The Global Rethinkers: Financial Times interview with Denica Riadini-Flesch
3 April 2023 | 5 minute read
Meet the economist whose clothing brand is transforming the fortunes of Indonesia’s craftswomen, bringing fairer pay to one of the country’s key industries.
“Heartbroken” is how Denica Riadini-Flesch says she felt in 2016. Having completed her studies in Rotterdam, she had returned to her native Jakarta as a development economist. It could have been a triumphant homecoming: a chance to apply her skills in a country where opportunities remain dramatically unequal for women. Instead, she was despondent. “I felt a lot of frustration with the way development aid is currently structured; that what we were doing didn’t necessarily lead to real impact on the ground,” says Riadini-Flesch.
“My work took me through villages where I would meet local women, and I started realising that what they need is not aid, it’s work. They have amazing skills as artisans, which is the second largest employment sector for Indonesia, and yet they are not being allowed to earn a fair wage for their work. There are makers unable to earn a living wage, even though they work over 12 hours a day.”
Farm to closet
This was the start of her "farm to closet” clothing brand, SukkhaCitta (meaning simply “happiness”), which pays artisans a fair living wage for crafting exquisitely detailed, quality clothing. Dresses, shirts and scarves are all made using traditional techniques and natural dyes, increasingly from plants farmed on the artisans’ own land (in Indonesian villages, farmers are typically women because men leave to work in urban areas).
Quick to laugh, Riadini-Flesch describes herself as “a nerd” with “no background in fashion”, but she knew she could see a way to change the clothing industry in her country. Conversations about fair conditions for factory workers don’t always extend to how women selling clothing and crafts from their villages are remunerated, women who “have been invisible for too long”.
“As soon as they have children, these women need to take care of the home and the children, so they can no longer leave the village,” says Riadini-Flesch. “The idea was, what if we can provide opportunity where the women are? So they can work without having to leave their families?” One of the reasons so many women earn through artisan crafts is that in Indonesia, women’s education often doesn’t go beyond primary school, says Riadini-Flesch. “Craft is something that has been traditionally passed on by the mothers to the daughters in communities where formal schooling doesn't get through.”
Once artisans are signed up with SukkhaCitta, fair prices for their materials and labour mean they earn on average 60 per cent more than their previous income level. The organisation has a 15-strong team to co-ordinate with more than 1,000 women or ibus (mothers) in villages. Goods they create are sold directly through SukkhaCitta’s suitably slick website, as well as in a handful of boutiques, now including a small flagship store in Jakarta. The cost of a dress starts at around £200.
Craft lessons and business skills
Crucially, SukkhaCitta has also established craft schools, which offer one-year programmes to teach women key business skills, as well as crafting techniques and plant cultivation. What Riadini-Flesch observed during her research brought her to realise how “dirty” industry practices are. “We're not only outsourcing work to these villagers but we are also outsourcing the use of toxic dyes to women who are ill-equipped to deal with toxic chemicals, and who just literally dump them in the river where their children play, where they get water from.”
Riadini-Flesch’s plans for the brand up to 2030 include acquiring more farmland and reaching more artisans. “By then we hope to impact 10,000 lives and regenerate 1,000 hectares of land. At present, we have successfully regenerated 20 hectares of degraded land by changing how our materials are grown.” Ultimately, she says, SukkhaCitta’s future will depend on consumer demand, and she feels it’s going in her direction. “People no longer want just some greenwash. They're looking for verifiable impact,” she says. “That’s really helped us in scaling up.” Even without any advertising, the business has grown over the past six years, which Riadini-Flesch says is partly via internet searches for sustainable fashion.
“The one thing consumers all over the world right now are looking for is connection,” she says. “They don’t want to purchase from brands they don’t know. People who previously had no idea where their clothes came from, we’re taking them on a journey back to the villages, discovering all these techniques, and asking them to start questioning and really demanding that their choices create impact.”
For what it’s worth, Riadini-Flesch doesn’t like “sustainable fashion” as an idea. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as sustainable fashion. Because everything we make ultimately creates an impact, either in the material footprint or in carbon footprint. What we need to start normalising is responsible fashion. SukkhaCitta is a mindset that you can apply in any industry, in any country.”
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