My local coffee shop is situated dangerously close to my apartment, fueling a serious caffeine addiction that came to birth not long after we brought our newborn son home from the hospital. As I sit trying to balance my notebook, flat white and ten-month year old (is motherhood ever anything other than a precarious balance?) a waitress swoops in and picks up my gleeful baby, spinning him around. In our little corner of Phnom Penh, everyone seems to remember my child’s name; tuk tuk drivers call out to him and staff members jump in elevators to ride a few floors, conversing in gestures and broken English. I’d heard that motherhood would be isolating, and at times it is, but it also tears down language and cultural barriers with a titanic force of understanding and empathy.
It’s this new point of connection that has made me even more passionate about the potential for change through ethical business. Our sewing room is brimming with strong and talented women, the majority of whom are also mothers. We share the same enormous pride as our children conquer even the smallest of milestones. Yet in Cambodia, the relentless responsibility of parenthood is unquestionably magnified by the lack of social safety nets and the limited access to quality health care. Within the development sector there has been growing momentum to remedy this vulnerability. Women’s economic empowerment has been pushed to the top of aid agendas and the education of girls has been embedded in sustainability goals with the hope of reducing maternal mortality rates, eliminating inequalities and improving the health and education of children. Advocating for countries to create the social scaffolding to support and protect families is vital, but there is so much potential for industries to at very least ameliorate these inadequacies by elevating their staff and not exploiting them.
Unfortunately, when it comes to exploitation, the garment industry has a lot to answer for – responsible for widespread environmental degradation and often inadequate wages. Amongst our staff, there are many instances recounted of the deep regret of having to leave school early to support their families; working in garment factories, on farms or in red light districts.
Yet we have some of the most ambitious women working with us. Ambitious not because they desire to become politicians or lawyers, to pursue tertiary study, or because they foster aspirational dreams of fame and fortune, but because they are focused on dismantling a pervasive cycle of poverty within their families and communities. The undeniable common thread through the feedback from our staff is the desire to see their children graduate from school and exceed in life.
Whether or not you’ve nurtured a child, together we hold the inescapable truth that we must equip the next generation to surpass our own in advocating for equal rights, protecting our environment and fighting against forced labour. At Outland Denim, we believe this education begins with showing the next generation that we are willing to invest in their future.