Eric Dales co-founded boho-inspired sustainable women’s label TAMGA Designs the year of the unforgettable and devastating Rana Plaza tragedy. In this interview, the TAMGA Designs co-founder and operations director shares how his experience in international development was foundational to establishing the business, how COVID-19 has positively and negatively impacted trade and what he thinks about the upcoming retail sales event Black Friday.
EWP: You worked at NGOs and spent some time in Dhaka, Bangladesh. How did this shape your vision for TAMGA?
Eric Dales: Our time working in international development is actually the reason TAMGA exists. Since we finished university, we (co-founder Yana Barankin) had always planned to spend our working lives helping others, which led us into projects relating to public health, child protection and poverty reduction.
We arrived in Dhaka only months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed over a thousand garment workers, so from day one we were learning about the industry – the good, bad and ugly. TAMGA began as a hobby; Yana was working with a local tailor and his team to make Kimonos for her and her friends. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the industry needed more than criticism to change for the better, so we set out to create a positive example and try to improve things ourselves.
Fashion manufacturing has lifted millions of people out of poverty and led to massive improvements across education, gender equity and health. At the same time, it’s often extremely exploitative and puts people in very vulnerable positions. Our goal has always been to show how good the fashion industry can be for the world – living in Dhaka really taught us how important this mission is.
EWP: What were your business goals for 2020 and has COVID-19 impacted your ability to achieve them?
ED: This is a yes and no answer. COVID-19 has impacted our supply chain in a big way, but we have found ways to keep improving throughout.
We had goals relating to sustainability that we charged forward on – bringing on new partners with best-in-class sustainability standards like ZDHC, launching a new fabric (EcoVero), introducing reusable packaging and going fully carbon neutral.
At the same time, we haven’t been able to travel so we’ve had to pause some initiatives we planned, like our zero-waste project, where we are working with our makers to design more pieces from fabric waste, and bringing on partners across Indonesia that can make use of the rest. Fortunately, we’ve been able to reduce our fabric waste by making some small accessories and packaging from fabric off-cuts, but we need to work in-person with our makers to go deeper.
Sadly, the mill that produces our basics fabrics went out of business this year. COVID has hit Indonesia particularly hard, there has been a real cash crunch in the country and some businesses found themselves with canceled orders and unable to get paid on their receivables. While we’ve had some serious delays – our ‘Provence’ collection took three months longer than planned to produce – we stuck with our suppliers, paid some very high deposits to keep things moving, and fortunately everyone else is still in business.
On the positive side, we’ve had a great year and continue to grow thanks to our wonderful customers around the world, including retailers like Biome (who are now stocking TAMGA in Australia!). Everyone being at home has led to some great conversations around sustainability in the media and in fashion, and we’ve been very grateful to be a part of that.
EWP: For folks looking to shop more sustainably and ethically, what are your top three tips?
1. Ask questions – it’s ok to ask how a company treats their makers and the environment.
2. Buy high quality – the most sustainable piece of clothing is often the one that lasts the longest.
3. Look up third party ratings if you’re not fully confident. Good On You is great for this.
EWP: What’s your definition of greenwashing and what’s your advice for how shoppers can be vigilant about it?
Greenwashing is a business prioritizing the sale above the actual impact. Don’t take the language of “green”, “ethical” or “sustainable” at face value, dig a little deeper for an explanation. We believe that common-sense questions like “who makes your clothes” and “what’s your environmental impact” deserve common sense answers – don’t be afraid to ask!
EWP: What are your thoughts on Black Friday and will TAMGA participate this year and why?
It’s a very strange day (which somehow turned into a month-long event for many brands), and combined with the Christmas season right afterwards, it’s just incredibly wasteful. Every e-commerce startup has to decide how they’re going to play it, and since our first year in business we decided to use the day to bring attention to something positive.
We created Forest-Friendly Friday to raise funds for our partners at the Sumatran Orangutan Society (S.O.S.) who are re-planting the Sumatran Rainforest, an ecosystem that’s been devastated by demand for palm oil and viscose fabrics. We donate 20% of all sales to S.O.S. and add some discounts in for our customers as well. We find it’s a great excuse for us to tell the story of what’s happening to ancient forests in Indonesia, and the little-known (and very destructive) role that fashion is playing.
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All images supplied.