April 22, 2021 Values
What we Wish to See in Our Industry // A Vision for Sustainability
Late last summer we started working with anti-racist educator and social impact advisor, Manpreet Kalra. She’s been a fundamental member of our extended team in developing how we think about impact. Join us this Earth Day in conversation with Sara and Manpreet.
By Sara Berks and Manpreet Kalra
Lately when we hear the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical,’ we cringe, even though we use them so freely here at MINNA. They are buzzwords, taking on a life of their own, transforming into catch-all terms that are as ambiguous as they are marketable — making it difficult to truly ever know what someone actually means when they say “sustainable” or “ethically made.” And that is the essence of the problem. Sustainable and ethical mean so much, without meaning anything. Which is why for nearly the past year, we (Manpreet and Sara) sit down once or twice a week to have brutally open and honest conversations about what it means to be sustainable and ethical for ‘impact’ driven brands.
At MINNA’s founding, ethical meant building trust, paying fairly, respecting workers rights, and treating everyone we worked with with the utmost respect. Sustainability meant creating stable relationships, consistent orders, and using natural materials. We’re now broadening our horizons in both aspects and actively identifying what we do well, what we could do better, and what we should probably change altogether. We strive to consider every stakeholder with every decision: artisan partner, community, customers, employees, and the environment. This means instead of trying to maximize profits at each step, you are seeking out ways to be equitable — not just paying fairly, but investing in those you collaborate with and their communities, placing regular orders instead of one-offs that complicate supply chains, sourcing naturally occurring materials, instead of furthering environmental degradation through synthetics. Sustainability is about creating regenerative systems that are community-centered, so we can nurture thriving ecosystems built to sustain, support, and grow.
To create systemic change, we have to look at why exploitation exists in supply chains. We have to come to terms with years of extractive colonial practices leaving countries rebuilding from all their richness and resources being depleted. As a white-owned business from the Global North working with artisans in the Global South, this is complicated work! Fair wages alone are just not enough. We have to think of sustainability across the supply chain from what we source to how we operate. It is naive for us to ignore social justice when thinking about climate justice, or vice versa.
Environmental sustainability has over the years been co-opted, repackaged, and monetized. There’s a lot of conversation around ‘fair trade’ certification and 100% organic certified. There’s a consumer misconception that the certification is required to be made fairly or grown organically. Essentially you’re paying for the governing body of the organization to say you’re doing it right, even if you were before. In some instances, our artisan partners were already harvesting organic cotton or using natural dyes, but they don’t have a certificate to tell them it’s the right way. Certifications are incredibly unattainable for most producer groups. If we follow the model of only working with certified groups, then we aren’t giving opportunities to those who have invested their time and energy into doing things right, but don’t have the capacity (and financial ability) to go through a long certification process. This doesn’t feel fair. Transparency has to go beyond putting labels on products, it has to be built on mutually beneficial relationships and trust.
I (Sara) am the first to say sustainability in the environmental sense has never been MINNA’s strongest initiative. In order to strengthen it, we have to trace things back further in our supply chain. We’ve built meaningful relationships with the artisans and craftspeople who make our products, and we have a deep understanding of the techniques we use. Now we need to do the same thing with our raw materials. This process might take years to truly do, but we’re getting there region by region and we’ll be sharing more on that in the coming months.
Operating both ethically and sustainably should be the norm if we want to dismantle the harm caused by the exploitative systems we are operating in. Conventional supply chains put power in the hands of corporations, leaving those at the bottom, the workers and farmers, with little for themselves. Instead, we want to envision a world in which each individual is treated with respect, paid fairly and honored for their individuality, living free of the stereotypes placed on us by society. Imagine a world where caring for the plant and each other is just baked into how we live, allowing for restorative and regenerative relationships to thrive. That is our vision for sustainability.