Every day, the average consumer is bombarded with marketing and advertising that pushes the newest trends. Statistics point to how apparel sales have risen in recent years, in response to drastically lowered prices brought about by fast fashion and the streamlining of supply chains. For some, clothes are now seen as disposable – gone as the season changes – and not much thought is given to what the true consequences are.
For SukkhaCitta, an Indonesia-based fashion social enterprise that collaborates with female craft artisans, or whom it addresses affectionately as ibus (meaning ‘mother’ in Bahasa Indonesia), to create ethically-crafted and responsibly-sourced garments, all these trends work against what it wants to achieve. 100 per cent of its products are made to raise wage standards for the informal workers, who had previously been shortchanged by middlemen and have no direct access to markets, says the brand, and that means pricing in the costs properly, but then this means it often has to answer some challenging questions:
Is sustainability only for the more well-to-do? Why are its products so expensive?
In fact, these were questions Bertram Flesch, SukkhaCitta’s co-founder and chief sustainability officer, had to field from a supporter who approached him at an Earth Month pop-up event held in Singapore recently. According to the brand’s website, a basic shirt sells at about US$135 and a dress could cost more than US$250.
Flesch addresses the queries stoically. Pointing to the dark-coloured classic blazer – an example that demonstrates the kind of simplicity and timelessness in design that SukkhaCitta advocates for – that he has on, he says the handmade piece takes about 180 days to complete, from start-to-finish, and that SukkhaCitta’s products are actually reasonably priced, given the work and craftsmanship that has gone into them. Flesch says it is an uphill struggle to communicate the value proposition to consumers, but the brand wants to continue to raise awareness about the hard work that goes into making a garment – and also about how most workers in the industry are grossly underpaid.
“In many cases, consumers see the point. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will end up buying our products, which in a way is fair too,” he said.
SukkhaCitta was co-founded in 2016 by Flesch and his wife Denica Riadini-Flesch, both development economists, when they did field research in Indonesia’s rural villages and found that many of the women would work on a piece of craftwork or a garment for a full month, and then be forced to sell it for as low as S$10 (about US$7.50), because they had no other choice. The venture started with the co-founders working with two or three women from a village in Ambarawa, a town in Central Java, and grew when SukkhaCitta started its first craft school in the same village in 2018. The social enterprise now has five craft schools across Indonesia, is a certified B Corporation – a rigorous certification scheme for sustainable, or “beneficial” businesses – and more recently passed strict on-the-ground audits, interviews and wage checks by Nest, a global certification scheme for ethical handcraft production practices.
In this interview, Flesch tells Eco-Business why he thinks consumers should not be shamed for their purchasing habits, and that systematically, it is the way the fashion industry operates that is flawed. He wants governments to step in to regulate and enforce standards, and believes corporates need to do more to pay garment workers properly.
How has teaching craftswomen about the value of their work and how they should negotiate for a better price helped them? Are they paid better now and do they negotiate with you as equals? How much of a cut does SukkhaCitta take out of their work?
Yes, very much, we determine the prices together. We sit together with the women, the community leaders, and firstly, we identify what a living wage is in the community – what does it take for a family of four, for example, to put food on the table, send the kids to school, and also be able to set aside some earnings for savings. It’s a number that is often above the local minimum wage. There is variation across regions. But we see an average improvement of income of about 60 per cent for the artisans. We either pay them daily wages or pay by piece, taking into consideration various factors, including how long it takes them to create a new design.
The collaboration is very much at eye level. We are equals and they speak to us if they feel they should be paid more because there is a material cost increase, for example. It is also what is at the core of our work – to make sure that the craftswomen finally get a living wage for the valuable skills they have and the beautiful work they do, that they get appreciated and recognised.
Our process of calculating and ensuring a living wage by including the artisans in the process has been certified on the ground by Nest, and Nest visits us every year with their own translator to check in with us and hold us accountable to our commitments. While I cannot give you our exact margins, I can tell you that more than half of our revenue flows back to our village communities - and makes a huge difference in people’s lives there.
In order to sustain our business and impact - like any business - we need to be profitable. Yet we choose to reinvest these profits into our impact work and the research of new, more environmentally friendly materials that we conduct in our craft schools. Profits are never pulled from the company - and of course our margins are nothing compared to those of fast fashion giants.
We hope to be able to raise our artisans average income beyond the 60 per cent mark in the future. But this has to be a gradual process. We have to be mindful of trends in local labour markets and the progress in the skills of our artisans, as well as ensure the sustainability of our social enterprise. We also educate consumers about issues such as living wages so they are willing to pay for the increase in prices that higher wages [for the craftswomen] entail.
Conceptually, the living wage is a simple one to understand, but in practice, it seems that this has escaped a lot of the workers in garment factories and the craftswomen. Why do you think this is so? Why is SukkhaCitta so focused on this mission to pay the craftswomen better?
My wife and I are both development economists. Our research brought us to rural Indonesia. We met women where they live. What really shocked us was that we kept hearing the same story everywhere. Women with these amazing skills and incredible work ethic – they would work from dawn to dusk – were struggling so badly because they just don’t have the level of access to the market that they need. They only have this one middle person they depend on to outsource the work. It was just really heartbreaking. And it’s such a shame because there is a market (for their work) in Jakarta, in Singapore and elsewhere. There are people who really appreciate the work and are willing to pay for it, but the craftswomen don’t benefit because they don’t have direct access to these consumers.
Craft production is the second largest employing sector in rural Indonesia. So it is incredibly important and there is a lot of potential for the empowerment of women, both economically and socially, but nothing is happening. That frustration made us want to help build the bridge to connect these women with a market that really appreciates a product’s provenance – where a garment comes from, how it was made. The craftswomen also wanted feedback. They also needed insights on what kind of designs people are looking for, what kind of colours would sell, and they needed help in creating a consistent quality in their work to keep their customers satisfied.
We can create all the awareness we want, but as long as it’s possible for fashion brands to still fly under the radar and to present themselves in a better light than what is actually happening, it’s an issue. Ultimately governments have to step in and say: “Look, what you’re doing in the factories is not ok.” They need to uphold the standards.
According to industry estimates, 98 per cent of women in fashion don’t earn a living wage. That number is really shocking, and I think it is a testament to how disconnected we are from how things are made. We know of clothes only as things that just suddenly appears in stores. We wear them, we put them in our closets and forget about them, without thinking so much about the impact this has on the environment and the people making them. For a consumer who buys a piece of garment, they would just think: ‘This looks nice, it’s only nine bucks, great!’
That is, I believe, the fundamental problem with fashion right now – this disconnect. It is also in the interests of the industry to keep it that way. The industry thrives on anonymity – on not telling you how something was made or what its true cost is, who the people who lost their lives because of unsafe working conditions are, what is happening to people who struggle to put food on the table because they are not paid properly, and so on. These ‘true costs’ are not really priced in. The sad thing is, it often doesn’t take much for manufacturers and retailers to price their items properly and to pay the entire supply chain a fairer wage, yet it is still not being done. That is something that boggles my mind.
One of our customers once said: “If we don’t pay the price, usually someone else is paying.” I agree with that.
How serious is the situation of garment workers being underpaid in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia? What are the gaps that need to be addressed right now?
One thing we need to do is increase awareness. The good news is, in Indonesia and in Singapore, there is increasing awareness for issues around sustainability and ethics, especially among the young generation. That is encouraging to see and it is also why we feel the [B-Corp and Nest] certifications are important. These differentiate us from other brands, and tell the consumers that we are really trying to make a difference.
But ultimately, given how the situation [of garment workers not earning a living wage] is quite dire, a lot more regulations are required. Fashion is an industry that relies a lot on informal workers. Enforcing minimum wages and safety standards is important, and these issues should be minimum requirements that corporations need to get their operational licences. I think that is where a lot of homework needs to be done. In the United States and the United Kingdom, they now sanction brands that make claims they cannot back, if they don’t have a responsible supply chain. That’s really where we need to be in the future.
We can create all the awareness we want, but as long as it’s possible for fashion brands to still fly under the radar and to present themselves in a better light than what is actually happening, it’s an issue. Ultimately governments have to step in and say: “Look, what you’re doing at the factories is not ok.” They need to uphold the standards.
Can you tell us more about the farm-to-closet model? What does it mean for Asia?
In essence, it means having traceability from start to finish, and knowing where your materials come from. That is still a fairly new concept in fashion.
In some surveys, there is an indication that less than 50 per cent of fashion brands can tell us where their base materials are from. That is really a big deal because if you look at the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, more than 70 per cent of its emissions come from raw material production, preparation and processing. Having transparency is the very first step for the fashion industry if it is to become a more circular and sustainable industry.
One important raw material we need is cotton, and in Indonesia, 99.9 per cent of cotton used now is imported, and often, from unclear origins. Most conventional cotton is grown in China, Brazil and India and often in these massive monoculture farms. We needed to make sure that the materials we used come from responsible sources, and the best way to do that in Indonesia, as we’ve found, is to grow the cotton ourselves. First of all, we don’t have to import it from faraway countries and that cuts emissions. Secondly, it can provide valuable dry-season income for smallholder farmers in the drier parts of Indonesia. It is an economic opportunity for the farmers, especially the women farmers, if we bring back cotton production to Indonesia. That way, we can also control the way cotton is grown.
Right now, cotton is the dirtiest crop on the planet, and the reason is that it is being grown in these massive monoculture farms. You have miles and miles of cotton plants which require heavy fertilisation, and which release incredibly large amounts of greenhouse gases [such as methane] that are 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide. You also have to use a lot of toxic pesticides to keep pests away. Pesticides degrade the soil, leaving it in a state that releases carbon into the atmosphere, rather than absorbing it. So we decided to grow cotton locally and empower local farmers. We get them to use traditional methods from the time before chemicals were made available in Indonesia.
Indonesia used to be known for producing the best cotton in the region. It used to export cotton too. In Indonesia, this form of regenerative agriculture is called Tumpang Sari - it is incredibly good for the soil. Instead of growing one type of crop that extracts the same nutrients from the soil, the farmers plant cotton surrounded by other crops – chilli, papaya, pumpkin – and create a very diverse and self-regulating ecosystem that is a lot more resilient against pests. There will be plants that have a certain smell that keeps the bugs away and taller plants that provide shade for the smaller ones. The farmers also use compost from their own farms. These farms are also proven to naturally sequester carbon in the soil, so they are essentially carbon sinks.
Soil degradation is a very serious problem all over the world. The United Nations has warned that soils around the world are heading for depletion, with an estimated 60 harvest cycles left until the soil literally just turns into dust. In Indonesia and especially in the eastern parts of the archipelago, farmers are already feeling the impact of climate change – rainfall is getting more erratic, temperatures are rising. And they are completely unprepared for what is to come. Reintroducing these regenerative practices is in essence asking them to go back to the ways of their ancestors, and to some extent, that really helps them get ready for climate change because it makes their soil healthier. The soil can retain more water, and if there is really heavy rainfall, it doesn’t just wash away the topsoil. I really believe in working in this way, and I hope that other fashion brands will follow us and work with us.
Did you try to do traceability without growing 100 per cent of the cotton yourselves? Was it not possible?
It was really very challenging to get organic-certified threads. They were really hard to find. They were either very expensive, or the quality wasn’t consistent. It was just not available. There were also a lot of scandals. Maybe you’ve seen reports about how certain organic certifications do not always mean much. You have to be very careful because if you source the threads from the wrong sources, it could contribute to deforestation. You might have coastal erosion or destroy the natural ecosystem if you overdo it.
And like what I said earlier, 99.9 per cent of cotton is imported. We see it as a missed opportunity to create additional income for local farmers and for women. Since it’s been proven that you actually can grow cotton locally, we thought: why not do it? So that was our thinking. We’re known to be always looking for trouble for ourselves. If someone were to produce it with the same standards locally, we’d happily buy it, because it’s quite a headache having to do it all ourselves, including figuring out the logistics. We’ve been figuring out how we can source everything responsibly, because ultimately where things come from is really important to us. We are very mindful of the processes.
It is a funny situation when we have B Corp-certification, use natural dyes and pay a living wage but still have to justify our pricing, while people happily stream into luxury brand stores and spend thousands of dollars on products made somewhere unknown, and that creates limited impact on the livelihoods of workers. But that being said, pricing is a big issue that we have to work with.
We also weave a lot of our base material ourselves. First, the weaving community creates a base cloth, then they sell it to another community that does the batik dyeing and another community does the stitching. So if we were to just buy organic cotton fabric, we would take work away from the communities. That was why we didn’t want to do that. It’s also the only way you can really guarantee that they are the ones earning the money, not just the middleman. It says a lot about our idealism and this obsession that we have.
We now see worker alliances and unions in Asia band together to demand fair treatment for workers from big fashion brands. What are your thoughts on activism?
I think each form of activism has its own place. We need to inform politicians, to nudge policy makers into enforcing stricter rules, and we also need to open people’s eyes – these could be people on social media or consumers – for them to see where the products come from and how they were made.
To a certain extent, we are involuntary activists as well. We do a lot of writing in our social media channels, our blogs to raise awareness and to educate. We are sort of a campaigning brand.
Tell us more about why you moved to Indonesia in the first place.
I’m originally from Germany. I’ve lived in Indonesia for over 12 years, because Denica, my wife and the co-founder of SukkhaCitta, is Indonesian. For Denica and many Indonesians, batik is a source of national pride, they’re told to wear it every Friday, so when she saw the situation of the craftswomen who were making the batik, there was an immediate contrast – how much work goes into it and how little pride and recognition they get. So it was a very personal mission to get them the kind of appreciation and visibility they deserve. It was my wife’s desire to make that possible – to allow these women to thrive in their own right. Rather than charity, we provide training and very much, just fair access to global markets for these women.
At the beginning, it was very much Denica driving the business, but for me, meeting the communities and feeling that strong sense of community they have, how they are focused on improving their livelihoods, that really was impactful for me.
What are some of the toughest questions you’ve had to answer from your supporters or the average consumer?
Probably not the toughest but one challenging question we’ve had to answer: Why are your products so expensive?
It’s a fair question because it is true that our price point is higher than Uniqlo, Zara or mainstream fashion retail brands like that. It’s the nature of our work: everything that we make is handcrafted. Some of the pieces, like this jacket that I’m wearing, takes 180 days from the farm to the harvesting of the cotton, to processing and weaving. It’s a challenge we have to overcome and we also need to get people to really appreciate the process. That’s something that’s sometimes very challenging to convey.
In many cases, the consumers see the point. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will end up buying our products, which in a way is fair too. It is an uphill battle to communicate the work that we do, that it comes at a certain cost, and persuade others to buy us. It is a funny situation when we have B Corp-certification, use natural dyes and pay a living wages but still have to justify our pricing, while people happily stream into Louis Vuitton and Hermès and spend thousands of dollars on products made somewhere unknown, and that creates limited impact on the livelihoods of workers. But that being said, pricing is a big issue that we have to work with.
When I was looking at ways for farmers to create products and fabrics that we then can make available to other brands at cheaper rates, like processing them with machines and to make that more accessible. But SukkhaCitta is a craft-based business. That is really our challenge. A lot of other brands say they use natural dyes, for example, and they often manage to operate at a much lower cost because they just focus on one thing, or they’re the fast fashion brands who don’t really worry about this – they just make something and sell it. They’ve never had this kind of pressure.
SukkhaCitta is a huge advocate of the ‘forever wardrobe’. A lot of your designs are simple and subtle, and meant to be long-lasting. But we live in a society where there is a lot of advertising promoting more consumption and people are affected by that. How does your brand try to come up against that?
It is a big challenge. We’re all told that we shouldn’t repeat outfits and wear the same things continually. Especially for women, it is stressful, right? In some circles, especially in Jakarta, people do notice what you’re wearing and talk about it.
For us, we try to make it a point to wear the same things over and over again and we talk to people about why having a forever wardrobe is far more sustainable and better for the environment. Our designs make sure that they don’t have to compromise on looks even if they were to wear the same pieces. We try to normalise the concept of rewearing the clothes you have in your wardrobe – it’s actually better that you have a few good pieces that you love and wear often. But we also understand that the fear of repeating outfits is a legitimate one. We’ve heard from some of our customers about how much stress is put on women to always look their best and to wear something different. And considering this, I think the way to go to raise awareness is education, not shaming.
The Earth Month pop-up event curated by sustainable fashion marketplace Zerrin, and featuring SukkhaCitta, is taking place at Anchorpoint Shopping Centre until 14 May.