By Lisa Liberatore, Administrative & Customer Service Director, 31 Bits
Editor's note: Our industry is at a turning point in standards and practices. Some days it may even feel like a solid identity crisis. How do we continue to create products while being sustainable? Or compete in a discount-driven market while remaining ethical? The growing workforce is full of ambition to create change in fashion but are finding few positions available to do so. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity they either give up and go to the non-profit sector and we lose the passionate people we need to create this change, or start their own brand, further splintering an already noisy market. But a groundswell of impact-driven companies are gaining traction. Here's one woman's story of discovering this world and navigating her career and calling towards it, full speed ahead.
My interest in fashion informally began as a little girl. I always loved art, style, and shopping. Growing up I understood this love as an outlet of creativity and not much more. I didn’t realize I could actually use fashion as a way to do good until later as the convergence of my passions began to become clearer.
My journey through ethical fashion officially began 8 years ago as a master’s student at USC. As an undergrad, I studied political science with an international focus, wanting my work to empower women in some capacity. While graduating to a masters in diplomacy I had that epiphany moment. I came across a local store that exclusively carried products made by artisans all over the world connected to a cause. Knowing I could wear the very beads made by a woman just like me thousands of miles away, made me instantly connected to her.
I was immediately inspired and started researching more. I knew of TOMS while in college and loved the idea of using my purchase power to give back, but these companies were taking it a step further than the traditional buy one, give one model.
When I bought my very first 31 Bits necklace, I fell in love. This brand captured my heart to empower women and they created such beautiful products that told so many sweet stories. When I realized they were based near me in Southern California, I reached out and started volunteering whenever possible.
I decided to turn this newfound intersection of my passions into my master’s thesis. I created the term “fashion diplomacy” to capture this new area, defining it in these 4 ways:
I got hired
From there, I began working with 31 Bits. At the time they had a seasonal pop-up where they needed an extra sales associate. I simply wanted to learn all I could and jumped in this small way as needed. It turned into a long-term position and I’ve been with them ever since, for the last 4 years! Since joining the team the 31 Bits brand has evolved from a business-training program solely in Gulu, Uganda, to a fair trade artisan partner throughout Uganda and in Bali, Indonesia. We’ve expanded from jewelry to include home goods too. I am continually inspired by the artisan stories of our beneficiaries. One of my favorites is Abio Vicki.
I witnessed fashion empower women
Abio Vicki was abducted as a young child by the LRA. She grew up in a war and when she finally escaped, she had no family to return to and no way to earn an income. After joining the 31 Bits team Vicki said, “Had it not been for 31 Bits, I’m not sure if I’d be alive right now. I used to think about committing suicide because I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Now I have a family and I belong. I’m so happy.” Vicki is building a home on land she recently purchased and is almost done raising enough capital to launch her business: selling fish in the local market!
I'm making plans to multiply impact
I am currently finishing up my PhD in global leadership where I’m making a name for ethical fashion through research in the academic world – Applying the framework we use at 31 Bits to economically empower women as a policy recommendation for sustainable peace and development initiatives. My latest research project brought me to India for 5 weeks where I worked on the field with artisan entrepreneurs as part of a Smart Village Project with UC Berkeley in partnership with the Indian state government. My dissertation aims to create a scalable prototype to economically empower women globally through a policy lens.
The journey of ethical fashion is holistic by nature. My personal journey in this area is ever evolving as I’ve taken an academic spin on it. I love sharing at conferences and in classrooms bringing the story of social enterprise and empowering women through fashion. It’s a whole new audience!
You can do this too! If you are looking to transition your career into fashion with impact there's a volunteer spot on the team for you at THR3EFOLD. Email us your resume and a cover letter complete with what super powers you bring to the table and we'll see if there's somewhere to fit you in. Let's change the industry and the world together.