’re looking into bringing in as many women as possible. I’m also looking at hiring women in management positions.
…At the end of the day, I have a preference for women, but I’m going to hire the person who is the right person for the job, because that’s where we are in the business and I think that truly there’s a role for everybody.
Ecocult and Maxine Bedat from ZADY participated in, particularly the question of what the right direction is for the future of the fashion industry in terms of advocating more for big businesses like H&M to go the sustainability route – which is sort of an oxymoron in some ways – or pushing for smaller scale, transparent, ethical designers. Perhaps it's some combination of these things?
Shannon: I think is has to be a combination of both. I thought Alden’s article on the interaction with the H&M director of sustainability was important. I think when you look at change, in many cases it’s driven by where the money comes from. And if you have thought leaders that also have both financial capital and consumer power behind them, and they’re willing to make change, even if it’s going to be slow and even if it’s going to be incremental, I think we absolutely have to promote that.
Now, will it affect my buying decisions? Maybe not as much. But I’m not as restricted as some people are. I can afford to spend more on a purchase. But I think there are a lot of people that might feel that they want to buy something, so if they have an option at H&M that at least is going in the right direction – or not going in the wrong direction maybe is the right way to look at it – if they’re trying, then I would say that’s positive.
Where I get disgusted is the greenwashing, where it’s truly just a marketing campaign and there’s nothing more behind it. I find that repulsive and think that those people should be called out and not supported.
I think that supply chain transparency is absolutely the way of the future for people who care about these issues and I think that it will make more people care.
I think that it’s a generational thing and I believe that your generation is going to lead the change on this, because your priorities are different in many cases.
But I also do believe, yes, it’s going to cost more, but it’s a bit of a balance. I think that one of the things we all need to do is try to bring the cost of ethical fashion down and I think as it becomes more mainstream, that will inevitably happen. Fashion’s just gotten too cheap. There’s got to be some sort of middle ground. But anyone who is willing to truly commit to it, I’ll support them.
Megan: H&M’s not going anywhere. These giants are here to stay, so if they are taking the initiative to try and do things better, then thank goodness. Because I don’t think we can bring them down. I’d rather make change the other way and because they’re so huge, anything good they do will have a larger incremental effect than what we do.
I look at it from [the standpoint of] status quo, and is it better or worse? I don’t see a world without H&Ms or Targets. But as this [topic] is getting so much press and your generation is taking this so seriously, your voices are being heard at high levels at these corporations.
It’s going to take time, but hopefully they can start doing better and little brands like us will give other alternatives.
I’d like to see a world in which consumers have good alternatives to be able to shop ethically, whether it’s us or them or a combination.
If you're interested in reading more of the original interview, click here.
I'll be reviewing an item from Victoria Road next week, so stay tuned!
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