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A Slow Fashion Business Empowering Indigenous Women Around the Globe
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Time is running out for fast fashion – long gone are the days where the big high street giants were able to exploit their workers without tremendous public backlash. Millennials and Gen Z are refusing to buy clothes that are produced by workers who are not paid a decent wage, work in unruly conditions, or even by child labour. Slow fashion is coming back to the foreground: according to a report by Thread Up, 74% of consumers between 18 and 29 years of age (i.e. the future of the fashion market) now only consider sustainably conscious brands.

The jewel on the crown of the new fashion movement is, in our opinion, a small business with a visionary ethos: To Make A Change, founded by Kathrine Skinner. This company gives indigenous women access to the international market… without taking a cut of the profit. It’s not Utopia, it’s real life: one third of the profit is invested in marketing and logistics, and the rest is reinvested in the communities.

Kathrine has been defined as a “Coco Chanel meets Indiana Jones”, for her innate elegance and adventurous soul. I met up with her on a blustery day in East London to talk about her wondrous life in Mexico City. From her headquarters in the Mexican capital she works as an online Spanish tutor, and travels to and from various sites in South America, managing the network of communities she created in just two years.

Purse made by master craftswomen in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Welcome to the Boiler House, Kathrine. What was the flame that ignited you to found To Make a Change [TMAC]?

The first seed was planted in Iquitos, Peru, in 2008. I was 18 years old, young and free, taking a year to explore the world before I started university [Kathrine went to Saint Andrew’s, Scotland, known for having schooled Prince William]. It was such a shock for me, a complete paradigm shift. I came from such privilege and my time in Iquitos blew my mind. It was then that I realized I wanted to work supporting indigenous women and live in Latin America. However, after coming back to England to study, I sort of forgot about it for a good few years….

I guess that’s how manifestation works, isn’t it?

[She laughs] YES! But also, you know, university in England is really tough and it’s easy to get sucked into that world. To be honest, I am very grateful for all the work experiences I had in the UK, and in London especially. Working at Elephant Communications, I learnt a great deal. I was also Director of Business development for a London based property company, at the age of 25.

In November 2017 I decided to quit that job and started travelling around South America, visiting indigenous communities. I had no intention of portraying myself as a white saviour, that was something I was never interested in. How could I, a privileged, white European woman, know what these communities were in need of?

I started asking the women I met “What do you need?” “What problems do you need support with?” “How do men treat you?” and their answer was: “We need access to the market. We know how to make these products, we’re very skilled, but we can’t sell them if not to the occasional tourist that comes by.” Many of the communities I visit are in very remote locations, so they’re off the beaten path…

Women weaving in La Guajira, Colombia.
How many communities does TMAChange serve?

At the moment our network includes about 19 communities across Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador.

According to the media, these traditional communities often face a certain level of resistance in our Capitalist world. Especially indigenous women, who are arguably one of the most vulnerable population groups on the planet.

Indigenous communities around the globe have to deal with tremendous challenges. The challenges are varied and specific to each community, but they are all undeniably very difficult.
One of the communities we started working with in early 2019 was the Asheninka in Peru. This is a female lead community deep in the Amazon jungle. It’s female-lead, as four of its leaders were killed in a massacre in 2014. They thought that by killing the men, the women would be easier to displace somewhere else. They were wrong: the women took charge and haven’t budged an inch since. A lot of indigenous communities are known to face these issues: because most of them live in the rainforests, they are often prey to narcos and illegal loggers. That’s why we work in close contact with the Rainforest Foundation, who do incredible work to safeguard nature and humans alike.

This story is one of many examples of Indigenous Peoples defending their forests and paying the ultimate sacrifice.
How does TMAC work operationally?

Initially, it was just me buying their products and selling them on this little self-made website I did when I got back to England after my travels.
With time, as I kept going back and the network expanded, I had to hire a distribution company [based in Oswestry, Shropshire, UK].
I now travel to the different communities, for whom I may or may not buy the raw materials… it depends on their needs. I buy the products they make directly from them, often having to estimate what I think would be a just price, as the women are not able to gage… they are used to selling to random tourists, so they don’t have a clear idea of the placement their products have on the market. They often undercharge me, whilst I find I often overestimate the price. Either way, because this is uncharted territory, I find that I have to apply my common sense and trust it… there are no laws in this field, yet.

You’re trailblazing the way...

Yes. And for this reason, I want to underline the fact that as an entrepreneur, it is essential that I apply my moral values to guide the way I conduct my business.
I have to be able to go to sleep at night knowing I did the best I could, for the women I serve and for myself. That’s why I carry out my business and act like… what I believe human beings should act like, and that is with honesty and integrity.

How difficult is it to run TMAC in a way that is non-exploitative to the Planet and people?

It’s not a piece of cake, I’ll you that. It’s a constant battle with myself to keep on track… I am doing something that goes everything I was trained to be; I’m revolutionizing the concept of “success” in my own life. I hope this can serve others who, like me, don’t want to spend their lives just chasing money, but want to make a real impact in the world… improve people’s lives.

How have you seen your work impact the communities who are part of TMAC?

I’ve seen indigenous women being empowered to the point of raising $40000 to buy their land within two years. This particular community is based in Guatemala. Three months before the deadline, they were missing $5000, and they had sort of lost faith. They then asked TMAC for a loan… We loaned them the last $5k and within two months they had managed to raise the whole amount to pay us back and returned it to us, with an additional 10% interest that they wanted to give back to TMAC, asking us to reinvest that extra bit into a community elsewhere.
That day, I cried – because I saw for the first time the immense, positive power communities can have when they have access to the right tools. That reiterated my firm conviction that they know what’s best for them: who am I to tell them what to do and what they need?

How has working with people from a different culture had an impact your own personal journey?

I’ve had to learn a lot of patience. They have completely different rhythm from what we are used to in the West. Forget the very fast-paced London life, where you can get everything nearly instantly.
With the communities, I’ve had to learn to double delivery time. If they say they will be able to make the products in two weeks, I count four weeks. If they say four, I count eight and so on..

Three generations of women in Riohacha, Colombia.
What’s the structure of your business model?

TMAChange is based on cooperative functioning, which has proved to be successful in the past. We don’t take anything for ourselves; the profit we make from sales is used to cover the costs of running the business; shipping, warehousing, staff costs and marketing; all of our profit is reinvested back into the communities.

What about looking for funding?

Both my business partner and I have invested our own savings in to launch the business. We have started to think about external funding but before doing so it was important to us to make sure that we had set up a business ethos and structure that was consistent with our ethical morals. It was important to get that right, before getting to a point where people were expecting to make some sort of profit from TMAC. I know very well that having a board of external investors often reduces the amount of freedom founders have, in terms of the direction of the business etc…

Three generations of weavers
How do you manage to cover your own living expenses?

I work as a private Spanish tutor online in Mexico City! As I don’t have huge costs to cover, I am happy to live a very simple life. I want to keep as much money in TMAC for now, to help it grow so have still yet to pay myself a salary from the business.
It’s important for me to underline that TMAC is a Limited Company for the moment, not a charity. However, we are in the process of founding the TMAC Foundation, which will focus more on the social and educational projects we want TMAC to carry out.

What projects would you like to incorporate within the company’s activities?

I want to incorporate projects such as workshops that educate women on their reproductive rights and sexual abuse. A lot of the women are still living under a very traditional patriarchal model. They don’t really know they have the right to be treated in a certain way or spoken to aggressively by their partners and other men in their communities.

It’s very hard for me to witness this. My hope is that these workshops will empower women to stand their ground when being mistreated. But I also hope they will improve the overall quality of relationships within the communities. However, I respect the fact that some might not want to emancipate themselves, something I’ve been made aware of before. Some women have said to me “This is how it is and we don’t want to change it”. We intend to introduce these workshops only amongst those communities that have agreed they want and need them.

How do you envision TMAChange evolving?

I would like, in the long term, to see the network of women completely emancipated from us. In terms of dealing with the logistics of the market themselves, that is. I realize this is difficult, but I truly believe in it. With the right, strategic education, the network can be completely independent and make its own decision. I envision this happening with the creation of a Board of Indigenous Women who are business literate. Women who have the means, whether financial or in terms of transportations, to deal with the logistical aspect of the work required to make it.

I would also like the network to expand and extend beyond Latin America. If this work could touch as many women around the world as possible, it would be wonderful. That’s the next seed I’m planning to plant in Asia next year. But I’ll keep the details on the DL for now.

And finally…what’s the most adventurous experience you’ve had on this journey?

It has to be that time I was travelling for 18 hours on a very small fishermen’s boat on the Amazon river. That’s what we had to do to get to one of the remotest communities. It started to rain on our way back, and we had no food nor water. We had left everything we’d taken behind. Two hours into the journey I said to Mark, my business partner: “I’ve had enough!”. He replied: “Well, you don’t really have an alternative..hold tight because we’ve got another 16 hours of this!”. That moment for me was a true test of my commitment to the communities, and to my life purpose.

You can support TMAC here.

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11 / 10 / 2019 // Written by Sylvia Helen Goodrick
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