Like you, I love style and fashion. I love looking my best. For me. But I am also aware of the cost that the world of fashion inflicts on factory workers all around the world. We have heard of horror stories of child labor, low working standard in factories and how factory workers are mistreated. I believe in living a life that is kind to things around us – the planet, the people and the animals. That’s why I choose sustainable material like vegan leather (microfiber) to make our vegan bags. The more aware I am of the situation in the production side of things, the more I am determined to support only brands that have ethical production. We, as consumers, have the right to know and the freedom to choose brands that care about our world as much as we do.
I would like to share with you my 9-year journey of running my bag brand Borboleta, and how I ended up starting a factory that is confused on ethical production and how I spoil my bag makers. Because I believe happy makers make happy bags. And happy bags make happy bag owners. 🙂
My entrepreneurial story began in 2012. I love designing and after completing a fashion design course, I decided to take the plunge and started my own bag brand. Clothes were tempting but I knew bags would be used more often by my customers. I believed a well-designed bag can change someone’s life for the better. And make their days easier.
Like most designers, I had to outsource production to factories at the beginning, I shopped around for about 6 months and finally landed a big factory in Bangkok. They looked good, with good working standards and high quality production (their client lists included some big international brands). They let me visit the production space which was a big airy building with workers in uniforms, working away quietly. I was happy with the conditions of the workers and the quality of the sample, so I placed my first order. One hundred bags. How exciting! I felt like I was starting a global empire. Just on top of the world. 😀 I knew it was going to be a long journey to success but I was happy to finally be working full time on something I loved. When I received the first lot, they were great. I started doing marketing, going to fairs, and landing my very first customers. My brand started to grow slowly. I placed more orders.
Then I found out the factory was stealing my design.
Every production I placed, they would make extra to sell in their outlet. They also brought my designs to international fairs so their future customers can place the order to produce the bags that look just like mine, or with just some tweaks.
I was heartbroken. Disheartened.
I left that factory and again began my long search of a factory that would meet my standard of quality and ethical production. In the period of 4 years, I would find what I thought was good factories, only to find out they would switch to lower quality zipper when in actual production, or that they didn’t let me visit the factory floor.
Finally after so many years, I found my “perfect” factory. It was small, probably around 10 workers. The owners were a husband and wife team. They had a white toy poodle that I came to love. The owners were younger, educated, and polite. They also had integrity. They didn’t copy my designs and wouldn’t show my designs to other brand owners. I was also able to spend time in their factory, seeing the good conditions of the factory and how well they treated their workers. I felt safe and secure in our work relationship. The quality of the production was also excellent. Export quality. We worked together for about two years. In those years they became my family. I remember one time it was just before Christmas. We had a lot of orders and we didn’t make them fast enough. The bags were finished last minute. I didn’t have time to bring them to my office and pack. So we just packed at their factory, just right on time for DHL Express to pick up at 7 pm. The packages were on the plane by midnight and off to the hands of the owners just right before Christmas Eve. (We use DHL Express and it only took 3 days to ship worldwide). I was so grateful that everyone at the factory jumped in and helped with packing and I was able to keep my promise to my customers about having the bags getting to them on time before Christmas.
Then I decided to go to Florence, Italy, to pursue my master’s degree in Fashion Brand Management. I had a team of trusted employees back home and a good factory in hand. I felt ready to manage Borboleta remotely. I had a lot of interesting experiences in Italy. And learned a lot. For example, I learned that just the word “made in Italy” doesn’t always mean luxury. I went to a trade show in Milan and met an Italian factory owner. He said that a lot of Italian factories are dying and a lot of Chinese factory owners are coming into Italy and are setting up their factories there. The bags are made by Chinese people in a not so pleasant environment but it’s stamped “made in Italy.” The owners are driving ferraris while the workers are working long hours in a bad working condition. I was so shocked. Later on I did see it with my own eyes. At the outskirts of Florence there are many of these factories. When you peak in, you see workers in line sewing cheap looking handbags (some are hung near the exits). So I learn not to trust the word “made in” anymore. Italian artisans are losing their jobs. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of high standard factories in China. All I’m saying is we can’t be fooled by which country our products are made. It’s not the country anymore. We really have to care and hold the brands responsible for making sure the production is ethical no matter what country.
Back to my time there. Things went smoothly until about 6 months into my program. I got a call from the owner and said they are closing the factory because of continued loss. I was shocked. They asked if I was willing to take it over? I said of course. I knew it would be a big responsibility but I wasn’t ready to shop around for factories anymore. They said they would continue running the factory until I finish my program and come back. And we will talk about transitioning then. I felt giddy about what the future would hold for me and Borboleta.
Then I got another call a month later, telling me the bad news. One of their clients came into the factory when the owners were at a meditation retreat. He took all the workers, the bags that were being produced for his brands and didn’t even pay the owners the remaining fees! The owners told me they were sorry, they had no employees to give me anymore, only machines and the building. I didn’t want the building. So I said please keep the machines and I’ll buy what I can when I get back.
When I got back to Bangkok, I visited them and chose the machines. Their machines were German and Japanese-made. Good quality stuff. So I bought them and parked them in a small warehouse I rented. The manager of the factory felt bad for the owners and for me. So he referred me to his friends who lost their jobs a big factories. Apparently big factories would hire cambodian or Burmese workers, have the skilled Thai makers (who have 15-20 years of experience) to train these workers. When the workers are well trained, then the factories would fire the skilled Thai makers because their salaries are higher. These makers then became security guards or just work odd jobs to make ends meet.
I was introduced to two of those. They were also kind and skilled. So I took the plunge. I rented a small production space, moved the machines there and started our little “workshop.” The workers talked and little by little I started to get more applications. We grew our little factory very organically. The skilled makers were grateful they didn’t have to work odd jobs and could do what they loved and were good at – making bags! As our team grew, I also bought more machines and built a bigger production space. It’s been 4 years and we are growing strong. We are now a team of about 20 happy makers.
I make sure that all of our bags are ethically produced and that our workers are being compensated fairly. It’s important that the working conditions are good and they are being treated well. We do monthly pot luck dinners and gifts giving. As well as a yearly company outing. Last year we went to the beach. I rented a big 4 story house by the beach for everyone in the company. Some workers hadn’t been to the beach. They were so happy and relaxed. We also had gifts exchange and karaoke party. At night we made dinners. It was so much fun and they were refreshed and happy.
One thing that bothered me and that I was able to do something about was the saving habits of workers. Most workers don’t have savings. They don’t make a lot to begin with and they seem to have endless expenses. Or they gamble.
So at my factory I encourage saving. We offer them a chance to “save” and “invest” every month and it comes right out of their salaries. They could choose the amount they are comfortable with. Some just choose something as little as $10. We would give them 30% interest at the end of the year. On top of their bonuses. This way they are encouraged to save and they will more motivated to save and see they value in saving once they see the benefits.
Looking into the future, I plan to move us to a bigger production space with a garden area so they can grow their own vegetables. It will be a sustainable piece of land where they can tend to the garden after work. I already put down the deposit for a piece of land near our current factory. I’m working with an architect now for an airy loft style production space. I’ll keep you updated here. 🙂 I know you care as much as I do about making sure products you use are ethically produced. I can assure you that my vegan bags are handcrafted in our own space. We care about ethical production too. Thank you for joining this movement to make sure no one is hurt in the name of fashion. We want Borboleta to be a happy community where everyone is kind toward the planet, the animals and to each other.
So glad to connect with you here. Tell me your story with ethical production or anything else. I’d love to hear your story too.
Founder and Creative Director of Borboleta Bag