Not so long ago I was a serial offender of careless consumerism. However, from my own life experiences; from a brush with cancer to frequent travel, I am now intent on living life with purpose and to make a positive difference in the world during my short time on this planet.
Like so many of us who are part of the growing movement away from Fast Fashion and towards Ethical Shopping, I am now sickened by an industry that thrives off human slavery, child labour and abuse. I have seen firsthand that by moving away from meaningless shopping and embracing conscious consumerism I can literally make a tangible difference to the life of the person who makes the products I buy.
The South East Asian region stole my heart almost 20 years ago as a backpacker, and I go back as often as I can. I am always awestruck by the resilience, strength and astounding creativity of the people I meet along the way. In countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, where recent history has caused great hardships, horror seems to have begat beauty for so many artisans and emerging designers.
In Cambodia, despite a burgeoning tourism industry, 20% of Cambodians still live under the poverty line and the minimum wage is an astonishing $140USD per month. Further to that, Cambodia has a reputation as one of the worst places in the world for sweatshops, child prostitution and human trafficking. Yet, when one visits as a holidaymaker it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the warmth and graciousness of the locals you meet; most of whom are more than likely to have suffered severe hardships or have a family member who has in ways we, in the
First World, could not possibly envisage.
Aside from donating to one of the admirable grass roots Charities or NGOs, the best way to give back to Cambodia is to purchase handmade and unique designs created by the local artisans, employed by the many Social Enterprises there.
These organisations have been created to empower the locals, often from marginalized and poverty stricken areas, through training, and provide them with fair work opportunities that, in turn, offer a sustainable future for the artisans and their families.
One example is The Senhoa Foundation whose tagline is “Employ, Empower, Emancipate.” Senhoa produce exquisite designer jewelry and proceeds from the sales of the jewellery go directly to the rehabilitation and education of young women who are at risk of, or are survivors of slavery in Cambodia. Senhoa Jewelry is individually handcrafted by vulnerable women and provides access to fair wages, health services and education.
There is also Smateria, founded by two Italian designers who had two very clear objectives: to create a beautiful, high-quality product using ‘bizarre’ materials, and to employ women, displaced from Phnom Penh due to the city’s wave of building and urbanization, in a fair and sustainable way. The stylish handcrafted bags are fashioned from recycled fishing nets, plastic or leather sofa offcuts. As sub-contractors for Smateria, the women work at their own pace, in their own time. Possibly best of all is a free preschool and childcare centre right on the premises where new mums can breastfeed their babies and staff with young children can work, happy in the knowledge that their children are getting a good education right upstairs.
Another organization that I’m proud to support is Angkor Bullet Jewellery.
Orphaned during the horror days of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Chanta Theon heads up a group of home-based artisans, some vulnerable and disabled, who reside in a small community around 30 minutes from Phnom Penh . They transform bullet casings, a symbol of war, into unique and beautiful jewellery.
Their collections feature symbols of beauty from S.E Asia such as the Gecko set (pictured).
I like to think of ethical shopping in Cambodia and elsewhere as a Win-Win for the conscious consumer. There is the chance to invest in something unique and wonderful that can be cherished for years, and, simultaneously, help trade the artisan who made it into a better life. In essence, by shopping with a conscience, we are creating an ever-increasing circle of world citizens who are affecting each other’s lives in a positive way through trade.
You may think one person can not make an impact but if we all join together and shop with a conscience, you can only imagine what good can come of that at a global level!