Building Opportunity for Women Artisans, One Hand-Printed Dress at a Time
Exploitation and excess are hallmarks of the fashion industry, which cycles through styles and seasons with wave after wave of new products. This fast-fashion turnover not only generates an enormous amount of waste—10.5 million tons of clothing ends up in landfills every year—but consumers’ expectation of cheap clothing also drives down wages and leads to dreadful working conditions for textile workers around the world.
For example, Indian workers testifying before a human rights tribunal in 2012 said they had toiled under abusive conditions, expected to produce impossible volumes of clothing and paid less than the legal minimum wage.. Garment makers are often subject to unsafe workplace conditions, which can lead to health problems and tragic accidents. These longstanding fashion industry ills are what motivated Mata Traders, a Chicago-based company, to take a more “thoughtful and deliberate approach to fashion,” says managing director Chris Goetz.
Mata Traders specializes in selling handmade dresses with original prints and brass jewelry, all handcrafted by artisans in India and Nepal who earn a sustainable income through traditional skills like embroidery and printmaking. Noting that the fabrics are also durable and designed to last beyond the changing seasons, Goetz describes the company as “a social purpose, fair trade fashion business devoted to eradicating poverty by empowering women.” Its artisans “are able to have the resources to care for their children and support their communities,” she says. For instance, says Goetz, the amount an artisan earns from sewing a single dress for Mata is enough to pay for a five-day supply of rice, a 15-day supply of wheat flour, or a week of school fees for a child.
Artisans producing clothes and jewelry for Mata Traders are hired through local labor cooperatives—organizations in which workers can collectively negotiate for better pay or benefits—that provide access to health care, paid maternity leave, day care, and pension plans. These co-ops enable artisans to choose the number of hours they work, provide access to social workers, and offer classes that teach literacy and computer skills. Goetz mentions an artisan named Sidhama who sews clothes for Mata. She had never taken the bus before joining her co-op, because she couldn’t read the bus numbers. Now, thanks to her literacy classes, she’s able to navigate the Mumbai bus system, opening up a world of opportunity in her own city.
“Mata artisans come from rural areas, tribal villages, and urban slums, but they all want the same thing,” says Goetz. “The chance to earn a fair wage and lift their families and communities out of poverty.”
Mata Traders was founded by Maureen Dunn, who traveled to India in 2003 after graduating from Northwestern University and fell in love with the country’s lively markets and vibrant crafts. Dunn began a business exporting wares to the U.S. and soon realized that her business model could be a tool to address poverty and exploitation. So in 2007, along with two friends she met at Northwestern, Jonit Bookheim and Michelle Thomas, Mata Traders was formed.
With products priced similarly to clothing at Zara, Ann Taylor, or Banana Republic, Mata Traders makes it relatively affordable for customers to choose an ethical alternative to big fast-fashion chains. Mata dresses are hand-printed, either using screens or block printing (where carved blocks are used to stamp the fabric). Some pieces are additionally hand embroidered with intricate designs. The result is a line of vibrant and unique products that are perfect for leisure but still cut conservatively enough to be appropriate for work.
The company’s jewelry is likewise handmade, featuring bold shapes and colors. While the pieces are primarily made with brass—a versatile and durable material—some also feature upcycled bone, or have wooden or resin components.
Goetz, who was brought on by the founders last year to help grow the business, says ultimately she measures Mata’s success by its level of social impact. “By connecting more customers to Mata artisans we positively influence more lives and communities,” says Goetz. “We’ve made sure to create products that compete in style and price with other similar brands … no matter how inspired someone is by the Mata mission, they have to love the product in order to buy it. We see the mission and the special nature of how our apparel and jewelry are made as icing on the cake.”
Mata Traders’ altruistic mission is also a very real business asset—as consumers grow aware of the problems of fashion consumption, many are actively looking for brands that provide an ethical alternative. “In the hands of artisans in India and Nepal, fashion is an opportunity for education, economic advancement, and female empowerment,” says Goetz. “In the hands of consumers, fashion is an opportunity to care about the quality and history behind a product.”
According to international nonprofit Ethical Fashion Forum, truly ethical businesses don’t merely try to limit harm to workers and to the environment. They also “take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimising and counteracting environmental concerns.” Mata Traders puts a unique spin on this, as a woman-owned and -operated business catering to women customers, working to empower their women artisans, one adorable dress at a time.