“I would rather sell less at a fair price and stand by my values”
“Mother made, naturally dyed, handcrafted” are the values of AMMA Sri Lanka, a social enterprise founded by the British couple Josie and Warren in the Sri Lankan highlands. Josie’s qualification and expertise in the field of textile together with the local charity Child Action Lanka helped AMMA to become a successful ethical label that supports women in the community. The Circle member Dushy, who lives in Sri Lanka, caught up with Josie to talk about ethical values in business, the living wage and natural dyes.
At The Circle, we work on projects that create jobs for women and help them start businesses. The unemployment rate in Sri Lanka is much higher among women than among men and most of your employees are women. Why is employing women important to you?
The high unemployment rate amongst women in Sri Lanka, particularly mothers living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates, was the initial problem we wanted to address by starting AMMA. Working with women is important to us because we see them as key change makers within their community; by employing and training mothers we are directly impacting their children and families. It is much more sustainable and inspiring for children if they experience their mother grow in confidence, earn a fair wage and learn new skills as a solution to breaking out of poverty. It also makes sense for us to employ women —all of our women have shown a great desire to work and contribute to the family finances. These are hard working women who still complete their household responsibilities before and after work. Bringing these women together provides them with a space outside of the home to connect and support each other.
You pay a living wage to your female employees. How does it impact on the product’s prices and organisation?
Yes, our starting wage is double that of the starting wage of other local industries in Hill Country, such as tea picking or garment factory work. I believe that it gives our Amma makers value for the skills they have obtained with us and it adds value to our products. It does increase the price of what we make but I would rather sell less at a fair price and stand by my values than get swayed by the few who don’t understand our ethics and what handmade is truly worth.
AMMA is a social entreprise. How do you reinvest back into the community?
AMMA has been running for one year, which we view as a pilot year. This has given us time to explore different models of working and become accustomed to the particular needs of the tea picking communities. We broke even during our pilot year and once we start to turn a profit we plan to reinvest that money back into our new partner NGO Tea Leaf Trust who work extensively with young people living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates through their centers of professional development.
What do you have to do to make sure the product meets and end-to-end eco-friendly approach, within a fair and safe environment for your employees?
For us, as a young start up it means constantly working towards improving our supply chain. We have just started working with a women’s cooperative in the North of Sri Lanka who weave all our raw unbleached cotton fabric. This means we employ more women in the process of making our products and we have greater knowledge of where our fabric comes from. We dye this fabric naturally using plants (eucalyptus leaves, madder root, indigo, Nelli fruit) and food waste (onion skins, avocado stones, pomegranate skins) some of which we forage locally or collect from hotels and cafes. Using plant dyes means its safer for our employees, safer for our customers and doesn’t pollute water ways. It is also a good way to repurpose waste produce before composting. Our employees work in a nice environment, with child care provided by Child Action Lanka, a local NGO. They work 9 am – 1 pm whilst the children are in school. We pay them a fair wage for their work, and because of this we have many women each month asking if we have vacancies.
Can you tell us about the women you employ and what they like about working at AMMA?
The women we employ are currently aged between 24 and 27 and are all mothers to young children. They live on Sri Lanka’s tea estates in line rooms, which are simple concrete structures comprising of two rooms. These buildings haven’t changed much since the British built them at the height of the tea industry, when people of Tamil Indian origin were brought over to work on the plantations. The estates are hard places to live in, with 80% of tea estate men being alcoholics and 83% of women suffering from domestic violence (of which 20% is sexual). The women we employ have decided against working as tea pluckers, all have married young. Some had not worked previously and other worked at garment factories across Sri Lanka.
The whole process of extracting colours from natural sources sounds interesting and challenging. What is your drive to persist in order to give us an ethical and sustainable output?
Natural colour is a delicate ever-changing medium to work with; so many factors contribute to the final outcome —water quality, light, diversity of plant matter, time and the mordant used. It takes a lot of patience and experimentation to achieve the colors you want. The difference in our dyeing practice when we started a year ago to now is huge. Day by day it feels like we grow more aware of the process and the various elements that need to harmonize to produce the final outcome. The drive and patience to build a social enterprise using natural dyes comes from a belief that true sustainability is growing, from our desire to harvest and cultivate our colour from the land and from the prospect of how many jobs this can offer to a region with high unemployment levels. We aren’t there yet, these things take time and my belief is that you just need to start somewhere and the rest you’ll work out along the way.
Written by Dushy Rabinath, a member of The Circle with an interest in sustainable fashion and The Lawyers Circle’s Living Wage project.