Fazl Socks – A Social Enterprise
Photographs by Timo Matthies.
Do me a favour, look at the tag in the shirt you are wearing. I’ll give you a second to do so… Chances are it says it was made in Indonesia, Bangladesh, China or some other place in the far East. Do you know the journey of the clothes you are wearing; how they got to you and who made them? The majority of us would not be able to answer that question. In the West fast fashion has taken over and its main concern is capitalizing on current trends. In many ways consumerism has become an integral part of our society. People find self expression by how they dress or the brands they associate with. Consumerism is not necessarily wrong, but perhaps how we are blindly going about our consumption has room for improvement. Are we helping or hurting people near and far when we tap our credit card or hand over cash? We might not think about the impact we have when we spend our money. Yet, everything we do can impact others in a positive or negative way. Would you go to a grocery store or drop your car off at a mechanic shop where you knew the workers were being mistreated? The same should go when it comes to the clothing we wear.
We recently had the opportunity to interview one of the owners of Fazl Socks. Fazl is a Himalayan based sock company whose owners are Mike Gunn and Vanessa Tse. They co-own this social enterprise with local partners. Mike Gunn and Vanessa Tse met back in 2008 while on a volunteer trip to India with Child of Mine. It was there, in India, that the socks were discovered. Vanessa was drawn to the beauty and complexity of the socks, which are indigenous to the Himalayan people. The patterns of the socks passed down generation to generation via mother to daughter. An idea was born, what if the socks were sold in Western communities to invite transformation in the lives of people in India. A pair these Himalayan made socks traveled back to Canada with Vanessa in 2015, and the dream continued to grow. Vanessa and Mike, both with backgrounds in social sciences, invested countless hours researching how best to go about their dream of Fazl Socks.
Two and a half years ago Mike and Vanessa moved to Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous region of India that is nestled in the beauty of the Himalayas. Life in India is different than in Canada, where they grew up. Mike and Vanessa live in a small rural village with one road running through. It is an area where day to day life is still steeped in tradition. Locals wear traditional dress, live modestly, work incredibly hard, and each family has and relies on a cow as a source of nutrition. Cows are revered in India and are not to be killed. Taking the life of a cow could have you serving up to five years in a local prison. The local food also differs from our Western diet. Most of the people consume vegetarian diets, and of course do not consume beef. The main food is similar to that of a lentil soup eaten with rotti, best described as a delicious round flat bread. Unlike the four seasons Westerners are well accustom, Himachal Pradesh has five seasons. They experience a short Fall, Winter, and Spring, but in place of a Western Summer they experience a Hot season followed by Monsoon season. The people, they are warm, generous and happy. India is a colourful place and Himachal Pradesh is no exception. It is in this diverse and beautifully rural area of India where Mike and Vanessa now call home and where Fazl Socks was born.
As history shows not all foreigners traveling to India have treated the locals that inhabit the land with respect and kindness. Many have entirely disregarded the value that personal relationships hold within the culture. Mike and Vanessa knew they did not want to repeat anything even close to what some of history tells. They spent six months developing relationships that continue growing to this day, as well as partnering with the local people in the pursuit of Fazl socks. They care deeply for the people and knew that if they wanted to start a social business then they desired to partner with the locals. They decided that they would employ local artisans to make the socks, after all they are the ones gifted at crafting them so beautifully. They pursued tours at local factories in India that would supply the materials to make the socks. Individuals involved in any and all aspects of the making of the socks must be well cared for. At the end of the day if they were going to run a business that supported the locals they were going to pursue it with integrity. Everyone had to benefit and no one was going to suffer.
After years of pursuing the dream of Fazl Socks production was underway. Women living in north India’s Himalayan region began knitting socks using patterns that only their memories know. The patterns for Fazl socks cannot be found in any book or website, rather the patterns for the socks lay in tradition, passed down from mother to daughter. Currently there are twenty different patterns that can be found displayed in Fazl socks. The woman come from near and far to gather the wool they will need to knit the socks. For every one kilogram of wool distributed to the women seven pairs of socks will be returned. Knitting the socks is a supplemental income for these women. Their everyday life requires physical labour both in and outside of the home. Knitting Fazl socks gives the women the opportunity to make an additional income all the while gathering in community with other women, as well as physical rest. During peak production Fazl employs over five hundred local women to make socks which includes logos and packaging.
In addition to employing the local women and sourcing local materials, Fazl invests fifty percent of net profits back into the community. The money is invested into two local orphanages that Mike and Vanessa live near and spend much of their time at.
Looking into the future Fazl dreams of supporting more children’s homes as well as continuing to provide opportunities for the local women to increase their income. They desire to continue transforming the global clothing industry so that all involved are impacted positively. In terms of production they are dreaming of additional items such as toques and gloves. Fazl has recently branched out to support women and men in New Delhi, India’s capital city, who find themselves in trying circumstances. Fazl is transforming old tires into beautifully hand stamped tote bags. These bags have a positive impact not only in the lives of those who are a part of their production, the environment is also reaping the benefits. The tote bags are upcycled, this means that tires once destined to a landfill are being repurposed for something else!
We live in a world with a global clothing industry. There is a call to accountability, for a change in the way we have gone about blindly consuming and disregarding the impact that our purchases have on the lives of others, as well as the environment in which we live. At the core of Fazl they believe that every act of consumerism counts. Fazl will continue to invest in the lives of individuals and to care for our earth, to do good and to do no harm. Fazl socks aims to be both socially and environmentally aware all the while offering a stylish functional sock steeped in tradition.
For more photographs from Timo Matthies visit him here@wholeheartedweddings