As excited as we are about the growth of the ethical fashion industry, there's no doubt that fast fashion continues to be a force to be reckoned with. In lieu of higher prices, consumers are choosing to shop for clothes that are more often than not produced under exploitative working conditions in developing countries. The growth of the fast fashion sector is making it more and more difficult for brands to correct these unethical practices, leaving socially conscious shoppers with few options for affordable apparel. This struggle to balance ethics and style is exactly what inspired Australian fashion school graduate Emily Wade to found Sweet Society Apparel, a brand fighting human trafficking by employing young women in Thailand, and giving them the necessary confidence and training to escape the sex slave industry. We chatted with Emily over the weekend and asked her about how fashion can be a force for good.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience in the fashion industry.
Emily: I spent my teenage years living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I used to save up my pocket money and buy a copy of ‘Teen Vogue’ each month. A couple years later I moved back to Sydney, graduated from high school, and was accepted into fashion college. Starting off working as a stylist, I saw how much clothing can affect someone’s confidence. I would constantly see women transform after putting on an outfit that made them feel good. I loved seeing them look and feel beautiful and confident. I truly believe that a woman with confidence is a force to be reckoned with.
In saying this though, I also see a lot of negatives in the industry, and the horrible effects it has on young girls' self-esteem. It has created an image-obsessed culture that is training the next generation to spend more time on their appearance, at the expense of all other aspects of their identity. I really think fashion is such a massive platform that should be used to fight social problems, and have a positive influence on the world. I see it as such a big opportunity.
How did you come to marry your love of fashion with the fight against human trafficking?
Emily: After working in the industry doing different jobs from interning with a magazine, to PR and Marketing, to styling, and then to design, I was really struggling to find where I fit in. That’s when I sat down and thought about what I really wanted to do with my life. I knew I loved fashion and I knew I had a real heart for victims of trafficking, so I thought I would combine the two!
How does Sweet Society Apparel plan to tackle this issue?
Emily: Ultimately, my heart for Sweet Society Apparel is to use fashion to come alongside these girls, encourage them, educate them, and help them dream again.
It’s quite common for rescued victims to go back into the trafficking industry because they don’t know how to do anything else; they don’t know how to make an income for themselves when they come out. The average age of a victim of trafficking is about 12 years old. So they’ve missed out on a very crucial part of the growing up stage.
We also want to create job opportunities through the clothing line, from sewing, through to sales, and marketing.
Do you think that fashion has an obligation to social consciousness?
Emily: Definitely. Everyone wants cheap clothes, but that’s at the expense of exploiting and trafficking people. The consumer has a responsibility. I think part of the problem is that people aren’t aware of what is really going on behind the scenes of fashion. I think the fashion industry needs to become more transparent. Fashion is everywhere, and is such a big part of every culture. If more and more brands were to find a way to use it to help the world… it would make a big difference.
What can the average consumer do to reduce their slavery footprint?
Emily: I think it’s a great idea to research the brands and stores you usually shop from, and see how their clothes are being made. There’s a great report done by Baptist World Aid that rates different brands on how ethical their factories and products are.
What has been the most significant challenge for you in starting your business so far?
Emily: I think the biggest challenge for me has been trying to set up in Thailand. I’ve struggled with a bit of culture shock, and the language barrier is definitely challenging. I love it though. I’m the type of person that likes to be out of their comfort zone, so I’m definitely in the right place for that! When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I felt very overwhelmed with the trafficking problem. The reality of how big it was hit me massively. I just realized I have to take day by day, in baby steps. Even if I’m just able to help one person, I’m happy with that.
What would you like for Sweet Society Apparel to have achieved in two years time?
Emily: In two years time, we will have the clothing line up and running, a building/school in Chiang Mai, and hopefully to be looking into spreading into different countries.