MARA is a social enterprise established in 2013 in Moldova. They focus on slow upcycled fashion and the ethical production, life essentials and the well being of those who make them.
Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.
I come from Poland where i graduated from a 3-D Product design faculty on Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, my favourite city in the whole wide world. I also studied Fine product design on Coventry University, both my degrees are quite far from fashion design but I must say I’d never consider myself a fashion designer I like to think that I have more interdisciplinary/ holistic approach.
My idea is to bring design thinking into already existing project, understand the problems it faces and help to find out suitable solutions. Together we try to design desirable and profitable products to help the project to grow and sustain itself.
How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?
My interest in ethical manufacturing came gradually, it was a cross between my education and working experience. I was lucky to get some working experience in a furniture factory in Indonesia. The concept of the manufacturing was revolving around purchasing century old houses, that would become unsuitable for living and making very special up-cycled pieces of furniture out of the wood they were constructed from. I remember being absolutely fascinated with their zero-waste policy. I started reflecting more on how things are made and in what conditions.
After I returned to my home country I was ecstatic to discover that the whole slow fashion movement kicked off. First slow fashion trade shows and makers markets. There was so much energy and optimism I wanted to be part of all this new exciting movement. I started making printed garments I would design and have manufactured by local seamstresses from organic cottons.
In 2015 I joined MARA, in their mission to fight unemployment and migration of women from rural areas. I think that together with the whole team we managed to create a brand that not only gives employment but also promotes the concept of ethical, sustainable and locally made fashion in Moldova. In October 2016 we opened a shop that unites local makers and works as a platform for promoting local designers.
What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?
I strongly believe that promoting the idea of sustainability and ethical manufacturing can influence consumers buying behaviors. Together with the whole MARA team we advocate empowerment via good design. Social business that targets and resolves particular social issue is a model that, in my opinion, has a bright future. We at MARA put a lot of effort into educating our customers about the importance of ethical manufacturing and encourage them to question the origins of not only the final product, but also the materials.
The customers play the most important role in the whole process, as they have the power to push for 100% transparency about the cost of manufacturing and the conditions of the manufacturing. If consumers will have more interest in questioning who made the garments they buy, in what conditions and out of what materials, the companies will have to follow that direction. I am very happy that more and more companies are open about their manufacturing ways and I hope that will sometime become a mainstream trend. Often we get a feedback that we are too focused on commercial part of our project, but I tend to depute that.
In order to become a successful, sustainable enterprise and reliable employer, social business like ours need a desirable product. I see a role of a designer crucial in this process. Improving the quality of the product and visual communication, to help the sustainable brands reach new customers and grow. Only this way the concept of ethical manufacturing can spread and employment rate can grow. We still try to find the right balance between the commercial side of our project and the social one, sometimes it isn’t easy.
Who is a personal hero or heroine within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?
My personal hero is founder of TOM’s shoes Brake Mycoskie. What I find the most impressive is that they grew, into a very recognizable enterprise, re-branched and still managed to sustain the concept intact. I respect that they are very open to outside evaluation and committed to transparency and improving their vision. TOMS is definitely very inspiring story.
What is MARA Knitwear?
MARA is a social enterprise based in Republic of Moldova, country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania known mostly for its wine cultivating traditions, great people and crazy emigration statistics. We try to tackle the problem of women migrating the country and leaving their children behind with grandparents.
In our workshop, located in Scoreni – a village with around 3000 inhabitants, we create knitted up-cycled woolen garments and accessories. We campaign for ethical manufacturing and 0 waste management in Moldova, we make our knitwear out of leftover yarn that we buy from bigger producers. Our manufacturing means are very limited, that gives us opportunity to advocate for close relationship between our makers and customers.
On the start we were backed up financially by East European Foundation and Swiss Agency for Cooperation in Moldova. We cooperate with village authorities on a number of social projects. Our objective is to enable and dignify women through trainings, creating job opportunities, rising local employment rate and giving women means to stay in the country with their kids. We try to educate our customers about the importance of ethical and fair production.
What are some of its feature products?
We create our knitwear on manual knitting machines. We try to focus on minimal and timeless design with simple, easy to accessories shapes and colors. The garments are created for women by women, so among our products customers will find many knitted dresses, soft comfy sweaters, shawls. We take the concept “know who made your clothes” quite literally, all our items come with the hand signed message from the person who actually crafted it.
We made our garments to last, using the best yarns we can find. In our selection we have sheep wool, merino, organic cottons, mohairs and occasionally limited editions of cashmere. Our collection is very limited due to the fact that we up cycle woolen left overs, but we think it’s an interesting asset of our brand, each piece comes in very small quantity, each is special and each of them has our close attention.
What is your customer base – the demographics?
The internal market in Moldova is very difficult and it shrinks rapidly due to migration of young people that is why we put a lot of our efforts into reaching out to international customers. We are hosted by two shops WORKSPACE COLLECTIVE in Connecticut, USA and SOME WEAR ELSE based in Wroclaw, Poland.
We can not forget to mention a wonderful circle of returning customers based across the globe really and expats that work for international organizations based in Moldova. Big group of our audience is also Moldovan diaspora members, who by buying our products want to support employment growth in their home country.
We still try to reach out to new audience, only by doing so we can improve the employment rate in the village and maintain our business model as a self sustainable, enterprise independent from grants and international aid programs. Sometimes we struggle to approach first time buyers due to the almost complete lack of information about Moldova as a country.
Our customers are usually women who appreciate our products, the social side of the project, and personal attendance that we try to give them. They usually come back for more and we often become friends.
There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). What are the importance of human rights and worker rights in this new movement, and to the garment industry?
Apparently after Rana Plaza collapse more workers are interested in joining and forming the unions. All the brands along with local government should support workers right to form unions that will represent their interests, because fashion industry can not afford another disaster like Rana Plaza collapse. Unfortunately, at the end of the day when it comes to fashion we still over consume, and low price is still the most important factor for many customers. This huge demand for cheap clothes combined with very short consumers’ collective memory and lack of interest in workers’ conditions makes it possible for manufacturers to simply get away with creating poor working conditions, not respecting workers’ rights and codes of conduct. I know that many companies that manufacture their garments in Rana Plaza have contributed into paying compensations to the victim’s families and really push the standards up but I also know for a fact that many of them refused or delayed voluntary donation towards this fund.
Children are the most vulnerable population. Women tend to have less status than men in societies including the right to decent working conditions, decent pay, to vote, and so on. What is the relationship between the need to implement women’s rights and children’s rights?
MARA’s aim is to empower women and we strongly believe that employment and fair wage is crucial for enabling women within their community but also the important step towards changing the mindset of the community.
Working women gain respect in the community, their self esteem improves and that helps to fight domestic violence. As they become less financially dependent and they can contribute to the family budget they gain the power of decision making and that paves a path to equality at home and in the community.
In Moldova the education is free and compulsory thus child labour is not an issue. The problem lays in very high unemployment rate in the rural areas, what pushes women with no qualifications to migrate outside the country. Because they have very low or no qualifications and no language skills often they end up being exploited in their new jobs abroad. Sadly, often due to low wages and challenging living conditions they make a tough decision to leave their kids behind.
We reflect on how that kind of parental migration affects kids and the whole community in the long run. Kids are still provided for financially but they are left with very little or no supervision. Very often they break out of education system too early and end up being under qualified, low skilled labour like their parents. The cycle of poverty is maintained. There is an obvious correlation between women’s employment rate and children’s well being. When women human rights are maintained, moms can earn a living locally and parent their kids the empowerment of both comes as a side effect.
Child labour and slavery are problems, major ones. These include children throughout the world. Tens of millions of children in the case of child labour and a few million for child slavery. How can individuals get the word out about these other rights violations?
This is very important issue and the one that is difficult to resolve because kids are very often an important economic asset for many families in developing countries and child salaries in many cases are a crucial contribution to family budget. However, we mustn’t forget that work will have long term negative effect on those kids. First of all, it interferes with process of education, secondly kids very often are exposed to toxic substances and unsafe working conditions.
Child labour also slows down the economical development of the whole country, because kids are filling the low skilled positions, so there is no incentive for innovation or technical development for the economy. We all must become more aware of the negative effect of child labour because we are all consumers and everyday we make a decision about what kind of manufacturing models we support.
I think there is a need to educate consumers about the scale of the problem. Information is crucial here, social campaigns, promoting international certificates and symbols can prove helpful in encouraging consumers to question and demand transparency from manufacturers. Also, right and clear labeling of the product is important. Fortunately, more people become conscious about the importance of ethical manufacturing and are aware of what information to look for whilst shopping.
How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations in many countries of the world have better quality of life?
Again, I will stress the importance of consumer education. I believe that conscious consumers that understand their needs and reflect on their buying behaviors have the biggest power to change the whole industry. The manufacturers need to be committed to bigger transparency about their ethics, business model and the way they operate. Generally, more people declare that they are prepared to pay more for the product to ensure that it comes from sustainable source and it is manufactured ethically, but we all need to step back and reflect on the amount and quality of clothes we buy. We should question the insane rate at what we consume fashion, because that simply can not continue. The interested in the real cost of the garments is on the rise, but there is still a lot to do to boost awareness about the dark side of modern fashion industry.
What other work are you involved in at this point in time?
Mara is my main project I work with fat this point, and I hope I will continue to keep it this way as I really enjoy being able to focus on this.
Any recommended means of contacting MARA Knitwear?
And, of course visit our online store at www.mara.md because we ship worldwide!
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Thank you for this conversation, I am happy you guys decided to talk to us today.
Thank you for your time.