EXPLORING ETHICAL FASHION WITH LAM & CO.

WORDS: KATE WEINER

IMAGES: LAM & CO

After watching the documentary The True Cost--an insightful and wrenching examination of the fashion industry's impact on people and the planet--I have felt deeply inspired to apply the same curiosity and critical thinking that I bring to what I eat to how I think about what I wear. Realizing how little I knew about alternatives in the fashion industry, I reached out to Lily-Anne Markham of LAM & Co. to learn more about the unique challenges and profound joys of managing a company with a high ethical and environmental standard. A native of Zimbabwe, Lily returned to her country to found LAM & Co. in an effort to bolster the local economy, establish stronger standards of environmental accountability, and encourage craftsmanship. Says Lily:

I'm not sure large profit driven companies will ever genuinely exercise any compassion for people and planet until policies change on an international scale - and that potential change lies in the hands of the consumer. These companies can only sell what we demand - and we must demand transparency and accountability.

As always, the most environmentally-friendly option will be working with what you have. Embracing products that are made with a minimal ecological impact and that help to maintain a culture of handiwork, however, can be a powerful means of helping to grow jobs that are rooted in reciprocal relationships with the land. Lily reminds us that as consumers we have the power to decide how we want to spend our money. What if we bought radically less--and when we did buy, bought with a radical commitment to ecological and social justice? We can't very well spend our way out of the many environmental problems that face us. We can educate ourselves on what's out there and talk to advocates for change and stay vigilant in the belief that exercising compassion for the earth and for each other is one of the surest essentials. Read our conversation with Lily below for more on the multifaceted nature of ethical fashion. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with the artisans and how you work together to produce designs? What has been the feedback from the community?

A professional relationship as opposed to a charitable one with our artisans has meant that we're able to keep our quality standards high and keep our wastage down which is something I first struggled with when I started producing hand made goods. In the first few weeks of production two years ago, I found I was paying artisans for products that just weren't up to scratch and I didn't have it in me to reject their hard work which they so desperately needed the money from. Trying to sell 'iffy' products really affected our sales, returns rate and profit margin. Now we hold quality and technical workshops  so everyone can improve their skill set and understand the importance of how excellent quality standards affect our growth and sales positively. All our artisans are issued a folder of design specs each season with technical drawings, measurements, patterns, and quality instructions. When I personally go to collect work in the different areas of Zimbabwe, and check  all measurements and quality of our products, I notice a healthy competition amongst the women who clap and cheer for each other when they do really well.  They posses a great sense of pride in their handiwork.

What made you decide to return to Zimbabwe? What was the process of establishing LAM & CO like?

I had a childhood growing up in Malawi and Zimbabwe and always had a huge awareness of African handicrafts. Whether it was trawling markets in Mozambique with my mum or buying beads on the roadside in Tanzania, I've always been an admirer and collector. It wasn't until I was working in fashion in London (specifically with People Tree)  did I realize the 'commercial' potential of artisanal handmade products and the brands taking advantage of this. Conscious consumers are on the rise and I also feel that consumers are beginning to desire products that are more unique & special  - as opposed to the latest cheap trend that everyone can own. 

All our artisans are already learned in crochet, embroidery, tailoring and knitting before they start with us, having had these skills passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. Zimbabwe has an unemployment rate of 80% and its even higher for women, so it was an organic decision to tap into this pool of skilled talent.  I started working firstly with Faith,  who could crochet and knit,  and from there we grew into a brand doing little orders for people and the odd local fair, slowly taking on more working hands. We are constantly faced with challenges, from electricity cuts, to sudden price increases on fuel and shipping costs for example. There have definitely been some spanners thrown our way and they'll keep on coming I'm sure!

How does sustainability and accountability--both to the environment and community--factor into your business approach?

Its a little easier in Zimbabwe as its part of the culture to just not waste ANYTHING. Running costs, raw materials and importing into Zimbabwe are high so we often have to be creative with what we have  and that includes recycling and sourcing everything locally. Another example is  we are slowly building a network of running commuters to deliver products to our HQ in Harare. So instead of a LAM quality checker driving all the way out to all the different communities where our products are made, a commuter who is already doing the route  (often a family relation of one of our artisans) will deliver the goods in exchange for their bus transport being paid. Not only is it convenient and time saving for us,  but it has cut our fuel consumption, fuel costs, and given someone a free ride to work which makes a significant difference over the course of the month for anyone on a basic salary. The cost of living (including transport) in Zimbabwe is quite high in relation to basic salaries. On average, Zimbabweans pay $2-4 a day for a bus ride to and from work in and around Harare.

In what ways would you like to grow LAM? How can we encourage more companies to exercise compassion to the earth and to the producers?

Growth in sales is always good, especially pre-season wholesale orders.  This is our main focus over the next couple of years. I have a long waiting list of (already skilled) ladies ready to come on board and start working, and increased orders means we can take more artisans on in the communities where we work. It's proven that when women in Sub-Saharan African countries have an income they directly spend it on feeding, clothing and educating their children and this is extremely important for a country that ranks very low on the UN's Development Index table. I am a constant witness to this positive domino effect within the communities where our products are made, and personally feel that  our business approach  is a more sustainable solution than international AID and temporary NGO projects. 

I'm not sure large profit driven companies will ever genuinely exercise any compassion for people and planet until policies change on an international scale - and that potential change lies in the hands of the consumer. These companies can only sell what we demand - and we must demand transparency and accountability. A day must come when the big high street labels and stores can only profit because  all we want to wear are organic sweatshop free t-shirts.

I also think that governments in third world countries who are reliant on the textile and garment manufacturing industry need to be accountable, and have so far, not done enough to protect their people and environments. But campaigns like 'Fashion Revolution' and the movie the 'True Cost' are building substantial momentum and offering us an insight into business models that are getting it right. We just have to keep the conversation going and the conversation needs to be happening at a grassroots level in the factories and countries where our clothes are made.