An Interview with Megan Kitt of Tuli

Megan started Tuli to help empower women and bring us sustainable and ethical jewellery made in Uganda. Every purchase puts money directly into the hands of the woman who made it, empowering them to feed their families, educate their children, and rise out of poverty.

Tell us about your background and your journey to sustainable fashion.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and though my family moved around a lot, I consider Seattle home. Moving around so much made me adaptable which I think, years later, was instrumental in starting Tuli. When doing business in a developing country, things are constantly changing and supply sources aren’t always as reliable, so you need a lot of backup plans and flexibility to build a large brand.

Tuli Janessa earrings

Tuli Janessa earrings

Tell us about your story and how you got started in Fashion?

Before starting Tuli, I worked as a journalist. I’ve always admired storytelling’s ability to create change, and I hoped to do that in my career by writing about people and places people otherwise wouldn’t experience. I studied journalism and creative writing in college, and then lived in Florida for a year working for a small newspaper before moving to Tokyo to work as a freelance journalist. While there, I was sent to Uganda on a writing assignment, and that’s how Tuli began. After that trip, at 24, I started the company.

Before my career in journalism, I worked as a fashion model to help pay for college. Although I only did it around my school schedule and it was never a huge goal of mine, my experience in the industry taught me a lot of about the fashion industry that eventually made Tuli possible.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

I’ve been interested in global development and poverty eradication for as long as I can remember, so throughout college and my early career I worked with several nonprofit organizations and realized that many organizations spend most of their time trying to raise money, which isn’t sustainable. After spending some time in Africa and SE Asia, I realized that donations alone aren’t solving the problem of poverty. I became increasingly interested in social business not just because businesses have sustainable income and don’t rely on fundraising, but also because my experience showed me that economic development is the key to ending poverty.

My interest in ethical and sustainable fashion in general comes both from my interest in social business and my experience in the fashion industry. The longer I modeled, the more I saw firsthand just how big the industry is. Consumers flock to certain brands and bring their money along with them, and the more I learned about how most of what we consume is made, the more uncomfortable I became. Fashion shouldn’t hurt people, and it doesn’t need to. It’s possible to create a quality, stylish product that is made under safe conditions and provides fair wages to its makers at a reasonable price.

Tuli jewelery products are all hand made in Uganda

Tuli jewellery products are all hand made in Uganda using beads rolled from recycled paper, painted by hand, and coated in a water-based varnish that makes them as beautiful as they are durable.

What seems like the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

Right now, consumers don’t have much access to ethically produced fashion, and that’s a problem. Market research shows that consumers prefer fair fashion, even if it costs more, but access is an issue. Consumers still have to go out of their way to buy ethical fashion, and until recently, finding affordable and stylish options was difficult. I’ve seen this changing in the last several years, and I’m so excited to see so many ethical brands growing and to see companies pivoting to meet consumer demand. Ethical and sustainable companies are vital because they give consumers a new option for their dollars.

What is the importance of fair trade to you?

Fair, transparent trade safeguards makers. It’s not uncommon in developing countries to hear of or meet people sewing products for people overseas for obscenely low wages that barely cover their materials. Why do they agree to this? Because if they have no other employment options, they’re faced with a choice between earning next to nothing, or earning nothing. Fair trade stops this type of exploitation in marketplaces.

Whatis the importance of a (relative to the country) living wage?

Living wages fight poverty. At Tuli, we pay living wages to all our artisans because we want to empower them to rise out of poverty. By earning a living wage, they aren’t only able to feed their families and pay for basic expenses, but they are also able to invest in education for themselves and their children and practice long-term savings so unexpected costs (such as a medical bill) don’t derail their lives. One of my favorite stories is of Florence, an artisan who used her income to go back to school and eventually got a job as a headmistress at a school in Kampala. We miss her, but we were happy to see her quit: Something as simple as jewelry turned her life around.

What makes slow fashion better than fast fashion?

Slow fashion has meaning behind it. When I wear a Tuli piece, I’m reminded of where it came from, the impact it had, and the hard work that went into it. If I wear a piece of fast fashion, I don’t think much of it beyond if it matches my outfit. When talking about ethical fashion, the conversation usually centers on the makers, but the wearers also benefit. Owning and wearing a piece that has impact is special and meaningful to Tuli’s customers. Fashion should make people feel good about themselves, and knowing the story behind a product promotes this.

When you purchase from Tuli, you're creating fair-waged, sustainable jobs in Uganda that transform lives.

When you purchase from Tuli, you’re creating fair-waged, sustainable jobs in Uganda that transform lives.

The Ethical Fashion Forum developed the Ethical Policy Framework. An ethical policy framework tool for those devoted to enactment of ethical and sustainable purchases, production, and business decisions. What do services such as these perform for the public, consumers, producers, and businesspeople?

These types of frameworks help both producers and consumers. On the production side, they help ensure that the best intentions have the best results. Unfortunately, in my time working with Tuli, I’ve realized that many similar organizations with admirable goals aren’t always helping as much as they’d think. For example, a popular business model for companies selling paper bead jewelry is to employ women for several months or even several years before “graduating” them from the program. The idea is that, in the time they were making jewelry, the artisans were taught a job skill: jewelry making. The problem is, a woman selling jewelry in Uganda likely won’t make much money; the market is saturated and buyers are few. Many artisans who formerly worked for some of my biggest competitors are now on Tuli’s team, and when I met them, they were still living in poverty; they tell me their time with the other organizations was great – until it ended. Frameworks like the one developed by the Ethical Fashion Forum ensure that producers are focusing on impact first.

At the same time, these frameworks help consumers. As the founder of an ethical business, I spend a lot of time thinking about impact and sustainability, but consumers may not be as intimately acquainted with ethical overseas production. Using tools like the Ethical Policy Framework, customers can ensure that when they buy, they are truly supporting ethical brands.

What is Tuli?

Tuli is a brand that fights poverty by creating sustainable jobs in Uganda. We sell handmade jewelry that is focused on both style and impact, and we pay the women who make our products fair, living wages. Because they have an income they can rely on, our partners are empowered to rise out of poverty.

What inspired the title of the organization?

“Tuli” means “we are” in Luganda, one of the languages spoken in Uganda. We picked this name because it embodies the idea of collaborative solutions to poverty. Consumers from all over the world purchase Tuli products, and each of them is creating real change in Uganda by putting money directly into the hands of our artisans.

What are some of its feature products?

Tuli sells jewelry, with a range of both statement and minimalist pieces. Our top sellers include the Eve chevron necklace, the Arianne choker, the Aster necklace, the Kira bracelet, and the Florence statement necklace.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

All our products are made using recycled paper beads. We buy the scraps from reams of paper that would otherwise be thrown away to create something beautiful. Our artisans cut the paper into small strips, roll them tightly into beads, and then paint them by hand before coating them in a water-based varnish that makes them durable as well as beautiful. After that, the beads are fashioned into jewelry using locally sourced materials.

Who grows, harvests, designs, and manufactures the products of Tuli?

I design the pieces to ensure that they are relevant to the international fashion market, and then our team of artisans in Kampala create each piece by hand.

What is the customer base – the demographics?

Our main customers are women aged 18-34 who are interested in fashion and interested in global issues. Our customers tend to shop at stores like Anthropologie and Free People in addition to shopping at Tuli.

What topics most interest you?

I’m most interested in global development and economics. Every decision we make at Tuli is focused on impact, so I spend a lot of time reading about how economies grow to make sure we are making decisions that are as wise as possible.

Did you know that economically empowering women in developing countries aids the growth of the entire country? Tuli is proud to be run by women, empowering women, and supported by women.

Did you know that economically empowering women in developing countries aids the growth of the entire country? Tuli is proud to be run by women, empowering women, and supported by women.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

Knowing that your work is making a big difference in people’s lives is enormously fulfilling. Although Tuli is still a young, small company and I spend a lot of time thinking about how we could do more, at the end of the day, I know that Tuli has changed lives. It’s hard to find a job more fulfilling than that!

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

When I was coming up with metrics for impact for Tuli, I relied heavily on Muhammad Yunus’ Creating a World Without Poverty, which includes an extensive discussion on how to measure impact and determine whether a person is truly out of poverty. I also recommend The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook from Ian C. MacMillan and James Thomson.

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, you?

I love collaborating! Tuli was entirely bootstrapped, and especially at the beginning, connections were huge for us. I love connecting with people and organizations at all stages. People can reach me at megan@tulistore.com or through my personal Instagram account, @megankitt.

What seems like the greatest emotional struggle in business for you?

The biggest struggle for me is knowing just how vast the problem of poverty is and not feeling discouraged. I’m proud of what Tuli’s done so far, and I’m loving watching its impact grow, but sometimes, as I look to the future and contemplate the gravity of global poverty, it’s easy to feel insignificant. I have to work hard to balance dreaming big for Tuli’s future impact with remembering that, to the two dozen women and their families we currently provide living wages to, Tuli has changed everything. It’s a difficult act of staying encouraged without becoming complacent.

Tuli made by women in Uganda

What sets Tuli apart? The love, joy and opportunity between each and every handmade item.

What seems like the greatest emotional struggle in personal life for you?

It’s related to my above answer, because I think most business owners would agree that business becomes a huge part of your personal life, but I struggle with feeling like I’m doing enough, and because of that, it’s sometimes hard for me to pull myself away from work, which isn’t healthy. It’s important for anyone doing work in entrepreneurship or poverty eradication to sometimes cut ourselves some slack; the world won’t change overnight, and it’s helpful to focus on what you have accomplished – and to allow yourself time to step back and spend time with the important people in your life.

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

I really appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts and work with Tuli! Thanks so much for your time.

Thank you for your time, Megan.  

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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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