Six years ago Stephanie Hogg set up the social enterprise NearFar, a sustainable fashion label based in Sierra Leone. Earlier this year she co-founded Gather&See an online boutique that sells ethical brands from around the world.
Sara Beech (April ’14) talks to her about throwaway fashion, the challenges of setting up a social enterprise in a developing country, and the impact Ebola has had on her business.
Why did you choose to set up a social enterprise in Sierra Leone?
I had visited Sierra Leone several times and having worked at London Fashion Week and with a wholesaler in East London, I was particularly interested in how the fashion industry could provide sustainable employment for people In Sierra Leone I saw that there were lots of exciting projects taking shape and people were starting to invest more in the country. Businesses and the economy were really growing. A lot of NGOs were working to provide skills training for young people affected by the civil war and lacking in education. The training was great but there was a lack of a market for all the clothes and products that were being produced.
I decided to set up NearFar to support the local tailors and create sustainable employment for young people by providing them with access to an international market. I designed the pieces and used fabric manufactured in Ghana and Nigeria, where the infrastructure is better for cloth production. I wanted to use the business to showcase the vibrancy and creativity of West Africa- the things that make Sierra Leone so full of energy and .a wonderful place to visit.
Initially NearFar worked with Goal, an international humanitarian NGO that provides tailoring workshops for local people. This enabled us to learn more about how these skills were taught. We also recruited some of the tailors who had gone through the two year training programme to work with us.
Reinvesting in a social cause
In addition to training and providing employment to young people, 10% of NearFar’s profits were used to pay for further training for the tailors. We asked them which skills they wanted to learn and helped them enroll in literacy programmes.
What challenges did you face?
One of the main challenges we faced was the quality control on our garments and trying to ingrain higher standards in our tailors in order to make it an internationally viable business. There were communication difficulties, both in terms of technology and language. It was also hard to find a partner to manage the day-to-day running of the business once I moved back to the UK earlier this year. Now the tailors themselves run the business.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge is the fashion industry itself. Although we have begun to see a shift in consumer mindsets, until ethical fashion is the
norm, our customer segment remains quite niche and comprises a subsection of people who are more socially and environmentally engaged. Educating the public on how the fashion choices they make can have a social and environmental impact is a huge part of this; organisations like the Ethical Fashion Forum are doing a great job, but we need the high street chains and fashion houses to adopt more transparent supply chains and to provide customers with all the information they need to make informed choices.
Lessons for Sustainable Fashion start-ups:
- Do your research on the country you are setting up business in, including on export laws and cultural norms. Talk to people to get a clear impression of how long it will take to set up an office, and produce your product
- Think about the long term, large-scale impacts you hope to achieve
- Though sometimes tempting, be careful not to cut corners and instead focus on producing
- products you are 100% happy with on a small scale before you grow the business.It’s better to do this and maintain relationships rather than promise things you can’t deliver, even when there is an exciting opportunity on the table
- A key part of encouraging people to buy ethical fashion is producing clothes that are aesthetically pleasing and desirable, as well as ensuring that your garments have at least one of the following elements: Fair trade, Organic, Recycled, Eco-friendly, Handmade and Small Scale Production
How has the Ebola virus affected the business?
Sadly, it has had a big impact on NearFar, and on businesses and investment generally in the country. Many businesses have reduced their operations: people are staying at home more and some are unwell*. Despite this, NearFar is still trading locally and internationally on a small scale and we are hoping that things will recover, but it will take some time. Restrictions on things like where people can go, that no more than five people can be in a confined space at one time, have prevented people from going to the workshop to buy clothes. Many of our clients in Sierra Leone, who were wealthy Sierra Leoneans or expats have left the country. Those who are still there are involved in the Ebola response and life is much interrupted. Unfortunately Ebola has brought many of the exciting projects happening in Sierra Leone to a halt, and has overshadowed the positive stories and potential that were beginning to be associated with country.
I am now focusing on growing Gather&See, an online ethical fashion boutique that I co-founded with a friend. We already have a strong customer base in the U.K., Germany and the States and are running pop up shops to increase awareness around the brand and ethical fashion. As I am now UK-based, I handed over NearFar to the tailors to run and I continue to offer advice and assistance to the tailors running NearFar, and working with them on connecting the business to a broader international market whereneeded.
Gather&See are holding a pop up store at Glassworks at 190 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6HU everyday from 11am-7pm on the 15th – 22nd November. There is also an evening drinks reception there from 6pm-9pm on 19th November.