Fair Trade is Not Enough
by Celine Semaan Vernon
A story about giving
When I was three years old, my family and I fled Lebanon. The violence and chaos had engulfed my hometown, Beirut. My father decided we’d immigrate to Canada. This journey was very stressful and uncertain; traveling as a refugee is particularly painful.
Our new life in Montreal was mostly peaceful, yet I was aware that the violence I’d experienced back home hadn’t stopped. We regularly called home – when the phone lines worked – and we received cassette tapes from family members filled with tears and often, bad news. We sent cassettes back to them and tried to send them joy by singing songs, but my mother would always end up locking herself in her room to cry.
My endless quest for the meaning of home and identity has made me into an explorer, an artist and a scientist. I restlessly create drawings, paintings, plays, performances and videos. Creating is a necessity. As Louise Bourgeois puts it, “Art is a guarantee of sanity”.
I am an artist who found a way to be a designer by trade. I stumbled into design as an information architect and user experience designer, putting people, behavior and culture at the centre of the design practice and methodology. Humans fascinate me.
My work as a designer has made me question purpose, meaning and function in everything I make. My approach is to create a production process and products that are not harmful to the environment or to people, and that are meaningful and eternal. I did not attend design school; I learned everything on the Internet. I belonged to the culture movement of open standards, open source, open licensing: the Open Web.
In those days, contemplating pixels was a form of meditation for me. It allowed my restless mind and my anxious spirit to settle. I began collecting open-licensed NASA images. The nebulas, the planets, the chaotic patterns of city lights – they replaced my thoughts with a sense of connectedness to the world around me.
I decided to explore ways to make this feeling accessible to others through the power of open data and fashion – I wanted to combine these to reflect on trends and culture. Coming from the Internet and the awareness that “everything is a remix”, I mixed the two together and created Slow Factory two years ago.
We operated as an eco-business from the start; our approach was to use less water, work with organic dyes and operate with fair wage factories. I knew this was not enough – after all, fair trade should be the norm. Everything you make returns to earth either as food or as poison.
Recently I have seen my friend Bassel Kartabil jailed in Syria, read about children dying in Gaza and felt fearful for my parents in Lebanon every time there was an explosion in Beirut. Powerlessness is unbearable. Then I saw Alexander Gerst tweet ‘Gaza by Night’, alongside his caption,
I felt the urge to see it on fabric. I decided to expand Slow Factory’s purpose, to do whatever we can to improve the lives of refugee families. The result was to create the Dignity Fund. We’ve partnered with a leading humanitarian aid organization, ANERA and are giving 10% of our sales to a Fund that will distribute basic survival kits to refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. We’re also working to tell the stories of those living in conflict, connecting the people who purchase our scarves with those they’re helping. We all share the same planet, and we must all give back.
Filed under: fashion activism