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Text by: Janneke de Jong

Issue name: The Employment Issue

Local communities look beyond labels


Despite the many ways high street stores try to hide it, finding a label on a piece of clothing that doesn't say China, Taiwan or India is an exception. It might help you pay your month's rent, but does it make you feel good? No wonder that we're now looking beyond previous buzzwords like carbon footprint, ecological and organic to find out where the products we buy actually come from.

Some retail companies have taken an active step in the right direction by sourcing their goods from local communities - and this is not an advertising euphemism for sweatshops. This process serves both sides well: the community is financially supported, and the retailer saves money by cutting out the middle man. Moreover, ancient techniques can be preserved, and new ones taught - literally, the best of both worlds.

One of the frontrunners is SOKO Kenya, a supplier working closely with the community of Ukunda in Kenya, improving local training, employment and social services. Set up in 2009 by Joanna Maiden, SOKO sources fabrics, manufactures garments, sorts labels and packages, and manages export and shipping to both the European and the US market. All profits the company makes are re-invested into the communities and the growth of the company. Sounds dull? Not once you've seen the incredibly fashionable results, made from hand-loomed fabrics and locally manufactured crochet, embellishments and beading. 

Displaying just how stylish this inspiring collaboration is, are Lalesso and ASOS. Lalesso is an African brand located in Capetown, and the bright colours and mesmerising patterns of the continent have inspired directors Olivia and Alice to bring their heritage to the catwalk. The gorgeous, floaty dresses, bellowing skirts and fitted tops are all produced in Kenya, creating jobs and supporting the local communities.

International online retailer ASOS has also embraced SOKO's connections, and set up an ASOS Africa collection, with both ASOS' designers and the Kenya community working closely together. The result is awe-inspiring: this season's jumpsuits, robes and maxi dresses are brightened up by on-trend details like beading and African prints. With prices ranging from 20 to 100 pounds, both the garments and the jewellery make doing good a whole lot easier on your credit card.

Of course, not all initiatives are as clear as Soko's, Lalesso's or ASOS'. To aid you in finding out about where your clothing came from before it ended up in a shop, MADE-BY has devised an index of companies, a track-and-trace system and a bright blue button to be sown onto clothes that pass their standards. Moreover, it assists suppliers in achieving social or environmental certification and sourcing sustainable materials from a network of local farmers, spinners and fabric suppliers. In short, making the retail market a better world, one step at a time. 

Not all initiatives to mobilise local communities have to include other continents. London-based jewelers Leblas sell ethical gems by URTH, Oria, SHO and rings, necklaces and bracelets designed by owner Arabel Lebrusan. Honouring her Mediterranean heritage, she sends her designs to artisans in Spain - some of the last in the world who still master the intricate filigree techniques used. Moreover, they have set up an apprenticeship scheme to make sure these skills are passed on to next generations. So, not only does Leblas breathe new life into this age-old craftsmanship, moreover, they introduce it to new customers every day, who can be proud of their unique, handmade jewellery.

Who Made Your Pants is the ultimate proof that anyone can help local communities, even in their own country. The project was set up to offer women who want to work, but aren't given the chances, the opportunity to learn, come together and be confident. After providing training in sowing and English if necessary, WMYP encourages their employees to train to be a team leader, thereby increasing their chances on the job market. The website shows exactly who made your pants, and offers you the opportunity to guiltlessly indulge in buying the gorgeous, ethical pants, which according to WMYP "can change the world."

Hopefully, initiatives like the above prove that work can be so much more than just a way to earn money, and by including local communities, we gain a sense of knowledge, history and craftsmanship that might've faded out otherwise. Moreover, it shows that consumers can make a statement and perhaps even a difference by choosing carefully. So whether it's pants, jewelry or a gorgeous dress, try to look beyond the label.