It's hard to talk about ethical fashion in Australia and not mention Dorsu!
Founder over 10 years ago and manufactured in Cambodia, Dorsu pioneers ethical fashion in a nation rife with human rights abuse in garment factories.
We chat about Hanna's journey, what it means to be ethically made, and how she is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a responsible business owner.
And if podcasts are more your thing, listen to this episode of Striding Forward on your preferred podcasting platform:
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1. So tell us how Dorsu went from idea in your head to where you are today?
Hanna: We were motivated by old dysfunctional community development models, essentially. So we started quite a long time ago in and Cambodia has had a lot of influx of aid over the past few decades.
And when I first was looking at what we were doing and working with the people that I am here, there was a very heavy charity approach. We initially started as a business with the intent of creating a more localized, more controlled version of community development through through the model of business.
We took quite a significant leap forward about four years ago, and that was in response to the fact that we'd been bustling along as a small business and wanted to grow and felt that we're at a at a turning point for where we had to reframe what we wanted to do to grow.
And that was when we looked at taking our idea of using business as a model for community change, but really honed in on the fact that the predominant industry within the community that we were working in and also within Cambodia is the more mass manufacturing garment industry.
We paired together our idea of a business that could model change with also the understanding that some of the really predominant concepts underpinning development is security of a wage and our belief that people with the security of having employment could go on to create their own community change.
So we've always had a motivation o to use business as a forum to do this sort of social and environmental work that we're interested in, but modelling on transparency of how fashion is made and connecting people in to the story behind their clothes was as a result of a natural progression.
This was more of a defined choice from 3-4 years ago and that's what you when you engage with Dorsu; that's what you see now, a result of that kind of the pivot about what we want to do and sort of leap off into a new chapter.
2. A lot of Australians aren't as aware of Cambodian history and their current workplace laws; can you shed some light on this and how Dorsu is committed to ethical production in a nation where such practices are not widespread?
Hanna: A lot of international engagement occurs between Australia and Cambodia, and Cambodia is a country that Australian very large Australian companies are involved with through their production of garments.
Frankly, it's at a very large scale and in what we know is the fast fashion industry. So, Australians could certainly find some more information through an Oxfam report that was put out early last year, in 2019, that details the Australian companies that are producing here and importing into Australia and what brands they own.
Cambodia, historically, I think a lot of people would know about the genocide that occurred here. I don't think it gets as much attention and awareness and perhaps education through our schools as what neighbouring Vietnam and the war in Vietnam did. But around this year, Cambodia went through a horrific genocide, and coming out of that around a decade later, Cambodia was involved in a broad spread movement of globalisation from Western countries into garment manufacturing in countries in this region as a way to implement industries that could essentially pull the country out of the horror that they had sort of been through.
The idea was to implement industry and allow for growth. I don't know whether the scale that now occurs was planned, but that when you when you read on the motivations behind globalization, it really was to allow industry to develop on these side and allow access to a cheaper product on that side.
And that has escalated to a point where Cambodia itself and the Cambodian garment industry is unique in this region and that that goes for most countries. I think one of the things Australians could take away from this chat, or just in general, is that certain issues are unique to certain nations.
Exploitation and the impact of fast fashion might mean really shoddy construction of factories in Bangladesh or it might mean child labor conditions in India, or it might mean chemical exposure problems in Vietnam. Whereas in Cambodia, the big issues impacting the industry here are transport and the way that millions of workers travel to factories in open-air air trucks. So, that's one really big safety and security problem here.
There's also a defined labor law here; a lot of companies will engage with Cambodia and market that they are following the local Cambodian law as if that's a good thing. However, the law doesn't meet what would be considered a standard for living wage here or or extend a lot of different things.
But essentially, Cambodian garment workers in the context of Cambodia cannot develop and prosper as individuals. A living wage has certain factors around the ability to secure housing, safety of education for children, afford food, etc. The salaries here, in this context, don't allow that to happen.
I think probably two primary points that Australians should take away from any piece of clothing is remembering that a human made it somewhere.
When you when you're looking at the pricing of clothing, it doesn't take a genius to consider that fabric plus labour plus transport can't equal the price that we quickly grab it off the rack for when shopping in a standard shopping centre.
But I think the second piece isn't as simple. And that's that these industries are complex and the issues are unique to each nation and some across the board are similar. The best thing we can do is seek information and request/ demand transparency out of the companies that we choose to buy our clothes from
3. What's the one thing that you wished more people knew about businesses/your business's struggles with COVID-19? What do a lot of people just not understand? (Recorded on the 16/4/2020)
Hanna: I think on a personal level, we all know that the news is confronting and we're all worried about different things. I think for someone who is trying to keep something running to pay other people their salaries, then the toxic level of the media is really hard to deal with.
And then you sort of feel guilty and overwhelmed. Turning it off and trying to focus on what you're doing. But I think I think the added responsibility that you have when you know that so many people are already terrified and they're watching the news as well, and one of the first considerations they are thinking is "do I have a job or not?". That that kind of pressure is very unique in this situation.
I think as far as business goes, we needed a minute. And I'm not by any means saying I'm grateful for the situation to occur, but I know one way I've chosen to look at it is that we needed a minute to plan any anyway. I would like everyday people to understand that one thing smaller scale companies struggle with prior to COVID-19 is corporations taking up the space and access to marketing and to people's attention, so the capacity to build real relationships with customers is already hard enough when you don't have the capacity to financially compete with people taking up their attention.
So I think I'd really like people to know that a lot of businesses have folded for sure. However, a lot of people are managing to stay alive and that's through a deep commitment both to their staff, but also to their customers to provide something that is an alternative to that.
I'd love to see people come out of COVID-19 and be like, you know what, that was a moment that I became exposed to a brand that really is doing different things in comparison to some of the the mass manufacturing and some of the negative aspects of fashion and marketing and the impact that it has on us as consumers. And I'm actually going to choose a brand that's being a bit more honest with me and I'd love people to realize that there's a lot of people still fighting.
4. Has there been any silver linings? Has the change of operations and/or downtime allowed you to work on any other parts of the business?
Hanna: I think the silver lining for me and a lot of people in my business network, it seems, actually is that situations like these force you to look at things that you've potentially been sitting on the side for a while. Things that you put in this very hard basket, or not given the time that they needed just due to being on the treadmill.
And I don't necessarily mean kind of the treadmill of perpetual growth. Look, I think companies much, much larger than us I hope are taking a step back and getting off that treadmill. But I know for us, it's really hard going on something and then it's frankly even harder growing it in an emerging market with established systems around us that are are not yet efficient or effective.
So the main silver lining is a minute to breathe. But I would also say that for me, the the biggest thing that has come out of the situation so far is confirmation of our community. I don't like to be overly market-y at the best of times. I don't want people to feel that Dorsu is constantly attempting to invade their space, like I find that a lot of fashion marketing does.
But there's also a moment when everything sort of started to impact the business and then you sit down as an owner in your life and think: what do I say publicly? Like, do I ask for help? Do we explain what's going on? Is it fair to ask people to buy our clothes while they potentially also losing their jobs oror going through a huge change?
And we didn't need to necessarily ask. Our community rallied simply through us explaining what the reality was looking like for us. And I just knew that our people were phenomenal. We've always been a community-based brand. But I didn't realize just how much just how much belief there really is in our model and our concept.
So, I don't know that it's a silver lining, rather tan than just a moment to be grateful for. But the people have rallied. Our customers have rallied. Our community rallied. And that that fills me with with.
It contributes to the strength that you need to get through to the tough situation.
5. Long-term plans can go out the window in times like this, but what are your ambitions for Dorsu in the next 3-5 years?
Hanna: I think coming out of Dorsu, you will see a lot of the same thing that we do and we've always done.
So, insight into the way your clothes are made and information on the industry. But we'd like to to broaden the collaboration aspects of what we do. They've always been our highlights, whether it's collaborative products, or whether it's profit share going into organizations that we'd like to support.
We have already released limited edition collections in small runs, but I'd love to partner with businesses that are modeling in the same way we are and perhaps producing fabrics so that we can co-create products.
And I'm a little bit blown away, actually, by the presence that we're growing in different locations around the world. And I think the biggest thing that you'll continue to see, but perhaps in an enhanced way is the community that we're building in the message that we want to put out there really to allow people to come on board.
Now do you see why so many people love Dorsu?
Hanna and her co-founder have a relentless commitment to fashion that is fair to the people and the planet; regardless of the obstacles pandemics, governments and corporations thrown at them.
Dorsu is a crowd favourite at Stride, and it's easy to see why with their ethical clothing.
Check out their collection of wardrobe staples today!
What Dorsu item will you be adding to your ethical wardrobe?