“I am finding business solutions that can solve problems instead of creating them” – interview with Veronica D’Souza from Carcel
It was the most inspiring moment of Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2018 to meet Veronica, the social entrepreneur and founder of Carcel, a luxury brand that creates an ethical working place for women in prisons.
Ola: Let’s start from the beginning: Carcel clothes are made by imprisoned women in Peru and Thailand. What this partnership means to you and to them?
Veronica: We started manufacturing in prisons in order forthewomen to combat poverty, which is the main cause of female incarceration. In Peru 70% of female prisoners are there because of drug trafficking, predominantly cocaine, so mostly for non-violent crimes. They come from rural areas and are providers for their children and families. After being locked away for 5 – 17 years, they come out even poorer than before. So we are now turning prisons into production sites to give them new skills and good wages. This way women can make an income and get experience, save up for their life after the prison.
Ola: How do you monitor your social impact?
Veronica: There are no existing frameworks or standards, as we are the first global player doing this in an ethical way. Prison production is nothing new.But it has been contaminated by years of exploitation. Our purpose is to find out how to do it right instead of not doing anything. That’s why we were contacted by the United Nationsto contributeour knowledge and we are currently working on basic ethical standards.
So how can we turn this around? How can we provide a living wage and good working conditions? We do itby taking care of our own production. We are not outsourcing like a majority of fashion brands today. We have a German production manager who is going to prison everyday to work alongside women, developing relationships with them. This way impact is measured on a day to day level. We noticed that depression was a very big issue in prisons, which we see slowly decreasing. The women are now sending money home to support their families which is a major shift in both their dignity and also the impact for their relatives. Women working with us have very long sentences, so further impact for reintegrating into society is to be seen in the future.
"The way I see it: fashion of the 21st century builds on what fashion does really well, being inspiring, self-expressive and visionary, but it also just has to work all the way throughout and solve problems across the supply chain instead of creating them. I believe people are ready for it."
Ola: You are representing a pro active approach to social innovation…where this story begins?
Veronica: I specialised in business solutions that can change the world so I am very passionate about finding business solutions that can solve problems instead of creating them. Prior to Carcel I co-founded the social business Ruby Cup, a menstrual cup that enables girls living in poverty to stay in school. I was working with women and girls in Kenyan slums and started wondering why women there go to prison. I understood that poverty is the main reason behind incarceration.That’s how I got the idea.but I also knew that to create something sustainable and beautiful you need to have a market demand for it, I don’t believe in pity projects. To createthe world’s most beautiful products, you need to see the situation as a resource and not a deficit. I started mapping out countries of the world that have the most exclusive natural materials, combined with highest rates of poverty related crime for women. Peru and Thailand aretwo of them. I travelled to Peru in 2016 and visited prisons across the country.The resource we’re using there is alpaca wool, while Thailand has silk, which we are using in our new productionin Chiang Mai prisons.
Ola: We just received a CEO agenda, how do you approach it as a social entrepreneur? Does it resonate with your work?
Veronica: First of all, when you design from scratch you have the responsibility to do it right and you also have the luxury of not having to turn the big existing machine around.
Looking at the agenda: as for traceability – we put the name of each woman who made the piece on the label of the garment and we also know where the alpaca came from. We are transparent because I believe it is the only way forward.
We use alpaca wool: a natural material that needs very little water in the dying process.Additionally, alpacas need to be sheared so they stay comfortable and healthy.. So it is much more sustainable than cashmere for example.
Secure work environment: We are present every day in prison and create a good and safe workspace for the women we work with .
We also make no seasons, produce on demand and sell online. We only produce what is wanted. This way we are completely aligned with this agenda.
"So far there has been a tendency of great ethical projects without fashion appeal. And vice versa. There is a lack of brands that combine the two."
Ola: Do you find it challenging to communicate the social innovation?
Veronica: So far there has been a tendency of great ethical projects without fashion appeal. And vice versa. There is a lack of brands that combine the two. The way I see it: fashion of the 21st century builds on what fashion does really well, being inspiring, self-expressive and visionary, but it also just has to work all the way throughout and solve problems across the supply chain instead of creating them. I believe people are ready for it.
Veronica D’Souza is a CEO & Founder of Carcel, a brand of ethically made ready to wear. Veronica is an award-winning social entrepreneur, sustainability strategist and inspirational speaker. She is an INDEX Award jury member, SOCAP selected entrepreneur (US), an Ashoka Youth Venture Mentor (KE), a selected Humanity In Action senior fellow (US and DK), and the co-author of ‘The Road Map for Sustainable Leadership’ from the leading Scandinavian Think Tank, Monday Morning (DK).