In 2008, Rachel Starkey, the owner of a small garment factory stumbled upon a newspaper article talking about ‘period poverty’. She read of women in a vulnerable community that came together to protest and lobby in order to highlight the need for the local government to intervene on behalf of their daughters, who were missing school or regrettably, having to resort to ‘transactional sex’, just to secure sanitary products so they could sit their exams. Rachel looked at her own two daughters and her heart sank. She grieved for the millions of girls who would not feel their confidence – simply for being unable to manage their monthly menstruation. That day changed everything, and thus, Transformation Textiles was born.
At the time, Rachel’s factory was partnering with Alex Apparels; the largest exporter of apparel to the US in Egypt, and a subsidiary of the Alpine Group, a global end-to-end vertical supply chain partner with 40 years heritage in the textile innovation and apparel manufacturing industries.
When she walked into the Alex Apparel factory, she no longer saw just t-shirts – instead she saw the fabric cuttings created during the manufacturing process, and she asked the question: “What if commercial, pre-consumer textile waste was repurposed and designed into dignity products for vulnerable girls and women?”
12 years later, the Dignity Projects by Transformation Textiles, in partnership with Alex Apparels and the Alpine Group has impacted the lives of over 100,000 girls; utilising 33,000kg of pre consumer textile cuttings in the process.
With the next 10,000 Dignity Kits due to be shipped to Iraq in the Autumn, the team has also set ambitious targets for the project’s impact over the next five years; having recently become UN Commitment Makers, as part of the UN’s 2021 Generation Equality Forum, which was held in Paris at the end of June.
We speak to Rachel as well as Clare Woodford, Alpine Group’s Global Director of Marketing and Impact, both of whom are instrumental in driving the Dignity Kits Project forwards, to learn more about Transformation Textiles x Alpine Group, and the incredible, transformative work.
What inspired the launch of this project and what was the aim in setting it up?
Rachel: I was originally inspired by seeing the carefree smiles of my own two daughters and wanted every woman and girl to have their same confidence. As I investigated the deeper issues of period poverty, I soon realised the gravity of the situation: 800 million girls and women globally do not have access, nor can they afford sanitary protection. Lasting impact could not come from me alone; scalable and sustainable solutions had to be found.
Surrounded by multiple mass-garment manufacturers, it was obvious that there was an untapped, constant source of incredible fabric off-cuts that could be used in the making of dignity kits (underwear, sanitary pads, and other relevant dignity items).
The making of dignity kits would be a relatively easy task – but learning the challenges these vulnerable women faced, finding out the items they most wanted and truly understanding period poverty from their perspective was crucial. I wanted to walk a mile in their shoes, so that sustainable solutions could be discovered together.
It was an intensive and extensive journey in ‘human-centred design’. I worked alongside vulnerable women, toured refugee camps, war zones and internally displaced camps, and spoke to women about their greatest challenges or unmet needs. The issues were not just about having a physical pad or pair of underwear to change into, but the lack of privacy, limited wash facilities, water scarcity and the stigma around menstruation. All of these challenges were taken into careful consideration when designing the ‘dignity products.’
There was however, only so much my little factory’s offcuts could achieve. Could the ‘transformational impact’ of my two cutting tables be multiplied into the cutting tables of all the major/mega factories in my industrial zone?
I had nothing to lose and everything to gain for this cause. Armed with a protective ‘Mother Bear’ spirit for every girl, I made an appointment to speak with the most influential person that I believed could help me. Ehab Mohi, CEO of Alex Apparels.
His only daughter was the same age as my own, and we made a pact; whatever it took and however long the journey, together we would find a way to be part of the solution in tackling period poverty.
What a combination! A fierce female foreigner and a courageous Egyptian man addressing such a taboo subject.
Ehab was a strategic thinker. As well as helping the girls, he wanted to determine how this initiative could be applied in such a way that it would not negatively impact the day-to-day running of a mass garment facility. Could it even make that factory better? If we truly wanted this program to be sustainable and scalable to other textile plants, it’d need to make sense to a factory’s bottom line. Anything could be done as a ‘one-off’ CSR splash story, but we set out to achieve lasting impact and perpetual momentum. We needed to create a road map where others could follow along and readily see the advantages of getting involved.
It took time, however, over the course of a decade, in learning to understand how we could create our dignity kits as part the ‘business as usual’ operations, we were able to create 100,000 kits, and thus, positively impact 100,000 girls and women in challenging environments.
With the COVID19 pandemic making travel impossible, it was the perfect time to reflect; we congratulated ourselves for those first 100,000 lives transformed, but then asked ‘what if?’ We now had the legitimate experience to demonstrate that we could move this initiative from a ‘passion project’, to part of the Alpine Group’s broader Purpose and Impact strategy. I was therefore hired to lead Alex Apparels CSR programs and the Alpine Training School program, with the initial goal of increasing our efforts to positively impact the next 50,000 lives over 2021/2022 and beyond.
Clare: “It’s not just about having a positive impact story to share, but ensuring we reflect Alpine Group’s socially responsible brand DNA. Doing good is just part of the natural outflow and matrix of our overall business operations.”
Clare: Here are some of the advantages to disrupting the status quo with the strategic purpose of utilising excess fabric:
- There’s a major reduction in waste. On some styles up to 40% of expected and previously accepted off-cut waste could be avoided.
- As the consumer market is becoming more demanding of better environmental practices, this reduction in our “waste-footprint” is significant. Not only is expected waste being minimised, but the fact that waste is being “upcycled/repurposed” in its virgin state, reduces environmental impact exponentially.
- Dignity components are the perfect medium to train new team members on becoming skilled operators. Having an actual product to practice skills on dramatically affects the trainee’s efforts. Knowing how this product will transform other’s lives is a powerful motivator for excellence. Any mistake that is made in the process does not impact the company’s bottom line, and instead two powerful outcomes are achieved: dignity kits can be cost effectively produced; and new skilled operators can enter into the company’s primary production lines. Both outcomes are inspirational to share with customers, who are looking for more from manufacturers.
- The factory production team feels that they are part of a ‘greater cause’. More than just showing up to receive a pay-check, this leads to increased positive company culture, team loyalty and productivity.
What has been the impact of the project so far?
Rachel: “For every tonne of selected upcycled pre-consumer waste, we have impacted the lives of over 3,000 women”.
We have reached 100,000 women in over 7 countries and have shared our technical knowledge of mass producing reusable dignity kits with multiple other factories and sewing initiatives, across 10 countries.
In addition, I have had the privilege to speak in many forums and have participated in many national and global efforts to de-stigmatise MHM (Menstrual Health Management) in an effort to push forward sustainable, innovative solutions to tackle period poverty.
As founder of Transformation Textiles, I had the honour of serving as a member on the committee which wrote the National Policy on MHM for the Kenyan Ministry of Health. This policy has led to the formation of the Kenyan national product standard for reusable sanitary protection.
As Alex Apparels, we have only scratched the surface of possibilities of how to leverage and maximise our pre-consumer textile waste. We created the initial dignity kits on the side of our regular production – infrequently and only as required. We chose to go slow initially because it was so important to include the vulnerable women who we sought to serve in this effort. They offered invaluable contributions, feedback and solutions on multiple iterations of the components included in a dignity kit.
We are now poised to take all the intensive human-centred design, inspired by these women and apply it on a massive scale to our everyday operations. Imagine what can be done if all eligible off-cut textile waste was utilised!
Yet the true impact is not measured in the amount of gross weight in kilograms of textile waste we reclaim, but in human potential that is unleashed when something as simple as monthly dignity is made available to all who are lacking. For these girls and women, having a complete, reusable sanitary solution would ensure that they could confidently manage their periods for a duration of at least three years. This translates to girls going to school, every day of the month, without having to trade sex for pads. As well as a reduction in early/teenage pregnancies. Women will have the ability to move freely for work, doors of opportunity will open for both groups, simply because they are empowered to walk into the fullness of their potential.
Rachel: “In our initial efforts, the focus was first on learning what the vulnerable girls and women wanted and needed. Then by providing this to them in such a way that would not cause dependency, but empowerment”.
As we move this initiative forward, we are not only looking at the small ‘off-cuts’ of table markers, but also utilising the ‘end of roll’ lengths into mini-markers and purposefully using ‘dead stock’. End of roll textile excess and deadstock fabrics now take on a dramatic second purpose.
How does this project promote job opportunities in the local community?
Clare: The promotion of local job creation has two faces. Local jobs for Alpine Group’s textile community and livelihood creation opportunities amongst the end beneficiaries we seek to serve with our Transformation Textiles’ partnerships.
Alpine Group Training Centre
As we begin to significantly build our dignity programme into our corporate strategy, the economics of scale allow us to create a dedicated training centre – where new recruits with no previous sewing/technical skills can progress to become cross-trained, highly efficient machine operators, quality control inspectors, and cutting technicians, who can secure long-term employment within the sewing industry.
Transformation Textiles is an equal opportunities employer, and in its training centre, trainees regardless of gender are encouraged to push themselves and improve their skills so they can secure jobs with more advanced technical requirements that equate to higher salaries.
What are the other social benefits of this project?
Other Local Job Creation, Humanitarian Aid and Development
Rachel: Beyond our focus of dignity products, we are beginning to form partnerships with locally registered humanitarian aid and development organisations such as: Egyptian Clothing Bank, Village of Hope, Association for the protection of the environment (APE), in providing some of our excess stock garments, and excess stock roll fabrics. These reputable organisations rely significantly on donations to execute their extraordinary work amongst the most vulnerable within our country (Orphans, Widows, Homeless, Elderly, Mentally handicapped, Zalabeen/local recyclers). Sometimes circumstances require emergency aid to fend off death by starvation, but where possible, we provide development opportunities so that the vulnerable can sustainably feed themselves. This is what we are exploring and pursuing with these local partner organisations. Some of the beneficiaries they serve with our excess garments and fabrics, may be very eligible to join our Alpine Training centre, going on to long term job security, or may be able to create their own livelihoods by utilising our textile off-cuts.
International Livelihood Creation & Collaboration
Clare: As Alpine Group and Transformation Textiles continue to partner internationally with on-the-ground organisations focussed on women’s health, there is a growing trend for local groups wanting to be involved in the local manufacturing of dignity kits. Common challenges they face are the acquisition of suitable fabrics for their high costs and the method of hand cutting each piece, which can be laborious due to the lack of something as simple as a suitable table. Yet in spite of these challenges they do the best they can with what they have, even if that means putting a tarp on the ground. Period poverty is so dire in their communities that they are doing everything they can to be part of the solution.
In contrast, mass pre-cutting of the dignity components can easily be accomplished while commercially cutting our primary production. This does not add significantly to our costs, but dramatically reduces these local groups’ raw material and labour efforts. For struggling small organisations, being provided pre-cut pieces allows them to streamline operations to final stitching of the dignity kits, enabling them to utilise their resources more effectively – whilst also providing the needed health education to remote or vulnerable communities.
Health Education is a key component to lasting impact
Rachel: In the same way we rely on value chains to meet the objectives of our primary garment business (fabrics to factory to retail shelf), Alpine Group has formed an equally intricate value chain for our dignity projects.
Although the manufacture of a physical dignity kit is an initial step in the process, culturally appropriate menstrual health education is equally important. Therefore, Alpine Group and Transformation Textiles have strategically partnered with For Her Dignity, to ensure this education and the training tools required are provided into whatever language is required by the target group.
For Her Dignity, equips trainers ‘who train others to train’. Multiplication and knowledge transfer by trusted community members at a local level is what will perpetuate lasting impact for dignity projects.
What are the hopes and plans for the future of the project?
Clare: The UN’s 2021 Generation Equality Forum called for bold new global commitments from governments, corporations, and change-making organisations to catapult progress on gender equality. In response, Alpine Group has made robust commitments relating to its Dignity Kits project, in order to further increase the positive social impact of the initiative.
Our commitments are as follows.
- Supply a minimum of 50,000 Dignity Kits every year, for women who find themselves in the most challenging environments – including refugee camps and rural parts of Africa. As part of our commitment, we are working to support an additional minimum of 250,000 women in the next five years.
- Train 3,000 women through the Dignity Kits/Training Centre program with the skills they need to work within Alex Apparels. The Dignity Kits are sewn by trainees who have little to no sewing experience. Through the program, they gain the technical skills required to be full time employees on our facility production floors.
- Supply the components of an additional 50,000 Dignity Kits (pre-cut pieces) each year to organisations working to support the local manufacturing of dignity kits and Women’s health, combating Period Poverty over the next five years. This will create job and training opportunities for local women in vulnerable communities.
In time, we firmly believe that Alpine Group will disrupt the textile industry, leading other mass producers to incorporate dignity projects within their operations. The majority of mass garment manufacturing is located in low-income countries. If key manufacturers in each of these locations incorporated Alpine’s innovative approach to pre-consumer textile waste, period poverty would be dramatically reduced in their regions. If the textile industry embraced this practice in mass, global period poverty could be eradicated altogether.