My story doesn’t start with a childhood filled with eating organic food, attending protests or reading Karl Marx. And it doesn’t contain master’s degrees or PhD’s or any kind of formal study in international development. In fact, I solely have an undergraduate Theatre Degree (yes, they give degrees for that). Growing up, I didn’t think twice about where my clothes came from. You could say I’m a late bloomer to this cause. But let me tell you why that’s a good thing.
Following that Theatre Degree, I stumbled into a career in marketing. I was super passionate about sports, which landed me a job with an ice hockey team (a big deal to a Canadian girl like me). People from all walks of life – businessmen, teenage girls, rural farmers – all would come together and bond over this game. I saw how, when these people with such unique points of view connected to one another, relationships and ideas blossomed. I saw the potential power in this and started focusing my efforts on how we could leverage this game to unite people to one another to do something good. I worked on programs that connected people with the communities around them through this game, and which supported children and those less fortunate to those with resources. I saw how a for-profit company could actually use its power and money to support people. All through a game of chasing a little black puck across frozen water.
With a strong belief in the power of companies to do good, I joined an athletic wear company with a focus on developing the health and well-being of all individuals. My official job title was ‘Storyteller’, meaning I got to spend my days talking to amazing people, who had often overcome super challenging circumstances to excel athletically. I organized events to bring communities together, and I got paid to go for runs or do yoga with people who were doing great things. But I also got to see behind the curtain of a clothing brand: the tension between profit and doing the right thing, the tight deadlines, the production pressure, the sourcing challenges. While we were building communities and health around the people who bought the clothes, what was happening in the places where the clothes were made? Shouldn’t we be looking beyond just our own customers and backyards? Companies might have power and resources, but do they have the know how or the motivation to create change?
I swung over to the non-profit world, wondering if perhaps I put too much stock in my belief that companies can do good. I worked with a non-profit organization that used sports to build leadership in girls and young women – a real grassroots approach. Through this work I had the opportunity to travel and meet girls and women from all over the world – listening to their stories and helping them find their voice and build the confidence to use it. Sitting with women in Rwanda, who had lived through some of the worst atrocities you can imagine, I realized that the solutions and innovations needed to improve the world lived squarely with the women and men who were living those challenges every day. These women, or the girls in rural Cambodia or bustling Nigeria, didn’t need us to come in and tell them how to solve their problems. They simply needed the knowledge, resources and support to do it themselves. There is nothing more effective than an approach led by the workers/women/youth to negotiate for and create their own lives.
So what did I know? I knew that people were powerful (particularly women) when given opportunities. I also knew that companies held a lot of power… and money. And that this could either be used for good or evil. I had seen both, and I wanted to use my experience to make sure that the people who had power found an inclusive, fair way to share it with the people who could use it to make the biggest impact. I wanted a way to combine the power from companies with the knowledge of people who knew how to improve their own situations. Fair Wear Foundation became the platform for me to do this.
My work with Fair Wear has and does touch on various areas – working with brands to examine and improve their practices and use those to support workers in the factories where they produce; trying to influence politicians and international decision makers to create a better environment for workers to create change; and looking at the processes and structures of dialogue between workers, management, governments, agents, brands and others in order to improve the way in which workers are allowed and empowered to negotiate for themselves.
The world is complex. The garment industry even more so. It will take multiple levels and types of people to create any kind of change. My lack of awareness of these issues growing up is not unique – it’s all too common for us to be disconnected from the people whose lives we affect through our choices. But we need this diversity in points of view and experience – it’s exactly at the intersection of these where the most interesting conversations, solutions and moments occur. My passion is in stitching these threads together: connecting companies, governments and people sitting on one side who may not (yet) know enough, and the workers, women and youth on the other who simply need the resources to teach them. Let’s use our strengths to create a better damn world.