Those who know me well might know that I have a cupboard full of too many scarfs. I have an inexplicable love for them. Who couldn’t adore scarfs? Every time I travel I seem to acquire several more. Our recent excursion to a silk factory in Cambodia has done nothing to remedy this I’m afraid. In fact, I think it might have made things much worse….
(Thanks to my husband Blair for the video!)
But from now on, after having learned first hand the secret of silk making, I think I will be paying much more attention to what a scarf is made of, who is making it and how much I’m paying for it. I’ll also be more inclined to pay a bit extra for the privilege of wearing a truly beautiful piece of artistry that benefits real people in real communities. Because I’ve come to realise that when choosing a scarf, the fabric I choose ultimately makes an important difference to many people other than myself.
At Artisans Angkor, the silk fabrics are the kind you can wear with pride. They are hand crafted with painstaking attention to detail at each step of the process. Silk worms are grown and nurtured on a diet of mulberry leaves, before they weave an intricate cocoon made entirely from a single strand of silk. This thread is carefully kept intact as it is spun onto a loom, which after several variations of spinning and dying becomes even finer and more vibrant. The silk eventually find’s its way onto the looms of the artisan silk weavers. There, the silk will stay for many days as it is spun by local women into the often complex and intricate arrangements that make up a scarf.
The weaving process involves a degree of coordination that I could never hope to muster – with multiple foot peddles and hand levers all being operated at once on a large wooden contraption. The fabrics produced are simply stunning, although at a glance most would probably never guess the dedication and talent that has gone into their creation. A single scarf can take one full day to weave in its most simple form and up to seven days for an ornate pattern.
Having the opportunity to walk through a working factory is a privilege that too few companies offer to the public these days, for obvious reasons. I’ve never been more conscious of how important it is to know the impact of the production processes we support with our consumer choices. After witnessing the entire process first hand, I didn’t hesitate to then pay a handsome sum of money to the artisan for her many hours of work. Okay maybe that’s not entirely true, I did hesitate and think about it a lot, but decided it was worth it and haven’t regretted it since. I guess socially conscious consumer decisions are a lot easier to make at the checkout when in the background you can actually see the people working hard making the scarves in the production room!
That’s a pretty rare experience these days. Usually we know nothing of the production process, nor the producers who made the goods we buy. Usually because they live in some far flung (often developing) country where labour is cheap and communication scarce. Sadly, the lack of information means we as consumers are forced to make buying decisions based on matters completely unrelated to who made the product and how they made it. Any real difference other than price can seem irrelevant when I’m standing at the shop counter with two similar looking fabrics in hand.
But the truth is, no matter if the producers are in Cambodia, China or your back yard – our choice means everything. The choices we make can serve to encourage an industry that pollutes the environment, encourages child labour and shuns traditional artistry with the use of mass-manufacturing machines, or, we can buy something that is handmade, fosters local traditions, creates jobs, pays fair wages, offers the opportunity for young women to enterprise and keeps adverse environmental effects to a minimum. Tough choice right?
But how? The difference can be in the details. We live in a knowledge economy, where information is a currency and yet so much of this information is purposefully kept from consumers these days. With new emerging technologies (real time data tracking systems, satellite imagery, etc) the potential is there to completely transform a consumers level of access to information about products, but only if there is a demand for it. We need to create this demand.
The first step to a fairer world is for us to ask companies to provide us with more information and avoid those that won’t. The more sustainable option will usually cost us more, but not when we consider how much we might spend on charity in order to achieve the same quantifiable benefit for poor producers. Buying sustainably can create even more positive change than giving to charity because it is altering the fundamental drivers of the market economy towards a more equal distribution of wealth.
I really think that this single act could be the most powerful thing we can do as consumers to help correct the huge problem of economic inequality in our world. It might seem like a luxury for the wealthy and I do understand how incredibly difficult it can be for cash-strapped families to pay more for sustainable products. But perhaps it is simply the difference between buying many things that can clutter our lives or choosing to buy fewer things but of a beautiful quality that we can be proud of. Perhaps it’s not always possible, and I really can’t promise I won’t be buying many more scarves in the future, but I will do my best to inquire about where they are from and how they’re made. Lets start asking more questions from the companies we buy from.