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I’ve known Justine Coneybeer for years, and in that time, she’s worked with a handful of Australian labels and businesses on both sides of the fashion fence. A year ago, she uprooted her life and moved to Cambodia for the greater good, and she’s now the Business Development and Marketing Director at Fairsew and the Fashion Revolution Country Coordinator for Cambodia.

Fairsew is a full-service cut-make-trim ethical garment manufacturer with a big heart, and they work with labels all over the world. Based in Phnom Penh, Fairsew is tackling a global problem by starting in their own backyard, but it’s no easy feat. I had to be careful about what I asked, and Justine had to be cautious about what she said with our interview because things work a little differently in Cambodia.

Freedom of speech and bra-burning in the name of equality is something we take for granted in Australia, but Justine is passionately working to change the state of the industry in Cambodia, and what she’s achieving with Fairsew is nothing short of inspiring.

What fashion industry experience do you have?
I studied a double degree in Business Management and Fashion Communication at QUT over six long and adventurous years. During that time I worked in different jobs, different countries, and travelled to over 20 countries. My most educational experience was working at a bespoke menswear tailoring brand in Brisbane from 2014 to 2015. I have predominately studied the academic side of the industry, opposed to design, but I fell in love with the craftsmanship of clothing. I assisted with photoshoots, styling, measuring and fitting suits, as well as the odd trip to Hong Kong to visit our tailors. It was a tough job for a then 19-year-old, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience to learn about the changes I wanted to see in the industry.

Why is Fairsew different?
At Fairsew we believe fashion can be beautiful without harming humans or the environment. We are an ethical garment manufacturer that provides transparent and quality services without compromising a fair and safe work environment. Our ethos is centred around proving that fair fashion can be high quality, profitable, environmentally conscious, and have a positive social impact for everyone in the supply chain. We are what the fashion industry needs and deserves; a professional, transparent, and quality manufacturer.

What does Fairsew value?
Our first and foremost priority is the health and wellbeing of our community. We value employees by providing a safe working environment, offering remuneration well above minimum levels for Cambodian garment workers, and the opportunity for further learning and skill development. We also value quality, and we provide a quality service to clients through an open channel of communication and a commitment to transparency in our supply chain. The environment is another key value for us, and we are conscious of the environmental effects of the fashion industry so we actively minimise wastage, recycle fabrics, and avoid the use of toxic materials where possible.

Why is the human side of fashion so important to you?
It’s so simple. Who are we and what are we if we can’t pay people for the work they have done? There are so many elements in this industry that desperately need to change; pollution, waste, hyper-consumerism. If we can’t even treat human beings properly then we are only disadvantaging ourselves and the progress we could make as a society. It’s simple economics. The more people above the poverty line, the more people receiving an education, the more people capable of contributing to change in the industry and the greater economy. The UN found evidence that increasing household income through women often directly benefits their children’s education and thus higher economic growth. Considering the garment industry is a predominately female workforce, there is so much opportunity available.

Fast fashion provides jobs for thousands of women who don’t have employment options in disadvantaged countries. What’s your take on the topic?
It’s like feeding people breadcrumbs and patting yourself on the back while sitting down to a three-course meal. What is there to be proud of? No one can deny that the garment industry provides millions of jobs for low skilled women, who could in many ways be worse off. But knowing that someone could be living in worse conditions does not excuse anyone from exploiting disadvantaged people. This argument is such a cop-out for people wanting to profit off the backs of underprivileged, uneducated, desperate women. When a fast fashion CEO earns a garment workers lifetime wage in just four days, there is a serious problem with the logic of this argument. The breadcrumbs these massive businesses are offering is a method of ensuring the enslavement of developing nations, relentlessly oppressing them into endless hours of low paid work, unable to educate themselves or attempt to break the poverty line. Ethical fashion is not about charity; it’s about compensating people fairly for their work. So yes, it is amazing how many jobs are available for low skilled workers in developing countries, though no that doesn’t mean we get to treat them like slaves.

What is Fairsew doing to change the industry for the better?
Firstly, we are tackling the human side of fashion by ensuring our staff are receiving adequate remuneration for their work, as well as ensuring they have the opportunity to learn and grow. Secondly, we are actively finding solutions to waste issues in the industry. We avoid cruel fabrics like leather and encourage our clients to think about the environmental impact of their production. We keep all of our offcuts and remnant fabric from production runs, and we are always looking for ways to upcycle them back into production. I am constantly looking for new innovative fabrics that we can introduce to clients; I just came across a new vegan leather made from coconut water and banana fibre. Positive alternatives are always possible. Thirdly, we are encouraging our clients to be transparent with their customers by sharing as much as we can about Fairsew. Transparency is vital in ethical fashion and the more people that understand the positive impact they can make through their purchases, the better.

You moved from Australia to Cambodia to immerse yourself in the fashion industry. What is the rag trade like in Cambodia?
It is extremely important to me to find solutions to the human side of the industry, so I decided to move to a country where there is extensive garment production. About half a million people are employed in the garment sector in Cambodia; clothing and shoes account for 95% of Cambodia’s exports. Cambodia, and particularly Phnom Penh, is a hub for social enterprises in the fashion industry. It has been incredible to meet so many intelligent, kind-hearted people who are developing human centred businesses. The city is really up and coming for ethical fashion and creative minds.

How does Fairsew determine wages for its workers?
As Fairsew was founded by Australians, we first modelled our remuneration policies using Australian labour laws. We ensure our policies are consistent with the World Fair Trade Organisation’s (WFTO) 10 Principles of Fair Trade, and the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Good Practice Standards. We offer our staff well above the minimum wages in Cambodia, as well as additional benefits to ensure their security and health. At Fairsew, our employees are our top priority so on top of a living wage (which is far above a legal wage), we're also proud to offer them 20 days paid annual leave, 28 days paid public holiday leave (there are a lot in Cambodia!), paid sick leave, paid maternity leave, paid overtime or time in lieu, accident and medical insurance, plus access to learning and development schemes, access to an external training allowance, access to a study assistance allowance and the opportunity for promotions and bonuses.

What global changes to do you want to see?
I would love to see people caring about where their clothes come from, and their impact. We live in a hyper-consumerist culture, where we take little time to think about the consequences of those purchases. If we started asking more questions, demanding more sustainable products and asking for better conditions for workers, there would be a whole lot of change in the world. The ultimate dream for us though is to see Fairsew as a leader in ethical manufacturing, with multiple facilities in multiple countries, each sharing the same values and policies. Our vision for Fairsew is to be seen as a branded manufacturer, where our name carries with it trust, transparency, and fairness. We would like to have consumers pick up a garment, look at the tag, and see ‘Made by Fairsew’, immediately knowing that it was made in ethical conditions.

How do you measure your positive impact?
Our management team work and live in Phnom Penh, so we are never out of touch with our staff. We work closely with everyone to ensure they are happy, can manage the work, and we know what their ambitions and goals are. We have recently reached out to an independent consultant to prepare a social impact report, which we intend on continuing annually. We have also been working on waste management policies, so we can identify how much left-over fabric can be utilised after a production order, reintroducing this fabric to the supply chain for other products.

To learn more about Fairsew and their positive impact, check out fairsew.com or reach out to Justine. 

The Fashion Advocate x

Fairsew is tackling inequality and backing ethical manufacturing in Cambodia

Fairsew is tackling inequality and backing ethical manufacturing in Cambodia

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