Last year, THR3EFOLD raised $17,500 in crowdfunding to go into development with a SaaS platform to allow brands to search ethical factories around the world, share designs, compare pricing, and manage their production all in one place. One of our campaign rewards was a reusable tote which was ethically made in India by factory partner Work + Shelter. We sat down with Theresa Vandermeer, Founder of Work + Shelter to learn about their origin story and what it's really like to run an ethical factory.
1 | What inspired you to start an ethical garment factory?
When I first went to India over ten years ago, I was a student at the University of Michigan conducting research on how economic empowerment changes women’s lives socially in North India. I visited different tailoring and embroidery centers and interned with a nonprofit that works with artisan groups. During the trip I did a series of interviews with these women, where many of them shared their personal struggles that changed my life.
For example, one mother of two was widowed and then kicked out by her in-laws, because her husband was no longer there to help pay their way. Another woman I met was raped and abused by her husband. When she finally left him, she was cast out of her community. I heard many stories like these and really became passionate about wanting to do something to support women in similar situations. Starting an ethical garment factory allowed me to provide paid skills training and a channel to create consistent income generation for the women, transformative for them and their families.
2 | What was the hardest hurdle to overcome as you started?
There have been many hurdles. In the early years there was discouragement everywhere. People, including my family and partner at the time, said things like, “you’re too young,” “you’re not Indian,” “it’s not safe in India,” or “you should make your own money before giving back.” Persisting without a lot of support--while simultaneously navigating institutions like the Indian government, international business law, and managing cash flow--was definitely challenging. But I always knew it was going to be a challenge, and accepting that is central to being able to persevere.
3 | What's the most successful strategy you've implemented in hiring, training, and building your workforce?
Putting the time in with my team. I spend at least four months of the year in India. There was a week where I spent 70 hours tagging t-shirts. During this week two important shifts happened. I learned that one of the women I was working with in the finishing room was actually married as a child. I got to know her and earned her trust. Then, I saw the challenges the women were facing in the production process, and was able to collaboratively develop a new workflow with them, which impacted every order positively from there on.
Beyond that, building culture is always a work in progress - when the women see my commitment, it impacts them. I must lead by example. But culture creation doesn’t happen instantly. You have to be patient. You have to build the infrastructure from the ground up. You have to be thorough and present.
Ultimately, we took a workforce of varied expertise and education levels, and built systems tailored to them, instead of creating top-down systems and projecting them onto the workforce. By working more collaboratively we’ve been able to create pragmatic and accessible systems that result in strong quality control, met deadlines, and ultimately successful deliveries that have allowed us to nearly double our sales every year.
4 | What are you most proud of?
I wanted more than anything to help women in need. And for years I felt that even though I worked for non-profits and changed my consumer habits, I wasn’t really making enough of an impact. And now, I know for sure that we are transforming women’s lives.
I have personally witnessed the magic of women becoming financially independent, learning how to use a computer, getting their little girls who can’t read into school, gaining weight after arriving malnourished, and receiving needed health checkups because of WORK+SHELTER. It is more than a job, a place where people clock in and out, it is a network of support that can create generational change.
5 | Any fun partnerships or projects coming in 2019?
While our bread and butter is really the organic tote bags and t-shirts (and we are really good at them!) we are working with more fashion forward designers, which is a fun, creative change. One in particular is LILY FORBES, a young female entrepreneur from the US. She shares our values and commitment to environmentally friendly sourcing. Her line is comprised of handwoven, naturally dyed, and upcycled fabric, resulting in finished pieces that I’m particularly excited to wear.
6 | What should a brand be ready with before coming to you?
The best collaborations are when brands and designers come with a vision, an eagerness to work with our team, and are keen to learn about ethical production. While it is easier when people come to us with tech packs and digital patterns, we are always willing to meet people where they are. Our network of fabric and notions suppliers, and customization vendors (including a variety of printers), allows us to comprehensively help with turnkey production solutioning. Our clients range from small independent designers to corporate marketing departments. We are always excited to work with new people!
To hear more of Work + Shelter's story AND connect with other changemakers in the Chicago area using fashion as a path to change the world, attend our Road to an Ethical Fashion Industry event April 24th at EvolveHer. Buy your ticket today before pricing goes up!