Happy Feature Friday!
Today we’re excited to share the story of Abby Alley from Zuri Collection. Being a conscious consumer is so important, so we love what Abby has to say about her mission and the women behind her brand. We, ourselves, love to purchase fair trade items or buy from brands that give back to a cause or create job opportunities in the communities that need them. If you’re going to buy a product anyway, why not choose one that makes a positive impact? We love Abby’s heart for Tanzania and the women who create all of the gorgeous, handcrafted items for Zuri Collection. Read along to hear more about the impact her business is making and see some of the beautiful pieces the talented artisans of Tanzania make.
: Tell us about yourself!
: My name is Abby Alley, and I grew up outside Chicago, but have been living in the city for the past 10 years. I have two younger sisters who both live in Chicago, which is so much fun! A few fun facts about me: I’m a Cubs fan, the beach is my happy place, I suffer from a bad case of wanderlust ;), and my faith is really what drives what I do.
: We love that Zuri means “beautiful” and that Zuri Collection is filled with handmade, fair trade goods! For people who are unaware of the fair trade industry, tell us a little about what that entails and what beautiful things they can expect to find in the collection.
: Fair Trade is basically a term used to identify goods and products that have been ethically sourced, grown, produced, or made. There is so much exploitation of people and resources in the fashion industry (and other industries as well), so fair trade became a way of advocating for certain ethics in trade like fair wages, humane treatment, and safe working conditions to name a few. For more information, feel free to check out the Fair Trade Federation here: https://www.fairtradefederation.org/
Although Zuri is not yet certified as a member of the Fair Trade Federation, we do our best to make sure we are following the nine Fair Trade Federation principles. For example, one of those guiding principles is, “Pay Promptly and Fairly.” In the developing world, often times employers promise payment at the end of a job, but don’t follow through in paying in full, or even at all. Many factories where much of US mainstream fashion brands are produced only pay their employees $1-2 dollars a day. Yet, those US companies are making millions of dollars each year. With fair trade, it is important that all of the artisan business partners are paid a fair wage in a timely fashion. Often times, people ask, “what percentage is given back to the artisans?” For Zuri, the answer is, the Artisan is paid in full before Zuri ever sells one item. Therefore, the Artisan’s business does not live and die with Zuri (or any other company). The goal is for independence for the Artisan – for the producers to be able to build capacity and grow their businesses, transforming their communities.
: The majority of your brand’s products are created in Tanzania — how would you describe Tanzanian fashion?
: Tanzanian fashion is confident, bold, traditional, and resourceful. From Maasai sandals made from old tires to the mamas wearing colorful Kangas around their hips as they do their daily work around the home, Tanzania is always full of inspiration. Women don’t shy away from wearing bold colors, big, beautiful statement necklaces, or stacks bracelets and necklaces, one on top of the next. That said, in cities like, Arusha, you will definitely see some Western influence. Women wearing jeans, for instance, is starting to be more common. But that has caused some women to be more innovative with their use of kitenge (the local fabric). I love seeing this type of innovation – kitenge-covered heels, or beadwork on bags ( like on our Cocaya Clutch), or just the use of the beautiful vibrant fabrics, in traditional Western silhouettes, like our pencil skirts!
: Tell us about some of the women Zuri Collection works with! What are their stories, how did you connect with them, and what does a purchase from Zuri Collection do for them?
: One of my favorite stories to tell is Cocaya’s. Cocaya is a Tanzanian woman who decided to start her own sewing company. She saw the need in her community for people with special needs to have the opportunity to work. So, she rented a house big enough to be a workshop and began training both women and men to sew. She has told me that it has been very challenging getting the quality to be consistent as well as having consistent orders to be able to pay her employees regularly. Many of her employees have serious health complications which can be expensive, but also cause them to have to miss days of work. I have been so impressed with how she puts her employees first and truly cares for them well. I’ve also learned so much about patience and perspective from Cocaya already in the short time I’ve worked with her. She has overcome so many obstacles and yet keeps going! It so inspiring seeing a Tanzanian-born woman run a company that gives back to the community, and am so excited and humbled that Zuri is able to help empower her to achieve her dreams! I am looking forward to going to visit them this summer!
: Did you always wish to start a business or do something on this scale to directly better the lives of those in other countries?
: No! I have been teacher for my whole career – so this is totally a change for me. I’ve always cared deeply about fighting for justice where there has been injustice in situations and systems here in Chicago and the U.S., but it wasn’t until recently that my passion flowed over into global issues of injustice as well. I’ve always loved fashion and the creativity used to express oneself through fashion, but had not really thought seriously about a career in the industry. When I went to Tanzania to teach for a few months, I think God used that experience to start changing my heart and opening my eyes to things I hadn’t known or considered before. As I began to learn more about fast fashion (watch the documentary The True Cost if you haven’t seen it already), our purchasing power, and the lack of jobs and economic infrastructure in many developing countries, I began to dream about what it would be like for me to make a difference in a country that had become so near and dear to my heart.
: How has being a conscious consumer impacted your life and how will it affect the lives of your customers?
: This is such a great question – and I’m going to answer this honestly because it is a tension I think about daily. I am selling ethically-made products at work, so as a consumer in my personal I am constantly checking tags and labels and asking store owners about where they sourced the cotton or how they oversee their factories in China. And it is not easy. Being a conscious consumer isn’t always convenient or even available, so inevitably there are things in my life that are still not totally fair trade or ethically-made. For example, I am currently using an Apple product to type these responses, I believe it was made in China, likely at a factory with less than ethical standards. Will I throw out my computer and phone? Probably not. Will I do some research about ethically-made technology before purchasing from Apple in the future? Yes. I think the key is – we have to focusing on making the next right decision. For example, I need new running shoes. I wasn’t sure if there were any ethically-made choices out there, but it turns out there are a few choices that are better than others (http://www.attendly.com/how-to-choose-ethical-running-shoes-and-gear/). When it comes to clothing, accessories, home goods, and food, I do much better because it’s the world I’m in with Zuri. There are so many brands out there getting it right and I’m learning about new ones every day. I’m so thankful for the brands and companies that have come before Zuri that have really helped to create awareness around our purchasing power and the consequences of our consumerism. If I had one piece of advice for someone looking to become more of a conscious consumer, I’d say to start with one category, however small it is. Maybe it’s jewelry, or maybe it’s hostess gifts. Or maybe you’ve never purchased fair trade before, and maybe today’s the day! Every purchase counts – so just start somewhere!
: It’s amazing that you’re creating work opportunities for these people! What has been the most rewarding moment or part about what you do?
: I think the coolest thing for me is to see our customers love and appreciate our products. I know how much it means to our artisan partners – how they rejoice over more orders and more work – so it is so rewarding to see someone fall in love with a bracelet or so excited to gift someone one of our bags. It means the world that the beauty of our pieces and the stories behind them resonate with all of you! I think the connection that is made when you wear a skirt or necklace that is handmade by someone you actually know, halfway around the world, is something really special.
: What are some of the shopping habits or decisions people make, that you wish would change?
: I love this question! I think if there is one thing I wish Americans would change as consumers, it would to understand that our purchases don’t just happen in isolation, in a vacuum. They have global consequences – for people’s lives and our environment. There is a quote by Anna Lappe that says, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” If we all remembered that every time we walked into a store, I think we might make different decisions about what we really need.
: You’ve also started to sell items from Peru! Will you be working with other countries later on? And what do you hope to see in the future for Zuri Collection?
: Yes! This is something I’m really excited about! Tanzania is my heart, and why I started Zuri, but of course we want to bring you the beauty from more than just one country. There are so many stories to tell – and I love that Zuri can be a place where people can shop the globe! We are getting new things in for this spring and summer from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Madagascar. I can’t wait for our customers to see these amazing towels we’re getting from Ethiopia – they have a million uses and are SO soft. Everyone needs one!
: Do you have any advice for other business owners or people looking to shop more consciously?
: Go for it! Some of the best advice I ever got when I was starting Zuri was that everything is figureoutable. There’s no way to know everything before starting, so at some point, you just have to start and trust that you’ll figure it out as you go! I still have a lot to learn!
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