An interview with Melanie Vert on her travels to Uganda and Ethical fashion

Melanie is originally from Hamilton. She recently graduated from Carroll College in Montana where she advocated for Fair Trade and hosted many events regarding ethical jewelry, chocolate etc. Through her advocacy, her university became one of the first in the area to become a Fair Trade certified campus. She just got back from 3 months in Uganda where she interned for a fair trade organization called Generate for Generations.

Melanie Vert

You’ve taken a trip to Uganda. In fact, you interned there. What was the original purpose for going to Uganda?

I have travelled to many countries throughout my life but these trips were never longer than 3 weeks. After graduation, I wanted to know what it was like to live in a developing country for a longer period of time. Through my work with the fair trade campaign at my university, I met a woman named Linda who founded Circle of Hands Uganda, an organization which sells various products from Uganda. I told Linda about my desire to live abroad and she connected me with Lillian, the founder of the organization she bought products from. Through a few calls with Lillian, we both felt it was the perfect fit for my passions and skills to go to Uganda and help her organization on the ground.

Margaret (founder’s cousin) teaching Melanie how to make a necklace

What was the ethical organization’s name, purpose, and reach?

The organization I interned for in Uganda was called Generate for Generations. From their website, their purpose and reach are as follows: “A social organization in Uganda working to empower 200 single mothers, victims of HIV/AIDS, widows, sexually abused girls, victims of rape/domestic violence/forced marriage, and teen mothers in the community with skills of self-dependency, independence, entrepreneurial skills, and staying in school. We train our artisans in recycled paper-bead jewelry and sustainable handcrafts to provide for their families and generate income for generations to come.”

Melanie with the family she lived with while in Uganda

What were your activities there?

My activities there varied from week to week depending on what was going on with the organization at the time. My responsibilities included working on the blog/website/social media, sales/marketing, networking with similar organizations, daily operations, accounting, quality control, and overseeing production.

Any deep bonding moments while there too?

Definitely! One of my favourite parts of my work there was collecting stories of our producers. The women who make our products are so strong and have been through things I can’t even imagine. You can read their stories on our blog: generateforgeneration.wordpress.com. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to meet and work with these amazing individuals!

Also, I lived with a Ugandan family during my time there. My favourite memories include learning how to cook traditional meals and sitting around the table at night playing cards. We had a few laughs discussing stereotypes we each had of the other’s culture. The community I lived in was so hospitable and welcomed me with open arms. I even had the chance to be in a traditional wedding!

Generate for Generations producer Ruth with children from the village.

How did your intern work tie into women’s empowerment and ethical fashion in particular?

My intern work directly tied into women’s empowerment because rural women in Uganda make our products. Most of them are widows, affected by HIV/AIDS, victims of abuse, or teenage mothers. Unemployment is so high in Uganda making it nearly impossible for these women to find a job. Our organization provides a way for them to work from home so they can earn an income while caring for their children. Additionally, in Uganda the stereotype of a male “breadwinner” still exists. These women are breaking stereotypes and empowering other women in their villages to do the same. Any excess profits from our organization fund classes for our women to learn about nutrition, health, alternative income etc.

My intern work tied into ethical fashion because we pay our women fair wages and they operate within safe working conditions. Our customers are ensured that the money paid for each product helps the women supports themselves and their families. This model is in opposition to traditional fashion where the majority of the money that consumers pay does not go to the producers.

Annette making a basket from banana stock and leaves

What is the best way for people to find and become involved in ethical and sustainable fashion?

My favourite phrase in the ethical consumer movement is “Buy Local, Buy Fair.” The best way for someone to ensure that a product was produced ethically is to look for the Fair Trade logo. If you’re not sure, ask the store’s owner! Your curiosity will encourage them to look into buying more ethical products. A lot of ethical and sustainable fashions can also be found online or at local events so do some research during your spare time about fair trade outlets in your community! When you can’t buy fair, buy local instead. Shop at the farmer’s market, support a local artist, or attend a clothing swap!

If you would like to purchase products from the organization I work with, feel free to contact me at melanie.v@live.ca or go to circleofhandsuganda.com. We sell jewelry, bags, and baskets made from recycled and sustainable materials.

Motorcycles are the primary means of transportation in Uganda. Here is Melanie with the founder of the organization’s children, taking products to their school to be sold

Also, what is a good way for people to empower women and girls as best they can with the resources and opportunities they have on hand?

Another great phrase I’ve learned in this movement is “Vote with your wallet.” Every time you make a purchase you are choosing what kind of world you want to live in: One with modern slavery or one where individuals are empowered. It is so easy to use the resources and opportunities you have on hand to empower women and girls. For example, when you are shopping for house décor or holiday gifts, look for ethical options. Often, fair trade organizations not only purchase products from women but also empower them through health classes, clean water programs, education for their children…the list goes on!

We also encourage the producers we work with to be resourceful and use the opportunities they have! They use recycled materials and are taught to harvest other necessary materials in a way that won’t harm the environment. The benefits to fair trade products are endless!

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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