"Being a Social Media Influencer Made Me Start a Factory"

This guest post from Hannah Theisen gives you a behind the scenes glimpse into the backstory of the factory she’s opening in the Philippines. I personally got to visit the this factory building, meet the filipino women who are working alongside Hannah, and see the garments in person when I went to the Philipines this year.

This brand is doing everything right.

Please consider supporting their Kickstarter this month!

Sustainable Fashion Factory in the Philippines

The idea for TELAstory came to me about a year and a half ago as a result of my work with A Beautiful Refuge, a social enterprise just outside of Manila, Philippines. Our tiny, eco-friendly sewing and screenprinting shop was doing alright, in the way it was supposed to function: providing sustainable employment for a small group of Filipina moms overcoming difficult circumstances at our partner non-profit… But I wanted to do more. Living in the Philippines and spending a bit of time traveling to Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka, I’d seen firsthand how few options there were for garment workers to find work that paid decently and was conducted in a safe environment. Plus, we had more big orders at A Beautiful Refuge than our tiny 6-person team could produce!

I knew that I could employ more workers… as an increasing number of large, global fast fashion companies have closed down their manufacturing facilities in the Philippines, opting to move operations to other countries within Southeast Asia that offer less safety regulations and lower minimum wage for garment workers, thousands of skilled sewers in the Philippines have been left with no work. I began seriously considering expanding ABR’s tiny shop into a garment-manufacturing workshop with the ultimate goal of eventually creating a 200-machine factory.

The experiences that really pushed me over the edge into actually starting TELAstory, though, were mostly a result of my stint as an ethical fashion influencer through my blog Life+Style+Justice. Last year, I started asking much more pointed, specific questions to ethical brands that wanted to advertise their products or garments on Life+Style+Justice. The questions didn’t seem overly difficult or intrusive, to me: after all, I was accepting payment for recommending ethically made products to my readers and I had a responsibility to only recommend products that I knew lined up with my own standards and values. The questions I’d send to each brand that emailed me were:   

How is your product Ethical + Sustainable? 

How are the Materials Used for Your Product Sourced?

How Much Are The Workers Manufacturing Your Products Paid? 

What is Your Standard for a Living Wage and How do You Calculate It? 

What is the typical Retail Mark-Up on Your Products?

I was so surprised and disillusioned by the answers I received. While some were wonderful and made me a loyal fan and promoter, most were extremely vague on the subject of wages; “three times the average wage!” “50% higher than the industry standard” or “over minimum wage”. These answers only left me with more questions. “Three times the average wage” sounds great, until you think about the following:
In Bangladesh, for instance, the minimum wage has just been raised by almost 50% to $93
The AVERAGE wage is even less than that, since many workers do not earn even the government minimum. If you triple the minimum wage, you get $279 a month which is not even up to the $448/mo wage recommended by Asia Floor Wage as the standard for a living wage. 

50% higher than the industry standard isn’t that impressive when the “industry standard” might be a piece rate of 20 cents per garment.

A few times, I talked to ethical boutique owners who admitted that they didn’t know the exact details of the wages the people making their clothes or accessories earned. They partnered with workshops that “paid fair wages” but could not tell me what that meant. Having previously visited the workshop of a fair trade certified brand here in the Philippines that didn’t pay above the government minimum wage (not enough to live on), I wasn’t satisfied with certifications or marketing language. 

I decided that there should be more fully transparent garment manufacturing facilities to give more options to up-and-coming ethical labels and give consumers a better chance to really know the conditions behind their clothing. Within a few months of mulling over the idea, I’d started the process to set up a corporation in the Philippines, found a space to rent, and put together a local team (as a foreigner, I’m only a minority share owner and the bulk of the power and profit will go to the workers and local partners). As a mission-based enterprise, TELAstory seeks to first of all love people well by creating a transparent and interactive garment manufacturing facility where workers have more power and make a better profit. We will be good stewards of the planet by using responsible manufacturing methods and promoting sustainability and eco-consciousness in both the factory’s operations and interactions with customers and clients. We will bring change to the fashion industry through educating brands and consumers on the benefits of socially responsible fashion manufacturing. 

In TELAstory’s startup phase, we will manufacture high-quality Men’s, Women’s, and Children’s clothing, focusing first on tee shirts and casual street wear. 

As the company’s capacity expands, we will grow our team and equipment assets and begin to produce suiting, swimwear, outerwear, and denim. 

In line with our focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility, TELAstory plans to partner with the Philippine Textile Research Institute to source locally made, natural textiles which we will in turn be able to offer to our clients for their garment production needs, promoting innovative Filipino textiles made from pineapple, water hyacinth, and coconut fibers on a global scale. We also plan to invest in natural dyes, creating an on-site dying facility to use locally-sourced vegetable dyes.

Our very first range of 100% Philippines-made, biodegradable garments will use locally grown cotton, abaca, and pineapple fiber and are dyed with turmeric, mahogany, and talisay leaves. We’re currently selling a kimono jacket, pocket cardigan, button down skirt, and convertible peplum/crop top through our kickstarter to raise the funds we need for machinery, legal fees, and worker wages. We also have organic cotton tees, tote bags, and bandanas up for grabs!

It’s a bit nerve-wracking to go into something as major as attempting to create the Philippines’ first sustainable garment manufacturing facility with no investor backing, but I’m really confident in the power of consumers who want change. TELAstory is a project by consumers who care, for the workers who make our clothes.

It’s grassroots, it’s personal, it’s audacious, and I think it just might work.