On 24 April 2013, more than one thousand people were killed when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Western multinationals like Primark, Walmart, and Mango produced clothing at the perilously constructed commercial building. The day before the collapse, inspectors had discovered significant cracks throughout the structure of the complex, where multiple floors had been added on illegally. Despite the grave warnings, factory owners demanded that their employees continue working. It was the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
Fashion Revolution Day began as a way to ensure the same injustices aren’t repeated—or forgotten. Every year on April 24, consumers are challenged to ask brands who made what they’re wearing. By asking the questions that matter most, we can create an industry that values transparency, people, the environment, and profit in equal measure.
Ethical fashion company Sseko Designs agrees it’s time for a change. Founded in 2009, the brand specializes in high-quality, artisanal footwear and accessories made primarily in Uganda. Sseko employs talented young women whose income empowers them to pursue a higher education and escape poverty. Since its conception, Sseko has enabled almost fifty women to continue their education, while working towards a greater goal of sustainable economic development in East Africa. I interviewed Carolyn Cesario, Sseko Marketing Manager and certified bad-ass about how they’re changing the world, one pair of sandals at a time.
Why is it important to know the story behind what we buy?
Our motto is “Every Sseko Has a Story.” And that is something that we truly believe. Every product we own and consume as individuals has lived a life before it reaches our hands. By giving value to those stories and making an attempt to understand them, we can become more informed consumers and also develop a greater appreciation for craftsmanship and process.
At Sseko, we believe that every piece of our supply chain provides us with an opportunity to affect positive change. From the farmer that raises the cattle for our leather to the women who carefully stitch each sandal, every piece of our process is done with great love, care and intention. And we want our customers to know, understand and take pride in these stories.
In a world of fast fashion, it can be hard to go against the status quo. What tips do have for women who want to shop ethically?
You’d be surprised by the number of ethical options available now—and they’re growing quickly! We believe in fewer, higher-quality items–in owning beautifully made goods that will last for years to come (and that’s why every Sseko product is built to last!). We encourage you to look for items that are timeless, items that will transition easily from season to season and aren’t as likely to go out of style. By investing in quality pieces, you’re reducing your overall impact on the environment.
One of our other favorite ways to shop ethically is thrift stores! So many of our favorite pieces are from consignment shops, which is a great way to reduce your footprint and give some old styles new love!
Finally, know that you can’t solve all of the problems in the fashion industry immediately. Don’t obsess over every piece, but rather focus on the small ways that you can begin to make change. Slowly try to gain knowledge and understanding of the space, and as you do, use that knowledge to make responsible decisions.
Can you share more about the women you employ? What are their lives like?
We employ 2 teams of women: our veteran staff and our university-bound ladies. The university-bound team is made up of young women who have just graduated from secondary school and work with us during their 9-month gap between graduation and the start of university. They are between 19-21 and are some of the brightest, most articulate young ladies in Uganda! With aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers—and even the president of Uganda!—these women are destined to be change-makers.
Our veteran team is made up of women from ages 24-70! And the demographic varies greatly. Most of these women have families that they support, and they’ve overcome a variety of hardships. You can read all of their stories on our Meet the Women page!
Why is transparency important in the fashion industry?
At Sseko, we believe that consumerism can be an incredible force for positive social change. If we as consumers demand transparency and ask the hard questions, we think the world would be a more beautiful, just and peaceful place.
How is Sseko changing the face of fashion today?
Unlike most fashion brands, Sseko is (as we like to say) a “not-just-for-profit.” We are committed to making an impact–to help women and girls in East Africa pursue higher education—and we’re using fashion as the medium for that change. We’ve transformed the act of simply buying a pair of sandals from a meaningless thing many do without thought to a tangible way to manifest a belief that you have about the world.