Making a Real Change for Real People

photography by Lee Anne Roquemore of Petal & Vine Photography

A cloud of red dirt settled behind the Range Rover as we walked into the Sseko Designs workshop in equatorial Africa. Through a strange series of events during our adoption process, my husband and I were delivering 50 pounds of white canvas from Portland, Oregon, to Kampala, Uganda, for the continued manufacturing of fair trade footwear. Once we delivered the massive duffle bag, we were given a tour of the workshop. With two toddlers strapped into baby-carrying devices, we went from room to room observing first-hand the production process and employees behind the leather sandals I had on my feet. We were continually greeted with curious smiles and the phrase, “What is your name, please?” These women sought to understand why
Americans from a world away would come to Uganda, adopt two orphans, and visit their small workshop.
What they didn’t know is that before we embarked upon our journey, I had read about these incredible women who were working at Sseko Designs. The company’s founder went beyond paying employees a livable wage, going as far as to set up savings accounts with automatic deposits, enabling young women to attend university the following year. Sseko’s goal is to help end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society in Eastern Africa. Not only were they creating adorable, cutting-edge fashion, but also they were changing the business culture of overseas export.
Every new hand we shook and smile we received slowly began to change my heart. Before this venture, I looked at clothes as simply a way to express my inner style. After meeting these Ugandan women, I started looking at the things with which I adorned my body as tools that could have a more far-reaching impact than simply looking good. I was realizing that my purchasing power could affect global change. Buying a pair of strappy sandals from Sseko Designs, a fair trade company, allowed me to change the trajectory of someone’s life. As we left the workshop that afternoon, I carried several pairs of Sseko sandals and straps as gifts for friends and family back home. Little pieces of Uganda were in my suitcase, and their impact would reach far beyond my wardrobe.
Ethical fashion can be an ambiguous term. Many people think the words “ethical” and “fair trade” are synonymous. Fair trade certification focuses singularly on wages of workers, while ethical fashion is the purposeful consideration of a product, from concept to consumption, and how it impacts the world. It is an all-encompassing approach to how clothes are made, including the working conditions and wages of the workers, the environmental impact (such as chemical and water usage), and animal and human rights concerns. There are many simple, budget-friendly ways to purchase ethical fashion. We all don’t have opportunities to fly to Uganda, India, or Guatemala every time we want a new pair of ethically sourced shoes, so I’m glad there are easier options.
Fair trade labeling is common on coffee and chocolate; but, today, many companies are choosing to seek this certification for their clothing and other goods. Obtaining fair trade labeling can be a long and expensive process that many companies can’t afford. But some conscientious companies often provide information about working conditions, company objectives, and manufacturing processes on their websites, empowering the consumer to make informed choices.
We don’t have to look outside of the United States, the state of Florida, or even our own city to find companies that are producing ethical fashion. Look no further than the Downtown Farmers Curb Market or the Dixie Twilight Farmer’s Market and you’ll find local artisans and designers selling hand-crafted fashion accessories. Companies like American Dance Party, Boondock Studios, and Jenntage represent the many artisans that call Lakeland home. A Kind Place is a new Dixieland shop that sources locally made and fair trade goods from around the world. Right here in Lakeland, you can find and fall in love with products from Mata Traders, Joyn, The Root Collective, and many others Lakeland is also filled with second-hand, thrift, and consignment shops that give quality items a second life while keeping them out of the landfill. Ethical shopping isn’t just about manufacturing, but also the environmental impact of our choices as consumers. Instead of supporting fast fashion, people can give a piece of clothing a new life and support the local economy. Places like Peace River Center Thrift Shoppe help support rehabilitation services for women who have been abused. Every purchase helps to give a better future to women who have had a troubled past. Most of the items that hang in my closet have a story attached to them. My blue dress with little birds in the pattern was custom-tailored in India; the colorful necklace made from tagua seeds was dyed and handstrung in Ecuador; the handcrafted leather shoes I picked up at the Sseko workshop in Uganda are all reminders of my place in both the global and local economy. By making a simple, thoughtful purchase, this mother of four in Lakeland, Florida, can make a real difference in the lives of real people.
*Special thanks to Em Grey courtesy of The Root Collective, Megan Bielfeltv courtesy of Ragga’ Kenya and Jane Ray courtesy of JOYN India for photography
The Root Collective partners with small-scale artisan businesses in marginalized communities to promote change through dignified jobs.
Ragga’ Kenya is purposed to empower women worldwide. They build relationships with Kenyan artisans to give them sustaining income through fair wages.
JOYN India takes artisans living in poverty and joins them with the thriving fashion world. Each step of their process is done by hand – creating more jobs, bringing more joy, and connecting more artisans with consumers.