KNOWN EFFECTS talks with Megan & Gab from Walk Sew Good, two women on a 35,000km mission through Asia to deliver the world insight and knowledge about ‘who made your clothes’.
“We are mad and we certainly don’t pretend to have all of the answers to the unsustainable impacts of the fashion industry. But we’d like to change the way people look at, value and talk about fashion and we thought that this could just be insane enough to get your attention.” This statement is where Known Effects started, and it is that same belief that brings us together.
At an event a few months back at The Corner Palm Byron Bay, we heard Jas from Stone & Wood and Tania from the Coven Shoppe talk about not pretending to have all the answers about being sustainable in every area of business. They would rather be transparent and connect with other businesses on the same path so that all involved can learn, make changes, and grow to be more sustainable and ethical. In my chat with the ladies, I ask about this element of their business and their experiences with being on the road.
Prior to taking off with a backpack and a bloody good, yet insane (walking, that is) vision what were you both doing before Walk Sew Good?
M: I was working two jobs that I was absolutely in love with. When people used to complain about going to work I would feel bad because I was loving the work I was doing. I worked at a primary school as a teacher’s aide with a little boy that lives with Prader Willi Syndrome. I was also Head of Research at Project JUST. Project JUST is an organisation trying to empower shoppers to make informed and thoughtful shopping decisions. I researched over 100 brands during my time there, looking at their sustainability practices and sorting out facts from fiction.
G: To make money and save for the trip I worked three jobs. I was working sales at a call centre, a part time wine sales role in Melbourne and waitressing and facilitating cellar door tastings in my hometown, Mildura. I was also volunteering at a group called Befriend a Child in Detention, which focuses on connecting Australians with young people stuck in detention in Nauru and in regional “processing centres” in Australia. They also advocate for human rights of refugees.
For our readers who don’t know your mission, it was to visit the businesses/companies/factories in developing countries that are sustainably focused and yet successful in producing ethical products in a sustainable way.
Could you give us a description of the most sustainable workplace you both visited?
What are some of the things you have seen that could be forwarded to businesses here in Australia / developed countries?
G: Each place was different and all had different approaches to sustainability. The one I think that was a good model for the industry was Pactics, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Whilst the material they produce (microfiber cloth for glasses), isn’t sustainable itself, the factory they produce in is much healthier and environmentally friendly than its counterparts. The factory employs over 350 people, they use solar power and recycle their water. The whole building is built to keep cool using as little energy as possible, and there are green spaces in between each building. The buildings are well-lit with natural sunlight from the windows surrounding them. There is a canteen whereby employees get their meals and are educated on nutritional food content. Women are able to bring their young babies to work as there is a creche available for them to have their children cared for. Workers are educated on the job and are able to move upward through the company. There is a library to read and learn in. The factory also helped two young women become the first female engineers in the country, by ensuring they weren’t rejected from university based on their gender. They also work closely with their staff on road safety, making sure everyone wears a helmet to work when riding a motorbike. They even have a system whereby workers are able to make complaints/suggestions to their superiors and then they are resolved as a team. They pay living wages, people are actually able to sustain themselves on their pay. It is really incredible stuff. Pactics has such a high productivity rate that they worked out that the cost of their set-up has actually been more cost-effective than a traditional “sweat-shop” (factory with poor conditions) in the long run.
M: I’ve been amazed at some of the more traditional kinds of workplaces we’ve visited and the sustainability practices that are a part of what they do, not necessarily because it’s sustainable but because it just makes sense. A lot of the businesses we visited allowed their employees to bring their children and everybody takes turns to look after them. They used traditional natural dyeing techniques and waste very little of the resources that go into their products.
You both had the opportunity (or many) to put yourselves into action and make some products. Did this experience give a new perspective and level of respect to how clothing is made? You both clearly know and understand that making clothing and accessories requires skill. Did this pick up the energy levels to push the awareness as to how important it is for consumers to know how their clothes made?
G: Seeing how clothes are made, and also trying some of the techniques ourselves really has put into perspective just how much work goes into making garments! It is extremely difficult. Sewing in just the right proportions, in just the right places, weaving with hundreds of threads going over and under, stripping hemp from the stem of the plant to twist together to make fibres for threading, making dye from boiling the leaves of a plant. It is insane how much work goes into all the different clothes we’ve seen. I have such a deep respect for the people who make these products, it is truly incredible artwork. Our friend Donna Bramhall (from Haute Culture), was just learning some embroidery techniques from Tamay who is Lu Mien. In one small square about the size of your smallest fingernail there would be about 64 stitches, making up the design of the head of rice. There are hundreds of these motifs of rice all lined up on top of each other on the back panel of their jackets. That means there is literally hundreds of thousands of stitches in each garment. It takes a year to finish. A year. How much would you sell a jacket for that took you a year? Seriously.
M: I thought I had a pretty solid appreciation for my clothing before I left for this trip. I had no idea. Until you really see the work being done I’m not sure you can fully appreciate what goes into creating clothes. I’d love to bring some of the talented people we’ve met over to Australia to demonstrate their skills. It just blows your mind. There have been so many times where we have been watching someone make something and our faces are screwed up in a mixture of awe and confusion because we don’t understand how the magic is happening.
What are some of the bigger obstacles that businesses are struggling with in terms of being sustainable?
M: The biggest barrier we discovered while we’ve been here is that many of the businesses are struggling with marketing and if they don’t have the marketing under control they can’t grow the business and become more sustainable! A lot of the brands we met are just managing to stay afloat but have the potential for so much more. If there are any kind marketing type souls out there interested in helping some good folks out, please get in touch!
With what you have learnt and if you could revisit some of the business, is there anything you feel you could help some of the business you have visited to grow to be more sustainable?
M: I don’t see it as our role to change the way people do business. If they want our advice we’re happy to share but I think the people on the ground are in the best position to implement the changes. Lots of the businesses we’ve visited have plans to continuously improve how sustainability is applied to their work. They have goals for the future and just need the funds. It’s really frustrating that doing the right thing is so much harder than doing the wrong thing. It’s especially hard for small businesses. Things like certifications take time and money, resources that are in short supply when you’re not a big corporation.
Everyone that has travelled knows that nothing ever goes to plan or smoothly as first envisioned. Fill us in! What was something you can laugh at now but was not that funny in the moment?
M: There was a fun day back in January where we got a bit lost in the Cambodian countryside. Not completely lost. Just a little bit lost. Google Maps had obviously not been updated in awhile and there were roads where it said there were none and no roads where it said there should be. We ended up doing a bit of off roading. There are unexploded landmines in Cambodia. The whole time I had my mum and dad’s voices in my head saying, “Just don’t go off the roads, please don’t go off the roads.” Oops. We made it but we were super cranky by the end of the day.
G: We recommend checking out our Worst Case Scenario videos.
- KNOWN EFFECTS favourite video would have to be ‘Girl has an insect lay eggs in her butt‘….let’s face it no one wants an insect creeping on their butt! The Worst Case Scenario videos hit home for the KE Team simply because we always seem to think about the worst case scenario after ….. the old ‘Act first think later’ issue.
What’s the plan for Walk Sew Good now that you are both home?
G: Honestly we just want to get all of the editing done on the rest of the interviews we have done. We have hundreds of hours of footage and we need to bring it all together to share with the world. It’s time consuming, but so worth it. We’d also love to share our stories with whoever would like to listen and learn. Oh and I’ll need a job, the walk has been wonderful, but as it’s funded mostly from savings we are close to broke.
M: Like Gab said, we have so much editing still to do! It’s a very lovely problem to have indeed and it will keep the adventure alive a bit longer. I’m also keen to write a book about our experiences and I’d really love to keep working in the sustainable fashion space. It’s an exciting place to be.
Thanks for the chat Ladies, we love your work and can’t wait to see more once the editing process is over. x
*All images and videos are from Walk.Sew.Good