True confession: Even though I am the founder and director of one of the very few social enterprises in Japan for women, I have not been very aware of the issues surrounding the fashion industry and ethical sustainability.
That all began to change two years ago.
After some deliberate consideration, my husband and I canceled our planned seaside vacation to go as a family to Cambodia instead. Let’s just say our four children were not excited about this decision! Upon arrival, we were hosted by wonderful Cambodian friends also working with our organization. We told them that our goal was to see and experience “real life” in this developing country.
Those eight days changed our views of the world - our children included. We all fell in love with the children in the orphanage; we walked through the Killing Fields museums and our eyes and hearts could barely handle the pain we saw; we were deeply moved by seeing the poverty of the children and families surrounding the urban school built near the trash heaps. Yet as we walked through a new rescue center being built for vulnerable women, and talked with our new friends who are sacrificing to make a difference there, we felt new hope being born.
And we wanted to be involved.
“What is your greatest need right now?” I asked our Cambodian partner one day in the van. I expected the obvious answer of finances, but Meng’s response surprised me:
“We need jobs for women and girls!”
Those words stayed with me as we returned to Japan. Here in Ishinomaki, we've gained experience creating jobs for women by operating Nozomi Project since the year after the 2011 tsunami. But... would that work in Cambodia? I couldn’t forget the teens and women I had met there who had no good options for their future. We had to try!
In February 2019, I returned to Phnom Penh, this time with my daughter and two of our Ishinomaki Nozomi team members. Three months later, we were able to make another trip with three Nozomi teammates. Each of these women was able to see, with their own eyes, the beauty of the Cambodian people and the incredible need for sustainable work. With each trip, my heart grew more committed to somehow making a difference. And with each trip, we gained a clearer understanding of how we might be able to do just that.
We were not alone. During those week-long trips, we made some amazing connections with others who are also committed to finding viable employment options for girls and women. We began exploring different partnership opportunities. And we have connections outside of Cambodia; could we use those to create jobs inside Cambodia?
One evening I went out with two of our local friends. In one of the many “red light” districts in Phnom Penh, we went into several establishments and started talking with some of the young women who were not busy. One new friend "SH" said her parents pushed her and her two sisters to do this because they were ill and needed medical help. Another friend "L" shared that she could not find any other way to buy food for her young daughter. With heart-breaking story after heart-breaking story, these women became real people to me; they shared their lives with me and the reasons that pushed them into such degrading work.
We discovered that most Cambodian women learn how to sew — it is a nation-wide industry that has unfortunately led to widespread unethical practices and slave labor, even among children. We connected with women near the new rescue center who were willing to teach sewing skills to the rescue center's new and future residents. And through a chance encounter in an elevator, we have begun partnering with a wonderful denim company in that city that has built a fantastic ethically-sourced business. They are now selling quality-failed denim pieces to the women near the rescue center, which are being made into our new Dara Collection gift bags. It’s a small but important beginning.
Although COVID has prevented further trips in 2020, we are so pleased to launch our new Dara Collection at this time. We are creating this new “sub-brand” from ethically sourced materials as we seek to be more intentionally ethical at Nozomi.
Even the name Dara (meaning “star” in the Khmer/Cambodian language) connects us across the ocean to something beyond our Ishinomaki world here. I hope and pray that our influence can expand in places like Cambodia, and that together our united efforts will help teen girls and women have new opportunities like what we would want our own daughters to have.
Through my trips to Cambodia and seeing how the “fast fashion” industry has created an abusive system of manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, I have moved away from non-ethical retail purchases for my own clothes. I'm a regular at our local second-hand stores now, and I’ve found it worth saving up to buy a piece of clothing that has been ethically manufactured. It’s another small step that I can make.
I feel like I’ve just started this journey of ethical awareness, with so much more to learn and consider. And I believe that each of our small steps can make a difference for young women like "SH" who deserve a better life.
Founder, Nozomi Project