Monday, November 3, 2008

Rachel Weeks

And now on the "...people to meet" front, I'd like to talk about my friend Rachel Weeks. My brother introduced me to Rachel last December and I ran into her again randomly last Thursday at an Oktoberfest party at the Hilton (that's right, Oktoberfest in Sri Lanka, complete with beer garden and German polka band). When I met Rachel last year, she was in Colombo on a Fulbright Scholarship having graduated from Duke with a degree in Women's Studies. Rachel is the most fashionable feminist I've ever met, and therein lies her story.

Over lunch last December, Rachel told us that she had decided to start a business in Sri Lanka. Her Fulbright project had to do with "ethical fashion" and she wanted to turn her research into a living-wage business. As anyone who has ever looked at the tag in their t-shirt from the gap knows, Sri Lanka is a huge manufacturing center for in the garment industry. Reebok, Nike, the gap, Old Navy, and Victoria's Secret are just some of the major chains whose products are made here, and while the big names [probably] don't employ child-labor and [maybe] don't have huge marks against them on the human-rights violation charts, they are known for paying their factory workers [often less than] a subsistence wage. Rachel decided that she, a recent college grad with no experience in the garment industry, could do better than that for the largely female garment-manufacturing work-force. Why? Lack of greed. The profit margin on $100-sneakers is huge, and while the price of shoes continues to go up, wages for factory workers goes down. Manufacturing works as a market-driven economy; the big-wigs at Nike know that if Sri Lankan factories demand higher wages for their workers, they can simply close a plant and open another one in Bangladesh, a country so poor that workers will work in exchange for food, or India where children will act as indentured servants to work off debts incurred by their parents.

Rachel's idea was to start a garment business that supplied officially licensed clothing to colleges and universities in the States; her clothing line would in turn support a factory opened by her manufacturing partner which would pay women a living-wage to make the clothes. And the clothes would be cute. Having ethical standards, supporting women, and being anti-sweatshop is all well and good, but Rachel Weeks is a feminist fashionista… the clothes had to be super-cute.

She went home to North Carolina shortly after I met her last year, secured a small loan, hired a designer (who had worked for Calvin Klein and Betsy Johnson, among others), developed a collection, had a photo-shoot on the Duke campus using students as models to create buzz, produced a catalog, and got an order for 10,000 pieces from the Duke University Store. And now she's back in Sri Lanka working with her partner to fill an empty warehouse by the airport with sewing machines, fabric, and whatever else it's going to take to make those yoga pants, fitted girly-t-shirts, sweatshirts that don't make girls look like boys, hoodies, and tote bags, and everything else that's in her collection, all of which will be emblazoned with Duke University logos. As soon as the first needle hits cloth, she'll go back to the States to work on getting orders from more schools. She's already got an order pending from UNC Chapel Hill, so keep your fingers crossed that she gets a signed purchase order from them soon.

It's simple really, the factory she'll support is going to pay its workers a little bit more than the average garment factory-wage, but that’s going to make a huge difference. It's going to be the difference between barely surviving and actually being able to save. It's going to be the difference between barely surviving and actually being able to spend – on more than just the basics. These women are going to be contributing to the local economies of their villages where they could not before, so not only are their own incomes going to increase, but that in turn will affect the livelihoods of their neighbors. And the only difference between what Rachel is doing and what Reebok does, is that her profit margin will be narrower. Oh, she'll still make money, when the clothes sell and the orders and re-orders come in, she'll make money; maybe she won't make over a million dollars a year which is what the CEO of Reebok makes, but she'll do just fine, and 30 women will have a little more food for their families.

I spent most of the day with Rachel yesterday, and I had a great time. It turns out that being inspired by the cool endeavors being undertaken by new friends is even better than having meals prepared and served by the household help, going to the spa, and never having to make your own bed.

But wait, there's more... As Rachel and I were running around together yesterday, we ran into an acquaintance of hers, Ellen Sojka. Ellen came to Sri Lanka from Boston by way of M.I.T. to work [unpaid] for a non-profit called Emerge Global Emerge is an organization that supports Sri Lankan girls (mostly teens and pre-teens) who have become pregnant due to rape. It provides not only a safe haven in terms of housing, but also educational and economic opportunities for the girls through a jewelry-making business. The beaded jewelry is sold in the U.S. through and I have to say, the photos don't do it justice - the necklace Ellen had on when I met her was even more fabulous than it looks on the website (or in my photo).

With election day almost upon us, I’m hoping that the U.S. is about to experience some pretty damn big, sweeping, monumental changes; I’m looking for huge changes from people with vast amounts of power. Neither Rachel nor Ellen have any political power but they are affecting huge change. It may not seem like Rachel paying someone $30 more a month than she was getting before is huge, but when it’s the difference between eating to survive and eating to be full, that’s huge – if you’re the one who’s hungry.

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