Why sacrifice our passion for fashion and beauty in favour of sustainability and a fair supply chain, when we can have both, asks Veronica D’Souza. After shutting down her activist brainchild, the Carcel fashion brand, she now advises companies on striking a balance that secures a future for us all.
“It all went well until it didn’t,” Veronica begins when asked about having to shut down her Carcel clothing brand in January 2021. “When I told my mom about the idea back in 2014, her response was: ‘Do you think that’s even possible?’” “Well, I don’t know, mom. We’ll just have to find out,” she recalls answering.
And find out she did. Carcel was born out of good intentions and halted by an overly idealistic business plan. To be honest, Veronica D’Souza never tried to make things easy for herself: Setting up fair and sustainable production in prisons on two different continents; having high quality goods and no seasonal collections, refusing to put items on sale, and buying back unsold stock from retailers. It would have been a Navy Seal-grade obstacle course for any business, let alone a tiny start-up. Nonetheless, she is hesitant to consider the project a failure.
As we speak, Veronica has just finished recording an album using a free piano she picked up from the local classifieds. Shutting down Carcel left a void in her life, but only for a brief stint. Soon the phone started ringing with offers from companies soliciting her services as a sustainability consultant. Currently, she is busy with a new project on sustainable design and architeture, but will not disclose any details.
Sustainability and responsible fashion are buzzwords in the industry. Why do you think the fashion world is having this conversation now?
Veronica The conversation is bigger than the world of fashion. It has to do with the way we as humans must reassess our way of living on this planet. And the sped-up pace since the age of industrialisation cannot continue in its current form. The fashion business ranks high among the biggest polluters The conversation has changed the past decade; before, it was about harm reduction, but that conversation isn’t valid any longer. The urgency is too great. Many of us have children we would like to leave a wonderful world for.
Well, it’s hard to get someone to understand something if their living depends on them not understanding it.
Veronica The reason I like working with fashion is the way popular culture can create movements and make something attractive and interesting. We must separate the industry from the art of fashion and popular culture so need to totally revamp the industry, while retaining our love of expression and creativity. We are not rational beings, but we can be driven toward wanting to do things differently. We can harness the creative powers within the fashion world to extoll new values and make them desirable.
How was your own journey into responsible fashion?
Veronica At first, our goal was to give female inmates the opportunity to earn wages and learn new skills and take care of their children after release from prison. They are mostly incarcerated for poverty--related crimes and are stigmatised by their communities. Many of them are tremendously skilled at handicrafts. So we looked at countries with high levels of female incarceration that also had natural luxury materials. How to create products that respect the traditional work, while being something that people in our part of the world want to wear and think is cool? I also wanted to use the brand to talk about issues in such a way that people want to be part of the discussion; being in the system, while criticising it from within and trying to transform it.
What you did with Carcel was very radical. What were your toughest challenges?
Veronica Setting up production inside the prisons, ensuring fair wages, quality control, and finally sales. Getting all of these things to fall into place was the most surprising part of it. What didn’t work well was getting funding. In a sense, it was a utopian project, because we wanted to check all the boxes at once: a different production method, no waste, no seasons, natural materials. We took none of the shortcuts that could have brought in some quick money. We succeeded in being an activist project that tried to idealistically combine various approaches, but we did not succeed in making ends meet.
In Thailand, there were laws limiting prisoners’ wages, which meant that we couldn’t legally pay them a living wage. Government figures in Thailand often asked me why I care so much about money. “We’re Buddhists,” they said. “If you do something wrong in this life, you can come back to rectify it.” It took one and a half years of negotiations with the Thai authorities, who eventually allowed us to bypass the law. As a result, the law itself was later changed for the better and now applies to all inmates in Thai prisons.
I don’t think there is one single solution to all the things we need to discuss today. But if enough people try new things, even if some of them fail, it will bring us closer to the solutions we need.
What lessons did you learn from that experience?
Veronica It’s been a lesson for life. I have learnt that if you show passion and good intent, people are willing to help, even if you can’t offer payment. I truly believe in people and passion. Having my belief confirmed was great. If anything, it has made me more idealistic. So many people supported us with no promise of getting paid. Some even moved to Peru to help set up production there. It was driven by goodwill all the way.
Carcel was an activist project. How did you balance that with building a brand?
Veronica It was a constant dialogue. Creating change is filled with compromise when you’re in the real world. It’s interesting to be at the crossroads of doing good and running a business. Our benchmark was to strike a balance between the two. My guess is that 10-15 years ahead, brands that stand for nothing won’t have much of a future.
At one point, we faced a media shitstorm because someone confused what we did with the -slavery-type prison labour that is the worldwide norm. But the basic question is relevant, nevertheless; is it ethical to profit from prison labour? And how do we challenge the dominant logic and create systems change from within?
In terms of sustainable fashion, how do you see the industry as having changed in the past few years?
Veronica The most relevant change is that sustainability is no longer a question, it’s a must. All companies know that this is something to embrace if they want to survive.
How have social media influenced this conversation?
Veronica I suppose in the same way that they shape conversations in general. It’s great to have access to a much wider range of role models than I had growing up. It’s still curated, of course, but the diversity is greater now. I think a big part of creating systemic change is about making sure that the microphone is passed to a diverse and broad group of people, so that we listen and identify with representation from across the globe, class and race.
Lots of brands are touting “sustainable” and “ethical” fashion. Is greenwashing much of a problem?
Veronica Of course it’s an issue. None of us like being lied to. But more relevant than greenwashing itself is the response in the shape of increased supply chain transparency. And social media allow -consumers to make direct demands of companies when it comes to these issues.
What about seasonal trends?
Veronica The elephant in the room is waste and overproduction: how to make money without pumping out four to ten collections a year, just to put half of it on sale? That has to end. It just makes no sense.
Do we need to talk more about living wages across supply chains as well?
Veronica There are some basic issues with the way the fashion industry is set up. Only one percent of people working in the global garment industry on the production side are paid living wages. One sixth of the global working-age population are employed in the textile industry, this includes farmers and the entire value chain. Most are women. If changes could be made there, we could lift a billion people out of -poverty. Conversely, if we do nothing, that’s the same as holding people down.
What are the first steps a brand can take if it wants to become more socially and environmentally responsible?
Veronica Making a decision. What side of history do we want to be on? Some companies are non-committal when it comes to sustainability. They make small changes to a few fabrics and think that’s all it takes. I don’t believe in that. We have had decades of companies getting away with not being political. But the world is changing rapidly. Consumers are political now and expect political answers. We saw it with Black Lives Matter. Even brands are political actors and are being held accountable. When I say it’s a choice, it means there is still ample opportunity to make money the old-fashioned short-term way. But if you want longevity in your business, you better get moving, because it takes a lot of time and effort. A sudden turnaround of values is hard to find credible. And on a personal note – it’s also about what we choose to do with our lives and our abilities. When we look back, did we take on the challenges we face and really try to contribute positively, or did we continue to do harm to the world and its people?
Research shows that social and environmental issues are on the minds of Generation Z. Are you hopeful for the future?
Veronica For sure. I have great hope that the younger consumers think differently and don’t have a desire to buy as much. And the conversation is only beginning in other regions of the world. Beauty and fashion have always been part of society, and have been defined in many different ways. Only recently, the past five decades or so, have they been regarded as something you wear and replace ever so often. No matter what, the planet will remain and replenish. What happens to us humans is up to ourselves. We have to think about us humans as a part of nature instead of above it. Then I think we can find the answers on how to live in balance on this planet.