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Fashion brands have a key role to play in a sustainable revolution by guaranteeing living wages, good working conditions and reducing their impact on the natural environment.
One such brand leading the way is Smateria, a women-owned and operated social enterprise ethically producing stylish and functional bags and accessories in Cambodia made of recycled, upcycled and repurposed materials.
Founded in 2006, long before sustainable fashion became “cool” and the subject of countless podcasts, blogs and documentaries, what started from humble beginnings in Cambodia, has grown into a fully-fledged conscious business operating four retail stores, producing all products in-house in their microfactory and a corporate social responsibility policy to be envied by ethical fashion start-ups everywhere, complete with an on-site nursery that provides early childhood education and childcare services.
Co-founders Jennifer Morellato and Elisa Lion, Italian expats who met at a mother’s group in Cambodia, share a seamless brand philosophy of sophisticated design, quality craftsmanship, ethical production and a zero-waste approach to manufacturing.
And their unwavering persistence for good business and good design has paid off. While some of the materials used in the bags may have been discarded – except the fishing net which is the only material that the brand actually buys new due to its oversupply in the Cambodian market which they repurpose – there is nothing about the physical appearance of Smateria bags that signifies “discarded”, “recycled” or “waste”. On the contrary, the cofounders and its talented community of Khmer artisans, have transformed unwanted materials and leftover scraps into a range of desirable bags and accessories that are so divine and luxe, they would fit right into any contemporary wardrobe.
Smateria’s upcycled shoulder and crossbody bags, for instance, mixes Italian design with Khmer craftmanship resulting in a sleek, elegant style that is eye-catching – the original waste or recycled material completely unrecognisable behind the fashion-forward designs.
“Nylon net is a multipurpose material mainly used for fishing or in the construction field,” says the company. “In Phnom Penh we are surrounded by this material. It was such an inspiration that we decided to repurpose it and make it our signature material.”
As plastic pollution is a huge issue across Asia, the social enterprise works with recycled plastic, transforming the plastic bags into a thread that can be knitted, woven and crocheted. It also sources upcycled leather for its designs, remnants from factories that produce leather sofas. Some of the bag styles and accessories feature a distinctive geometric pattern made from these leather scraps.
But the company’s commitment to sustainability doesn’t stop there. With a focus on continuous improvement, and after 15 years of innovating and perfecting, the business has just released its latest collection, IKI, its first line of handbags, wallets and pouches made from its own innovative fabric derived from industrial packaging waste (that would have otherwise been burned, releasing toxic fumes into the air).
Then there’s the company’s social responsibility programs which can only be described as industry best-practice. Smateria goes above and beyond for its employees, providing high-level training and sustainable employment, along with competitive wages, family-friendly full-time work hours (eight-hour workday, and five-day workweek which is atypical in Cambodia where working six days a week is considered the standard) as well as paid holiday leave, an annual bonus, double maternity leave and family support leave.
“Whatever we do, at Smateria, we do it with passion and responsibility. We are proud to create and make bags with a soul.”
And while some big name fast fashion labels were found to be linked to the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in the garment manufacturing district of Dhaka in Bangladesh, the world’s worst garment accident which killed over 1,100 people and injured 2,500 more – Smateria was already pioneering a better fashion business model prioritising the health and well-being of its workers. In addition to offering decent wages and safe working conditions, the company provides its team with professional fire safety training, educational workshops to help staff balance work and life, and ensures regular on-site electrical and structural inspection audits are conducted. The brand also carries the Child Labour Free mark for its commitment to enforcing a strict no child labour policy across its entire supply chain.
Smateria’s dedication to doing good business extends beyond the products themselves to label transparency. Each product in its IKI Collection comes with a unique tag identifying the amount of recycled plastic waste incorporated into the product the amount of carbon emissions saved as a result.
“Since the inception of the company, we are continuing to scale our impact worldwide, standing up for human values and continuing to build our amazing community,” says the company. At a time of pandemic, when fashion businesses have cancelled billions of dollars worth of orders, forcing factories to fire or temporarily suspend its workers thus leaving the most vulnerable and marginalised in the rag trade without work and without pay, Smateria is showing the industry that fashion can be done responsibly, workers can be treated and paid properly and fashion business can be used as a force for good when there is the passion and iron will to do so.
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