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How Fairsew in Cambodia creates beautiful garments while treating workers like equals and friends.

How Fairsew in Cambodia creates beautiful garments while treating workers like equals and friends.

Although our focus at Aquamarine Home is mainly on interiors and homewares, we continue to be very inspired by the great strides the fashion industry is already making in the area of ethical and sustainable manufacturing. We recently caught up with Justine Coneybeer of Fairsew Cambodia to talk about all things ethical and sustainable, including of course their amazing garment manufacturing operations in Phnom Penh Cambodia. 

Although Justine has only been with them a few short months, she has already had a massive impact and as you'll see from our interview, her passion and vision for where they can take this wonderful business is a clear driving force that will certainly see them continue to grow at a stratospheric pace. 

Take a peek behind the scenes of #whomademyclothes and also find out the story behind Justine's fabulous earrings!

Watch the video interview

 Listen to the Audio:

 

Read the full transcript (click here)

Alison Rentoul:
Hi, everyone. And welcome to the Aquamarine blog. This week, we are being joined by Justine Coneybeer from Fairsew all the way from Cambodia. Hi, Justine!

Justine C.:
Hello. Hi, Alison. Thanks for having me.

Alison Rentoul:
And I'm Alison Rentoul, the CEO and founder of Aquamarine Home, the ethical and sustainable homewares company. And I'm really excited to be talking to Justine because I came across her through a Facebook group and got in touch with her and we had a chat and, my goodness, the two of us, we're just such kindred spirits and like minded souls, I think, and definitely singing from the same hymn sheet. So I'm really excited to interview Justine for you guys and let you find out as well all the fantastic things that they're doing at Fairsew in Cambodia. But before we get stuck into that, I just want to ask you, Justine, how on earth did you end up in the situation where you are now? What were you doing before you set off for Cambodia, and how did this all happen?

Justine C.:
Definitely a bit crazy, I admit. But essentially, I've always been a bit of a traveler. This is the third country that I've lived in outside of Australia. So after I did nine months away in Europe, I came home to Australia and I just decided that I wanted to follow my passion. So I worked for a while, I finished my two degrees back in Australia and a part of those degrees I had to do internships.

This is like the sixth year into my university degrees, by the way. It was going on for a bit of a long time but I just thought if I'm going to do an internship, I wanted to make sure that it was going to be a very valuable experience. And so I was trying to talk to people in Australia as well but I kind of decided that for me to get a really good understanding of ethical fashion, I really wanted to understand first here. So looking at the human side of the fashion industry as we all know is all the labor issues in the industry. I started trying to make contacts and it so happened that my university supervisor had met the founder of Fairsew before. And I just got in contact with her and she asked me over to Cambodia.


I literally just packed my bags, quit my job, and I thought if nothing happens here in Cambodia then I'll go to Europe or I'll go find something. I just needed to be passionate about what I was doing and I was really ready to pursue ethical fashion, so I came over here. In Phnom Penh, there is such a crazy atmosphere and hub here for ethical and sustainable businesses. It's a hub for NGOs. And so I've just been meeting the most incredible people that are so inspiring. And then I interned for Annalise, did a bit of work for her, really saw the potential in her business and in the model that she was trying to do. So-

Alison Rentoul:
This was at Fairsew?

Justine C.:
Yes, at Fairsew. Yeah. And yeah, she asked me on board and now I'm her business partner. It was cool.

Alison Rentoul:
Wow. And so what's the timeline of that? How long did that all take and when was this?

Justine C.:
I came over in October last year, so October 2017, and started my internship which was just for one month, actually. I did November. I finished off everything. I had to do a few little assignments for my university in Queensland, and then we started having our sort of investment partnership conversations. And then I officially started in February of this year, but ever since I found out about the opportunity, I've been putting some things away and thinking about things. So it's just so exciting for me to have this opportunity and really to understand more about how production works, as well. And how we can make it a more valuable experience for everyone in the supply chain.

I feel very lucky to be able to actually talk to our staff and I do. I've done a couple interviews with them. And I just walk around and talk to them and ask them what their jobs were before, what they like about working at Fairsew. Actually, tonight we have a staff dinner. All of us are going out to dinner together. So yeah, it's just really fantastic to actually be able to talk to these people that we're trying to, that are having issues. They're the ones that are really suffering in the supply chain. I just can't believe, there's just such beautiful people and for any of us to take advantage of that. These people have, there's three people here that have just had babies, and I've met their children as well. It's just how we could ever let them suffer in the supply chain is just so sad to me.

Alison Rentoul:
Yes.

Justine C.:
Yeah. That's just part of the story.

Alison Rentoul:
That was a great little nutshell that you got that all into. So, I was just going to come back and say what is it that you're passionate about? I think you kind of touched on it there. But just tell us a little bit more about what makes you so passionate about the ethical supply chain for clothing and things like that.

Justine C.:
It's kind of interesting because I think it's so basic in that it's, of course people, why would you want to purchase clothing where someone has had to suffer? It shouldn't be like that whatsoever. It's just, I feel very passionate about fashion. I think it's really, it's such an amazing tool for all of us. Everyone is involved with the fashion industry, whether they like it or not, whether they think they are stylish or care about wearing clothes or not. We all wear clothes. And so to let a system that's so integral to human beings, and yet to be so disgraceful to human beings as well, it's really, it's not about saving people or sympathizing with people at all. It's just like, how did this go so wrong? We need to sort this out.

Justine C.:
And then countries like Cambodia, their economies will change. The same with Bangladesh where they have their GDP is like 80% of garment exports. It's like, we can help them so much by just doing business. We don't have to give money to charities. We can just do business. It doesn't have to be sympathy. Yeah, it's so basic in that yeah, it's just about treating people the right way and giving them opportunity that we all deserve.

Justine C.:
And I've really, really been astounded by my own privilege, certainly being Australian. You just don't realize the things that you're privileged with. Even knowing, I've said this a couple times as well, knowing why it's good to brush your teeth. You just don't think about having that knowledge. Like, yes, I know that's good for my health to brush my teeth. When some people just don't know that they should brush their teeth, it's such a basic thing. But they're not taught that.

And so we really need to work together as a global economy to try and help each other out because we're so capable of it. So ridiculously capable of it and we don't have to sort of pull money out of our pockets and give it to people. We can just do the same things that we do, purchase beautiful clothing, and just make sure that the people behind that clothing haven't suffered for it. So yeah, it's quite simple.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, well, hear, hear. I'm totally on the same page and I'm sure lots of the people watching would be cheering in the background as well. So have you always been passionate about that? Or is there any one particular thing that sort of opened your eyes or made you become aware of this? Or was it your family? How did this come about?

Justine C.:
Well, actually, originally my interest in fashion has come from my mother. She always made her clothes when she was younger and so when I was in my teen years, I was playing around a little bit with her sewing machine and things and trying to get to know her more because she passed away when I was two, actually. So it was kind of like an interest, and I want to know more about her and maybe try and find elements of her in myself as well.

So that's where it sort of came about. I played ... I'm not a good sewer whatsoever, by the way. I'm a bit shocking. But I found an interest for it, I don't know, just kind of in trying to find my mom, I guess. And then I started my degree not really knowing where I wanted to go. I didn't want to be a designer but I just wanted to understand the industry more because it's just so fun and, especially I guess in my interest in my teen years, where you're really finding yourself and trying to figure out who you are. Break away from the crowd a little bit. I was doing that a little bit with my fashion choices. And so I was kind of learning more about how fashion can shape your personality or it can help show off your personality as well. I think it was in the first year or maybe second year of my degree. I did a subject in ethics and sustainability and we started talking about-

Alison Rentoul:
That's really cool that they even covered that at university.

Justine C.:
It's one of the first subjects that you do in that degree. It was a degree in Creative Industries at QUT. And yeah, so it's one of the first subjects. They started talking about sweatshops and I was like, I didn't know that they still existed. And so it was very new to me and I would've been probably still 18 at that point. And so I just started getting really upset about it. I'm like, this is ridiculous. Like, how is this still going on?

Justine C.:
And I've always actually been interested in philosophy as well, so to pursue that was very interesting for me, as well. To think about the traditional sort of philosophical morals and ethics. So yeah, I just started. I was introduced to that and started learning more about the detrimental effects of the industry on the planet. And I mean, I'm an ocean lover. I've grown up in a family of surfers, so I just thought that was ridiculous. That this is happening, no one's stopping it. How does no one take responsibility for this?

Justine C.:
And then I grew up in a family of travelers as well, so I've been very inspired by my parents in their younger years, actually, with all their traveling. And so I went to a lot of different places and it was probably in Indonesia where you see all the rubbish on the beaches and it's just so heartbreaking. So heartbreaking. So a lot of my passion is just like, let's do right by people and let's do right by the planet because, as we all know, plastic is just absolute plague on the planet. I recently saw a video actually of basically a river of rubbish flowing very fast. And it's just like, oh, it's overwhelming.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, it is.

Justine C.:
But we just have to actively change. I know it's overwhelming but we all, if at least some of us start and then start to inspire others, that's how we create change.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, 100%. It's just lots of people doing little things that will make a big impact. Yeah, totally. So tell us more about what Fairsew actually does.

Justine C.:
Fairsew is a ethical garment manufacturer. We don't have our own label. I think a lot of people get a little confused with that. So we're purely production. So clients can come to us, brands can come to us, and they ... either some people come to us just for our quality, actually, which is really great. And then some people come to us purely because of our policies with our staff.

Justine C.:
So yeah, we're basically full service. Someone can come to us with no design experience, pitch their idea, and we can help them essentially develop it, create sketches, tech packs, we can do the pattern making. We source fabric as well but clients are still welcome to send us their own fabric. We even do a little fabric tour actually here in the markets in Phnom Penh because there's a lot of markets here, as you may imagine. And a lot of the remnant fabrics, the leftover rolls from the bigger factories, they land in those markets. So we use them as well.

Justine C.:
And I know there's a little bit of a debate in the industry about remnant fabrics because usually they do get sold, but come to Cambodia. Come see the massive, there's just houses full of fabrics right up to the ceiling. And my business partner, Annalise, she says she's been into some of these places over the 10 years she's been here and she said that fabric hasn't moved. So it's a little bit about, well it's there so maybe we should use it and not create a new fabric, but also I mean it's so amazing to be making new, organic, sustainable, eco friendly fabrics as well. But I mean, some of our clients can use it and it's a unique sort of selling point for them because it's kind of one off. So you just find one roll and they're cool, you may not ever find it again. It's a little bit unsure.

Alison Rentoul:
Limited edition.

Justine C.:
Yeah, exactly. So we do a little tour with clients that come visit us in Cambodia and they seem to really enjoy that. It's a very local experience for sure.

Alison Rentoul:
Oh my gosh, I would love to come and do that one day with you.

Justine C.:
Yes, please come. Phnom Penh is amazing. It's really fun.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah. Oh, fantastic. So what kind of clients do you guys have now?

Justine C.:
At the moment, we're really trying to move beyond a smaller facility and get a bit bigger. We don't have any intention of having a thousand employees all in one factory. At the moment, we have about 15 in our team, but it's very surprising how much you can push out with only 15 people. It's very interesting.

Justine C.:
We've got people that are making orders between 100 to 500. And now we're looking for people that are a little bit more consistent with their orders. But one example is Good Karma. They're based here in Cambodia and so we make their clothes and they actually come visit us very often to come see the women. We've got them, actually they're coming in today to come take some photos and they also like to talk to the girls and find out their stories of what they like about Fairsew as well and where they've come from. And yeah, share their story a little bit more which I think is really fantastic.

Justine C.:
Yeah, there's another, we've got Alexandria Main. She's Queensland based, I believe Sunshine Coast. So she has these beautiful Cambodian silk kaftans. So Cambodian silk is a traditional weaving process, and so she is supporting a really great Cambodian craft in keeping that craft alive, which I think is very special.

Justine C.:
There's Liz Alig which is, she's American based in the US. She's got a few suppliers all over the world and very much they're trade based. So we just work with people all over the world. It doesn't matter where you are, we can work with you. So yeah, we're just trying to expand so we can hire more people. Yeah, hopefully make it easier for people to turn to ethical production as well. That's the idea, because it doesn't need to be horrendously expensive. It can still be affordable and you can still help people have good lives.

Alison Rentoul:
Absolutely. And it's not just fashion is it? Because you guys are branching out into homewares with things like cushions, which we're talking to you about, and other kinds of things that you can make. Anything that you can make out of textiles, I guess, and that you can sew.

Justine C.:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it is based on our machinery but we're very happy to take on other people's ideas and see what they want to do with us because it's, I think in the industry as well, it's certainly going to be easier to find ethical fashion than it is to find ethical homewares. Unless they're sort of handicraft sort of stuff, when it can just be normal production, normal quality that you would see every day in the store, but yeah, no one's suffered for it. I mean, you can do it with anything. You can do it with anything.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think as you say, it is. It's harder to find ethical homewares, although it is starting to come in now. But ethical fashion is certainly leading the way so it's great that we're able to kind of jump on that bandwagon and follow in the path that people like you have been carving out for us already, which is awesome.

So I know people who are watching this are going to be looking at your fabulous earrings and wondering where they came from. I asked you about them before we started recording. Oh, they're so gorgeous. Tell the guys where you got those from and your whole kind of ethos behind that.

Justine C.:
I actually recently only got my ears pierced, probably in the last three years or something. And so it's been very fun for me in terms of my style as well, especially going into ethical fashion because I've definitely limited my purchases now. I don't have, like I try and buy things that are more timeless or maybe they're just a little bit boring to make them a little bit more timeless.

I bought these earrings because they're very colorful and they can basically add as an accessory to my outfits and they change a lot of things. That's how my style's sort of evolved from starting to wear ethical clothing, is that where I'm trying not to consume as much and make better purchases that generally are a bit more expensive even though I still buy from op shops as well. It's just my little sort of treat that I can buy earrings every now and again. And it's so much easier to find ethically made earrings because a lot of people make them. And I bought these from a store in Brisbane where I'm from, which was basically a little store that stocks a lot of different Etsy craft artists in the area. And that store's called Thousand Island Dressing. Any Brisbanite will probably know it because it is a great little store.

So yeah, that's that kind of ethos behind my crazy earrings. Every now and again I've got some bright scarves as well, which I get a lot of compliments on. So it's kind of becoming a part of my style and personality even more now, what I'm going to wear for my earrings for the day.

Alison Rentoul:
I love it. And it's such a cool way, as you say, of changing up what's a very classical sort of shirt and a timeless shirt. Just changing the earrings and you've got a whole new outfit.

Justine C.:
Yeah, absolutely.

Alison Rentoul:
And that's really cool kind of mindset shift to get into with fashion. To just be able to, instead of changing your shirt all the time, you just change your earrings.

Justine C.:
Yeah. You can do a lot with accessories. I used to wear a lot of thin scarves as well, but it's very hot in Cambodia so I haven't been able to do that. Sometimes I even just wear it around my wrist as something just to add a little bit of color. At the moment I'm just wearing a white shirt from Everlane, actually. And some shirts that I found in an op shop here, and some shorts that I found in an op shop. The outfit itself is a bit boring so you've got to add a little bit of pizazz.

Alison Rentoul:
So what's next for Fairsew? Like, what exciting new things have you got on the horizon?

Justine C.:
Next year we're planning on moving to a new facility that can house more sewers. We're looking for facilities. There's one I have an eye on, but I'm not really sure if it's going to be available next year. But it's this absolutely beautiful place. It was originally a garment factory where they actually had these massive warehouses for the sewers but as well as chemical dying and everything. And it was abandoned for many years. I can't remember how many, and it's been bought up and renovated now. It's now a community space so there's a lot of small little offices as well as the sort of community style offices. There's a cafeteria, there's a skate park, they have a restaurant there. They even have a child care.

I think with now learning about all of our staff that are, we've had so many people go on maternity leave. In the five months that I've been here, there's been I think maybe three and then maybe a fourth one. She's pregnant so I think she's going to go on maternity leave at the end of this year. So we're like, okay, what can we do to help these women to make sure that they are spending enough time with their children. And if we can give them the chance to visit their children in child care on their lunch break, that would be really fantastic.

Justine C.:
That's a facility that I've eyed off particularly for that reason, because they've got that child care there. And even if they have slightly older kids as well, maybe they can play in the skate park. It's a really fun area which I really, really love. And there's such a great sense of community there which is really important as well. Because yeah, the staff have said to me that one of the girls here, she used to work in one of those big garment factories - And what she said about loving Fairsew was that they work in a small team, that they help each other out. And when she was one of one thousand, she didn't get that chance and you just learn the one part. Actually that was what else she said, is she likes Fairsew because she gets to learn so many different styles and in the factory, they didn't do, I think it might have just been a t-shirt factory or something, but they didn't do different things. So even though they think it's hard to start different styles and learn how to do the different designs that our clients come up with, they really do enjoy the challenge because they're like, "Oh, it's easy now." I'm like, "Okay, well I'm sorry. We'll do something different now."

Alison Rentoul:
That's cool.

Justine C.:
Yeah. It's really good to check in with them and see, what do you like doing? And to hear that they value learning how to do the full garment is really great. They do say it can be a little, it's a challenge and stressful but at the end, they find it rewarding when they find it easy. Which is really great to hear because that's all about a learning process as well and getting them excited about learning.

They're going to be very excellent. They're already highly skilled compared to the market here because a lot of the sewers, they only learn how to do one part of the garment or maybe a couple. And so here, they're learning how to do the full garment. So they're going to be very highly skilled. A couple of them at home, they sew and they sell some of their own clothes in their community, which is really great because we want them to be skilled and we want them to love their craft as well. You know I can't sew so they're all better than me.

Alison Rentoul:
I know, I'm hopeless as well. Sewing and knitting, just, yeah. I love the idea of doing it but yeah, pretty much like five minutes after I start I'm like, "Oh, this is so boring. I want it to be finished now."

Justine C.:
Yeah, the machine, just there's somehow there's string all over me by like the first 10 minutes, so.

Alison Rentoul:
Yep. But I really love that they're getting a real sense of achievement and accomplishment through learning these new skills. And as you say, following a garment from start to finish, and having ownership as well and autonomy over what they're doing. That's just so empowering, really, isn't it? And such a difference, as you say, from the big factory where they're just doing, they're just like a little, almost like a machinery component inside a big machine.

Justine C.:
Yeah, exactly.

Alison Rentoul:
And being treated as such, as well. Not being treated as a full human with all the other things that go with that, their life and their role, and yeah, I mean, child care. It seems like such a basic thing and yet we can't even get that right in Western society. Back in Australia, in Melbourne, how many people actually have child care at their work? How many women are stuck in that situation where they can't afford to go back to work because it actually costs almost as much money as they would make in their salary to put their children into child care? Which I think is just ludicrous in this day and age, but that's a whole 'nother soap box to get on another time.

Justine C.:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's plenty of times where I'm just like, they've got it pretty good. They have 28 public holidays here. So yeah, they get plenty of leave. Yeah, sometimes I think all right, we're doing well. It's fantastic. It completely warms my heart when I talk to them. One of the girls said that her family is really proud of her because she's financially independent.

Alison Rentoul:
That's so awesome.

Justine C.:
Yeah, she said that through a translator essentially, and once the translator said it to me, I'm just like oh my gosh. That's exactly what you want to hear. And one of the other women, they said that they're happy to be financially independent from their husband. That they can look after themselves as well and that they don't need their husband.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah. That is just so empowering, isn't it? For them to not be kind of tied in a situation, perhaps even if maybe she's happily married. But if they're not happily married, for them to have their own income and to be able to be independent. It just changes the whole sort of power balance completely. And yeah, I think that's wonderful what you guys are doing. And hopefully other people watching this, maybe other garment producers, or fashion designers, or retailers who might be thinking, well we're getting this other stuff made somewhere else but we're not really sure about how it's being made. Or the impact that's coming from that and they might think about coming over to you guys and talking to you about it. And as you say, maybe it's just as cost effective to go with you guys, and then you actually know the positive impact that you're making as a result of making that decision.

Justine C.:
Exactly, yeah. I mean, we're all about transparency so we're very happy to give people a copy of our policies and how we do things. We're very happy for anyone to come to our facility. We encourage it, to come see the women working. I think they're actually getting a little bit annoyed by the amount of people asking them questions now though. So like, "Are you happy?" Like, "Yes, but I need to do my work."

Yeah, the other day we did almost, I think we did two sets of small interviews in the one week and I'm like, "Oh, like, do you want to do this interview?" She's like, "No, I have to work. I like have to finish this." It's okay, take a break. "No, no. I wanted to do this." I'm like, "Okay." Later, later. Yeah, so it's great. It's funny that they're happy and now they just want to get on with their work.

Alison Rentoul:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's the real sort of key to motivation. I mean, having in one of my previous lives been a leadership trainer and team building coach. Yeah, giving people autonomy over their work and empowering them, and enabling them to see the big picture, and make their own decisions, and manage their own time, and all of that sort of stuff is super motivating. And of course treating them really well, and respectfully, and fairly, and all of those things too. That's going to generate a super motivated work force and a super loyal team, which is great. It's wonderful to see the whole cycle and to prove that you don't have to kind of stand there and crack a whip on people to get them to work. You just actually have to treat them the right way and literally do the right thing, and then they'll do the right thing by you.

Justine C.:
Yeah. I mean, we're so happy. Like I said before, we've had a few people go on maternity leave and we're so happy to welcome them back after their maternity leave as well because it is a common thing here that if someone wants to go away on leave or if someone is having a baby, then they would just have to quit their job and then hope that they'll be taken back when the time is right for them. So we're really glad that they're coming back and that they feel that they have enough time with their families. I did check with that with them the other day, as well.

It's definitely so rewarding and I don't know how anyone can profit off other people's backs. It really doesn't ... Actually, today I was in a store and I just wanted to buy Tim Tams for everybody so that they could taste our Australian Tim Tams. Yeah, but you know, we're having our party tonight. And yeah, it's all about making sure that people feel that they're valued, because we do value them so much. And if we can create more jobs to welcome more people, and eventually the vision is for Annalise and I to step back so that Cambodians can run this business. And maybe we can set up the same model in another country that needs support as well, somewhere like Myanmar, perhaps. So that's the sort of idea where we can step back, because we don't need to run it. They can run it. They just need a little bit more training, some upskilling, and then we can step away and the business is theirs. So that's the idea.

Alison Rentoul:
That is super exciting. Oh, Justine, it's been so great talking to you and obviously the two of us could just keep talking all day. Putting the world to rights. So tell everyone, what's your web address? Where can they find you?

Justine C.:
So you can find us at www.fairsew.com and our Instagram handle is the same, @Fairsew. Yeah, that's our two main contacts. Otherwise my email address is justine@fairsew.com.

Alison Rentoul:
Fantastic. Oh, and please anybody, if you are watching and you're interested in any kind of garment or homewares, soft furnishings as in tea towels, table linen, cushions, bedspreads even, anything like that, bags maybe. These are the guys to talk to, so please do get in touch with them.

Justine, have a fantastic day. It's been super lovely chatting with you and hopefully we'll get to have a chat again in the future and talk about some new exciting developments that come up for you guys.

Justine C.:
Absolutely. I'm really excited to share with you, as well. Thanks so much for the chat today, Alison. I really enjoyed it.

Alison Rentoul:
My pleasure. I look forward to speaking to you soon. Bye!

Justine C.:
Bye!

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How does Justine's story inspire you? What are your thoughts about ethical fashion? Have you made the switch, and if not why not? We would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below!

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