Interview with LISA JASPERS, FOLKDAYS Interview with LISA JASPERS, FOLKDAYS
For Lisa Jaspers, 37, fighting poverty has always been her main motivation and her overarching priority for the initiatives with which she wants to push the anchoring of sustainability in the textile industry. On her travels after graduating in Political Science and Development Economics, the Berliner by choice gained insight into the production processes of handicraft enterprises in the Global South. This inspired her to tackle the topic of fair fashion trading herself. She is the founder of FOLKDAYS and the tenacious activist behind #fairbylaw, which puts pressure on lawmakers to make a change.
Interview: Uta Gruenberger
How did you make the leap from development aid consultant to entrepreneur?
Even during my studies and then in my first jobs working for Oxfam and later for management consultants, I often travelled to countries in the Global South. I soon realised that conventional development aid just didn’t sit right with me. Quite the opposite. I gradually came to recognise the neo-colonial nature of our ideas of what an African country needs for its so-called development. I wanted to find a different approach to fighting poverty. On my travels I had met so many highly talented people who make the most amazing things with traditional materials from their home countries. So in 2013, after returning to Berlin, I opened the FOLKDAYS online store.
I also founded a label for fair fashion and design – clothing, accessories, jewellery and home décor items – together with my close friend Kimon Haars. We wanted to create a design platform geared towards people who are interested in fair trade but wouldn’t visit a one-world shop. That proved to be a good idea.
And you source your goods exclusively from your own direct contacts?
Yes, and that is really what makes FOLKDAYS so special. We work together and have direct contact with about 40 artisans in 20 countries. That means we have carefully selected producers in Tanzania, Kenya, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, among other countries. These are enterprises that have often cultivated and developed their traditional handicraft across generations. We either buy from them directly – naturally, for a more than fair price – or we collaborate on new designs. In that case, we don’t insist on any exclusive rights, to ensure that the production of these items is profitable for the producers.
If they need to buy raw materials, we give them an advance payment. In return, we have the assurance that they are using the high-quality materials from their region. That means that we go to Bolivia or Peru to source alpaca wool pullovers or to Cambodia for silk blouses. And at FOLKDAYS, “made in Nepal” or “made in Bangladesh” does not mean meagre wages and exploitation. We have close relationships with all our producers. And that’s what brings us so much joy. We see how well the families are doing and how their businesses are flourishing and inspiring new designs.
But the success of FOLKDAYS wasn’t and isn’t enough for you …
Well, in the course of our acquisition and procurement trips, we also realised that we are a real exception when it comes to sourcing products. The most our little store could do was shine a light on this elementary problem in the textile industry, but it couldn’t tackle it fundamentally.
“That was how #fairbylaw became my cause and turned into a big initiative.”
Two and a half years ago, on the fifth anniversary of Rana Plaza, I started a petition on change.org calling for the German government to finally pass a supply chain law to hold companies liable for things that happen in the producing countries.
This initiative took off at a surprising speed, with the help of my team and many other supporters. So far, more than 175,000 people have signed the petition to put pressure on the government, which is extremely motivating.
The German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, which was initiated in 2014 with the aim of encouraging companies to disclose and examine their supply chains and places of work in the Global South, went down like a lead balloon. Two extremely detailed surveys carried out for the Federal Ministry of Commerce found that not even 20% of all German textile companies see duty of care as their responsibility. That is really disheartening.
And you’re hoping the issue will pick up speed with #fairbylaw?
Anchoring duty of care and the disclosure of supply chains in law is expressly laid down in the agreement between Germany’s coalition partners for exactly the situation we’re still facing in 2021; namely, that the German textile industry is simply not interested in sustainability and fair fashion on a voluntary basis. It’s like the women’s quota – and all human rights, it would seem. It takes legally binding provisions for them to be respected.
The good thing is that there is an alliance of about 100 NGOs that has its own campaigns and is pushing for a supply chain law just as vigorously as we are. We are working together very closely.
So it takes a bit of a revolutionary approach?
Totally! And to wake society up. I mean, most people are aware that there’s something very, very wrong with the way we consume fashion. But I have noticed that not even the fans of the fair fashion bubble have the slightest idea of the extent of women’s exploitation, the wastage of precious raw materials, the senseless disposal of textiles and also the burden on the environment.
“Studies have shown that most people would be willing to pay up to 20% more for sustainable products …”
… if they are assured that they are green & fair. That’s a start. If consumers are then offered attractive products, transparency is communicated clearly and sustainable stores receive support – e.g. in the form of targeted VAT reductions – this could trigger a dynamic into a better future. But we need the press as an allied combatant, and a few cool company bosses and brave companies who want to be the next pioneers.
Your new book, Starting a Revolution, is about role models.
My friend Naomi Ryland and I interviewed a lot of successful companies and asked them what a new form of economy centred around people could look like. We were just looking for our own inspiration and a concrete guideline for creating a modern workplace that generates both profits and fun! That’s basically what it’s all about at the end of the day: to experience joy and to see the people working for us not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.
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