The Danish Fashion Brand Tackling Prison Poverty

by Hetty Mahlich on 11 February 2020

Hetty Mahlich speaks to Danish label Carcel's founder Veronica D'Souza about how fashion can end poverty for women in prison.

Hetty Mahlich speaks to Danish label Carcel's founder Veronica D'Souza about how fashion can end poverty for women in prison.

When Danish fashion label Carcel opened Copenhagen Fashion Week on 28 January 2020, neither models nor clothes took to the catwalk. Instead, they presented a video on the industry's shortcomings in regards to sustainability and ethics. Carcel's founder and CEO, Veronica D'Souza, argues that fashion week should be used as a constructive platform to showcase a new direction for fashion. With the main cause of female incarceration globally being poverty, Carcel endeavours to break the cycle using a sustainable business model. Built on the concepts of design, planet and people, Carcel currently employs women incarcerated in Peru and Thailand, bringing together local craftsmanship and natural materials in contemporary designs.

'It’s a human right to have the opportunity to have a job even while you are incarcerated, but it needs to be voluntary and fairly compensated.' D'Souza says. Carcel was born after D'Souza visited a women's prison in Nairobi, Kenya, where she became aware of incarcerated women in a cycle of poverty, with craftsmanship skills but no access to a market. In both Peru and Thailand, there are strong regional traditions for craftsmanship amongst women, combined with some of the highest rates of poverty and committed crime- women are typically incarcerated for drug-related crimes and human trafficking. Enabled by official partnerships with Peru's National Prison System and various institutions in Thailand including the Ministry of Justice, Carcel are currently working with 13 women in Cusco Women's Penitentiary Centre and 14 women in Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution.

Carcel for Sardin, 2018, photograph Silvia Conde
D'Souza and Carcel's team in the women's prison, Cusco, Peru

The designs themselves are seasonless and really quite beautiful, constructed on the capabilities of the materials they use, which are sourced regionally. Carcel release limited drops across the year and nothing ever goes on sale. 'You produce what you sew and you sew what you produce, as they say,' D'Souza explains. The women are included in the design process, with Carcel's designer Tine Tourrell making frequent visits to the prisons. Producing alpaca wool knits and silk garments, the women develop their creative skills whilst working towards financial stability, hopefully putting them on the road to a crime-free future. Working closely with the small teams of women, whom they have come to know on an individual basis, Carcel works to facilitate their futures. One woman who has completed her prison sentence is now working for the company outside of prison. Carcel is helping her develop her IT skills as she hopes to set up her own events company.

Carcel prepares women for life after prison by providing courses in cash flow management, financial literacy and English. Later this year, they will be opening a third site in Thailand- a community space to accommodate women with less than three years of their sentence remaining. For most inmates, this will be their first point of contact with the outside world in over a decade. 'Our dream is to create a bridge between prison and the outside. It’s constantly a learning curve to understand what makes an impact and what can improve women's lives.' D'Souza tells me.

Carcel, photograph Alexander Hollsberg
Carcel production at the Women's Correctional Institute, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Without being able to truly ever know what goes on behind prison doors, particularly when it comes to prisoner exploitation, it's natural to feel sceptical. No matter the intentions, inmates driving mainstream production for profit is something, understandably, not everyone can get behind. I ask D'Souza what her response is to the criticism that ‘ethical’ brands are using social justice as a marketing strategy. She openly responds: 'For me, I understand the scepticism. I just wish that the scepticism would be equally directed towards the big brands which run themselves on textile waste and underpayment. If we’re asking how much profit is fair if you have a social impact, people should also be asking how much profit is fair if you’re ruining the environment? I think we should all constantly be critical and having these conversations. We definitely do not have all the answers.'

In the textile industry workers are vastly underpaid and ill-treated, and it's difficult to find a benchmark from one country to another when it comes to wages. 'We’re saying what should the cost of the product be, instead of finding cheap labour for a product. It’s still hard as a consumer to navigate what is a fair wage in the market.' D'Souza explains. Carcel pays wages benchmarked on recommended national family living wage standards. In Thailand, the women earn above the national minimum wage of 8,000 THB at 12,000 THB. In Peru, the women are earning roughly 2,000 PEN above the minimum wage. Upon release, the Carcel product itself is marked up by 2.8 times the cost of production, compared to an industry-wide average of 5 times.

Carcel openly facilitate the balance between being a company and a tool for good. 'I'm very happy about navigating the complexity of saying- we want to do good things, but we’re also a company. We’re navigating that balance.' D'Souza says. She also stresses the importance of transparency and a willingness to learn in order to create a new model of best practice. 'The world is complex and so is the fashion supply chain. We never say we are 100 % sustainable or any of these different words. Instead, we actually talk about what we do...My ambition is to communicate as much as possible, to have a dialogue.'

Veronica D'Souza, photograph Alexander Hollsberg
Carcel at Wood Wood 2019, photograph Petra Kleis
Carcel production at the Women's Correctional Institute, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Carcel is on the road to show that a viable business model can go hand in hand with societal change. To move away from the extreme consumption we have in society, we need to drive it towards something that is still beautiful and appealing or the consumer won't bite. 'We're trying to break that whole concept of if it's ethical, it's not cool. We need to create a new type of industry,' D'Souza explains. This week, she's off to the UN to present a drafted ethical code of conduct for prisons, pushing for global awareness in the wider conversation of prison reforms. Later this year, the Princess of Thailand, a UN Goodwill Ambassador for South-East Asia, is due to visit Carcel's production site in Chiang Mai.

As pressure mounts on the industry to change its ways, with Copenhagen recently announcing their tough new Sustainability Action Plan, Carcel is certainly in tune with the times. D'Souza, who sits on the Copenhagen Advisory Board, applauds the plan, which tackles the entirety of the fashion supply chain with 17 standards for designers to meet in three years in order to achieve a 2022 zero-waste goal. 'It’s holistic, it looks at materials, waste, growth, how you treat people. It goes all the way through the supply change and demands a change in the business model, which is difficult but needed'. What it all comes down to, for D'Souza, is the business model. Can we have a flourishing industry in a post-consumerist world? No, D'Souza says firmly. We need to find a new, less wasteful growth model if we are to continue creating. 'If it's possible for a small company like us to try to take responsibility for our production costs, making our own sustainable supply chain, then it should be possible for a big company that makes a lot of money.' As Copenhagen Fashion Week continues to put the rest of the industry to shame, Carcel's slower business model that engages with regional craft, natural materials and only produces what is ordered, is one to take note of.

Learn more about Carcel's business model here.

Carcel Autumn Drop 2019, photograph Petra Kleis

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