The Other Hidden Cost To Fast Fashion—And How We Can Fix It
Fast fashion’s heavy footprint extends well beyond the factory floor. Indonesian social entrepreneur Denica Flesch, founder of ethical fashion brand SukkhaCitta, on how the industry impacts the country’s artisans
Working as an economist for The World Bank, Denica Flesch saw first-hand the challenges faced by isolated rural communities in her home country of Indonesia. “My desire to have more meaning drove me to do my own research, travelling village to village to learn about poverty,” says Flesch. “What I found was a reality so hidden for us living in cities: the exploitation of women and our planet that happens behind what we wear every day. I was heartbroken.”
Though she had heard about the poor, often dangerous working conditions in factories that produce garments for fast fashion giants, Flesch was shocked to see that the industry was also taking advantage of Indonesian artisans in villages across the country. “I realised I needed to build a bridge, connecting these amazing women with access to education and fair work. But I knew I couldn’t do it alone,” she says. The realisation sparked her decision to create her own social enterprise, SukkhaCitta, an ethical fashion brand that provides better job opportunities and a higher income to Indonesia’s artisans.
The brand, founded in 2016, started with three women and now provides access to education and a living wage to 1,432 people in rural Indonesia. “With the help of our community, we’ve funded four craft schools where young women can come and learn the skills to get her family out of poverty,” she says.
Beyond helping artisans get paid fair wages, SukkhaCitta also uses sustainably sourced materials and relies on indigenous, regenerative farming methods. “We make beautiful clothes that are #MadeRight,” she says, a hashtag now associated with the brand’s ethically made goods. “Fifty-six percent of your purchase goes back to our villages and funds our craft schools.”
SukkhaCitta garments are also made using sustainable production techniques, eschewing synthetic dyeing,which, though far cheaper, creates 20 percent of the world’s water pollution. “[This] threatens the health of our rivers and the community around it. That’s why our #MadeRight pieces are dyed with plants. We have created the world’s first 100 percent traceable supply chain, from soil to sew.”
We asked Flesch about everything from how fast fashion impacts artisans in Indonesian villages to how her social enterprise is helping rural communities long-term.
People are increasingly aware of the social and environmental consequences of fast fashion, including the often exploitative conditions in factories that manufacture the garments, but less is known about how fast fashion impacts artisans in Indonesian villages. Can you help explain?
When I was doing my research, I found that craft is a really complicated industry. Between us and the artisans exists a complex subcontracting layer of factories and middlemen—down to someone making that fabric in her home. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 60 percent of handcrafted pieces are made this way, by a woman who couldn’t leave her village because she has to take care of her children, a woman who has no say in what she earns from her work.
There’s currently a lot of discussion surrounding fast fashion and its impact on the workers, but most focus only on factory work. One thing that struck me was that the majority of artisans actually work outside of the formal factory setting. Without any access, most of these women live in poverty. What makes it worse is that as an informal industry, no regulation exists to protect these women.
I think that was my ah-ha moment, to realise that there's a broken link between us as customers and the way our clothes are made. It was then when I felt the need to build a bridge—a model that invites our customers to be part of the solution of some of the world's most pressing social and environmental problems.
How are you helping the artisans you work with as well as their communities?
When you purchase a SukkhaCitta piece, the first thing you realise is that there are real lives impacted through your choice. The power of this idea is vast. You are not giving them aid, you are giving them a chance to earn a wage that allows them to support their families.
The reason this is significant is that it allows these women to keep the one thing that is so often taken away from them: pride. When someone appreciates your work and you are able to make a living from it, your pride is intact. Accepting charity means that you have to swallow your pride and accept, because you have no other choice.
Offering people this pride leads to empowerment—and empowerment leads to real change.There’s this sense of pride because ultimately [there is] empowerment that wasn’t there before, this belief in themselves. During our last field trip to the first village [we worked with], I was surprised to see A4 papers on the wall. Apparently, the women were brainstorming how they can improve the education of the children in their village through scholarships. I nearly broke into tears. I think this is the essence of empowerment: when they feel like they can change their own lives and are taking active steps to be agents of change in their own communities.
Are there any regulations to protect people working outside of factories in Indonesia?
Unfortunately, not much. This being an informal industry, very little regulation actually exists to protect the women who make our clothes and our planet.
What were some of the challenges you faced when creating SukkhaCitta?
Having no background whatsoever in running a lifestyle brand—or a business for that matter—I had to battle fear and self-doubt every step of the way. There was just me with a to-do list that seemed to get longer day after day. I learned then that it’s possible to have a full-blown mental roller coaster while one is rolling threads off silk scarves.
Every day, I wondered whether I’d gone mad leaving my stable corporate job. I wondered if I could pull this off or if I was enough, but I couldn’t stop, not after what I’d seen. I grew up in the city. Things exist in shops. I never realised that behind something as simple as what we wear are women we’ll never meet. I just didn’t want my choices to hurt them anymore.
What is your long term goal for SukkhaCitta?
With #MadeRight, we’ve focused on pioneering change in how our clothes are made, making sure each [item] provides a living wage [and] protects the planet, while sustaining indigenous cultures. But I believe that sustainability is no longer enough. It’s time to regenerate our planet, and this starts with changing how our clothes are grown.
Since 2020, we’ve been working with indigenous women farmers to help them transition from monoculture into regenerative agriculture. The goal is to improve soil quality so it can sequester more carbon from our atmosphere. We do this by planting a diverse mix of plants around the cotton and indigo plants used to make our clothes. Our unique model is proof that the fashion industry can solve some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues. And I'm so excited to invite you to be part of it.
See more Gen.T honourees from the Social Entrepreneurship