Updated: Mar 12, 2021
I would like to ask you something ... How often do you wear your clothes before you throw them out? Have you ever bought clothes that you threw out without wearing them? How often do you buy new clothes?
Fashion trends change so incredibly fast nowadays that it is hard to keep up with the latest trends. I have the impression that the mannequins at Zara, H&M, Mango and Co are wearing new designs almost every week. They seem to be working hard to convince you that this new dress, skirt or pair of shoes is missing in your private collection fast fashion labels.
Fortunately, these clothes are affordable, which means we do not have to feel bad about also buying the matching jacket to complement our newly selected outfit. Unfortunately, this affordability comes at a huge cost .... for our planet and and all that lives on it.
Did you know that one garbage truck of clothes is burned or sent to landfills every second?!
(Word Economic Forum)
Because the trends are changing so quickly, the fashion industry has become the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply. It also produces 10% of all of humanity's carbon emissions and heavily pollutes the oceans with micro-plastics. And that is just the planet. I will spare you the horrifying images about how the fast fashion exploits large groups of people in countries like Vietnam, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.
Source: World Economic Forum
If only there would be a more sustainable solution to design and produce clothes.
Oh wait... there is!
Many designers are experimenting with more sustainable ways to produce fashion items. One of them is Amma Sri Lanka, a social enterprise run by a group of forward-thinking and smart women. Together they aim at creating design-led products that respond to the regional environment by using dyes that are derived from food waste and plants.
Located on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, the team is not only proving that there are alternatives to chemical dyes and synthetic textiles but also that it is possible to create and promote a regenerative textile economy without producing additional waste. I spoke with one of the founders, Josie to find out more...
How did you come up with this business concept?
What inspired you?
I first went to Sri Lanka in 2010. I visited a friend there who had an organisation that works with children. It was very a very informative trip. After traveling to Sri Lanka, I went to South Africa. During these trips, I got really interested in textiles and textile production. I wanted to understand everything there is to know about the production, the people that are involved in the process as well as the resources that are used.
After I came back home, I decided to do an art foundation course to prepare for my art degree that I wanted to do afterwards. This strengthened my interest in textiles even more and so I focused on fabrics and textiles during my degree in London.
One thing that struck me during my studies is the fact that hand weaving doesn’t exist anymore in Europe and that in Asia the process of hand weaving is also in sharp decline. Many businesses shut down due to a lack of demand for these type of textiles as they are more expensive and take longer to produce. Instead the demand for cheap and fast synthetic fabrics is rising.
I started experimenting in uni with dying textiles. When I looked at the amount of resources and chemicals that I had to use just to create a small batch, I was concerned about the impact the fast moving global fashion industry has on the environment. I was motivated to find another way to dye textiles and so I started experimenting with natural dyes made from food waste.
How did you go from experimenting by yourself in London to founding AMMA in Sri Lanka?
It was around the time that I was experimenting with natural dyes that my friend in Sri Lanka told me about that group of women on the island who use natural products to dye textiles as well.
Perfect! I thought there is an opportunity to create something around this in Sri Lanka, a country that has a growing textile industry. I went back to Sri Lanka, after my degree and started experimenting with natural dyes made from local resources. At that time there was not much information about natural dye in Sri Lanka which means it was a lot of hit and miss in the beginning. We started collecting avocado and pomegranate skins for dyes and just tried and thankfully we learned quickly. It is like cooking in the end. You have to follow a recipe.
"Natural dying is like cooking. You have to follow a recipe."
(Amma Sri Lanka)
In terms of location for our sustainable enterprise, we chose Nuwara Eliya. We felt this town offers the best working conditions as many tourists come to visit, there is lots of water and many vegetables and fruits are grown around the area.
AMMA started off with two women and very little equipment. We could barely understand each other but we made the most out of it and started learning to dye textiles in a natural brown first. From there we grew fast. Soon, we started working with Tea Leaf Trust. With their help we got the funding we needed to move out of our small place into a more purposeful building and buy more equipment including pots, fabrics and sewing machines. Now we work with 10 amazing and hardworking women and have a great selection of products to sell.
What are some of the goals that you want to achieve with AMMA?
Social: Our main objective is to provide job opportunities for women in Sri Lanka. We want to give as many women as possible the possibility to work in their home country instead of having to go abroad as domestic helpers. When they do that, they often have to leave husbands and children behind and the kids are growing up without their mums present.
It makes me proud knowing that AMMA supports some families in Sri Lanka. Actually some women have even become the prime earners in their families which boosts their confidence and makes them proud.
One such strong and independent woman is Mina, our workshop manager. She grew up in Nuwara Eliya. Her husband passed away very early and so she was forced to work long hours in a garment factory. Unfortunately, that was not enough money to survive and she left Sri Lanka to work in the Middle East as a helper, leaving her child behind with her family.
The family she worked for was not very kind. They even took her passport away. The situation became so bad, that she had to lie to get away from them. She fled and came back to Sri Lanka where she managed to find job on a flower farm.
Today, she is the manager of AMMA and she is doing a fantastic job. She leads AMMA like a mother. She is very committed to the business and looks after the staff with respect, care and kindness. I think her story is very inspiring. For many years, she was being told about what she had to do. Now, she is independent and leads a team.
Beyond providing jobs, we also help them in their personal development. Once a week, we teach them some English, talk about the importance of a healthy nutrition and mental health as well as help them manage their personal finances.
Working towards a regenerative textile economy…
Environmental: By using natural dyes, we want to show the textile and fashion industry that there are alternatives to chemical dyes and synthetic textiles that are often harmful to the environment. By growing AMMA’s collection, we want to lead by example and inspire others along the way.
What are some of the challenges that you are facing?
I lived in Sri Lanka for over 4 years during that time I helped growing the social enterprise and train my wonderful ladies to become experts in natural dyes and sustainable textile production.
The pandemic is definitely a challenge for our business. We are facing many problems and the government is not providing any support. It is frustrating at times to see how European governments try to support companies. In Sri Lanka we are on our own.
I actually went back to England before the countries went into lockdown one by one. Managing the business from a far was very tough in the beginning. On the flip side of it, it pushed my team in Sri Lanka out of their comfort zone and forced them into working more independently. They already had the skills and knowledge, now it was a matter of pro-active execution. Slowly they found their rhythm and they are able to work almost on their own now. I am very proud of them. So in conclusion, while the pandemic with all its impacts on the economy created a lot of challenges for us, it also exhilarated my goal of having AMMA being run by Sri Lankans independently.
Tell me a little bit about what the process is like from dying fabrics to the final product?
We work with wool yarn which is unbleached cotton and natural dyes which is not an easy art to master. Natural dyes can be very temperamental. The colour intensity and tone often fluctuates a lot. Simple things things like a fly dropping into the cooking pot changes the colour. When we first started it was difficult but thankfully it was a steep learning curve.
Every AMMA product is dyed using plants and food waste.
Now, once we have achieved the colours we want, the fabrics are given to our weavers. Our head weaver then shows her team how to turn the textiles into beautiful products. She is very hands-on during the training which allows us to produce clothes and jewellery with a high quality consistently.
The products are all designed by our team in Sri Lanka. I just tweak their ideas a little bit. My team does not lack ideas. The brilliant thought of producing and selling jewellery for example came from one of our young weavers. She noticed that after we are done making clothes, we have a lot of leftovers and so she turned them into necklaces and earrings.
For more, check out Amma's Website. You can find many more infos and shop as much as you like while supporting a good cause.