Fabric of change - Catching up with ReCreate co-founder Deborah de Graaf

We caught up with Deborah de Graaf, co-founder and creative director of ReCreate, to talk about changing lives, empowering women and building a better future. We wanted to hear what was next for this New Zealand based ethical and sustainable clothing label, on the back of winning the fashion category and the People’s Choice title in the Ceres Organics Good People Awards 2018.

 Deborah (left) with her co-founder Erica Gadsby

Deborah (left) with her co-founder Erica Gadsby

What’s ReCreate’s purpose?

Transforming lives and empowering people in the small village of Dey Tmey, Cambodia, through an ethical, sustainable clothing brand.

How did ReCreate start?

Erica Gadsby, the other co-founder of ReCreate, had spent time in Cambodia working alongside a not-for-profit that was looking to empower women in the small slum town of Dey Tmey. We immediately saw an opportunity to start a business together that could help support children and women in this community. The sewing centre came from wanting to provide opportunities to these women in Dey Tmey and empower them, providing them with skills and opportunities in the future.

What does ReCreate do?

We manufacture our garments ethically and sustainably in our sewing centre in Dey Tmey, Cambodia. Our fabrics are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), as well as denim sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). This provides fair employment and good conditions for all workers from the farms through to the factories, while also prioritising the sustainable use of land, to ensure both people and the environment are respected.

As part of our business model we wanted to move away from teaching our seamstresses to sew a single stitch and instead teach them how to sew whole garments, cut patterns and take on some of the more practical skills of managing a business. We also provide matched savings, reading and writing lessons, provide health care and assistance for children to attend school. ReCreate needed to not only be ethically and sustainably sound, but also be able to transform the lives of the women we employ and provide them with opportunities long into the future.

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What are you most proud of about ReCreate’s work?

The transformational aspect of the business. Seeing women grow and develop is incredibly powerful. Often when they first come to the sewing centre, they are very shy and really lack confidence. As they learn and grow and realise they can do it, they increasingly see their value and a way forward into the future with a skill they can use for life. Being able to empower someone and help them see their potential and their self-worth is why we do this.

Do you have one success story that captures the purpose of ReCreate?

Somphor is our current sewing trainer at ReCreate. When she started with ReCreate she and her family were homeless. She had never used a pair of scissors and was nervous to work in a business where she didn’t think she had the education to do the job. Through working with ReCreate she has not only learned a new lifelong skill, she has also gained a new sense of self confidence and self worth.  Her children attend school and she has been able to save for and buy their own home. From where she began to where she is now is such a transformation and it has been incredible to watch.

Do you have any advice for businesses looking to become more ethically/socially responsible?

Do it! It definitely comes with its challenges but it still comes down to just having a strong business model and idea of where you want to be going and what you want to be doing. Ethical business isn’t the norm at the moment, but it really should be. There is a growing social consciousness, and for any business moving forward I think it is very important to have a clearer understanding of sustainability and ethical production. Consumers do want to know where their goods are coming from and are asking starting to ask questions, and they will choose to support the companies they see as respecting people and the environment.

Why is CSR important to you?

It’s the only way forward. We can’t expect to keep exploiting people and the environment, things need to change. Here in New Zealand we have such opportunity, we have a health care system, we have a stable government, so in a global sense we have a huge head start. For me it is important to be aware of this head start. I don’t work any harder than our sewers in Cambodia but I have been born into a different world of opportunity. Personally, I can’t move forward in good conscience or enjoy my freedoms and liberties if it is at the cost of someone else. Seeing how much of a huge difference empowering a woman in Cambodia can make makes it totally worthwhile.

How do you think the New Zealand business community is going?

Being a smaller country has definitely worked to our advantage. There is a lot we can do moving forward, but there’s an increasing number of businesses wanting to be more ethical and sustainable. It’s been really encouraging to see this movement start to happen, and seeing start-ups incorporating social and ethical values in their business from the very beginning is extremely promising. This is a journey we are all on together and it is totally achievable and makes the future exciting.

What should the outside world understand about Cambodia?

One of the big things to understand about Cambodia is that with its not-so-distant history – the Khmer Rouge, and the loss of almost an entire generation – the country is still trying to catch up with the rest of the world. You can talk to people who lived through Pol Pot, and to have a country that has gone through something like the loss of an entire generation worth of skills and knowledge makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Not having the base of a stable government and the systems in place to protect vulnerable villages and people makes it hard for the everyday person to survive. When your only focus for your day is getting food to eat or a safe place to sleep, it’s hard to think seriously about the future. That’s why we based our sewing centre in Dey Tmey, a slum community about 45 minutes outside of Phnom Penh. The people in this village were relocated from Phnom Penh, losing all the work opportunities they had so close to them in the city. This loss of an income source and the isolation of living so far from the city means they are hugely vulnerable to people exploiting them. You often see garment factories set up close to these slum villages because they know the people living in these communities have no other opportunities for work and need to take what they can get. In these villages it is easier for children to be trafficked too, because there aren’t education opportunities. By setting up a sewing centre in Dey Tmey we’re helping to remove some of that vulnerability by providing a stable, living wage for our seamstresses and their families.

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What is next for ReCreate?

On the New Zealand side, we’re working to become New Zealand’s leading ethical boutique streetwear label. Along the way we want to raise the profile and awareness of ethical fashion and why it’s important too. We want to provide consumers ethical and sustainable choices in every city and town. On the Cambodian side, we want to keep developing our sewing centre in Dey Tmey. The more we grow, the more women we can offer a better future too.