Actress Robin Wright and designer Karen Fowler write about how their sleepwear label is making a difference, one thread at a time.
The journey building our social enterprise clothing company, Pour Les Femmes, started as a conversation between two women — one an actress/director, the other a fashion designer. It was 2016, and the two of us, friends for more than three decades, were sitting in Robin’s living room talking about ways to collaborate and make a difference.
But the seed for our company was planted five years earlier and 9,000 miles away in a conversation with a third woman near Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. This conversation happened in a thatch-roofed safe house for widows recovering from sexual violence.
To protect her privacy, we’ll call her Mary. Mary is a mother of two. One of her children was conceived during her rape. When we met, Mary was sitting on a rough-hewn wooden stool, because like many women who have been brutally raped in Congo, she could no longer stand for very long. And with a stunning level of composure, she shared with Robin the story of her life and her country’s undoing.
When the author Joseph Conrad visited Congo more than 100 years ago, he reckoned it was “the most vile scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”
This much has changed: during Conrad’s time, the “loot” was ivory and rubber. Today, however, the scramble has shifted to minerals and metals such as coltan and gold.
The minerals are critical for making devices that are probably in your pocket or within arms’ reach right now: your cellphone or laptop. These incredible innovations that have helped improve billions of lives around the world have brought misery to the Congolese people, most of whom live on less than US$ 2 a day.
This poverty is galling given Congo’s astonishing natural resources. Congolese children walk barefoot or in tattered flip-flops across soil that covers an estimated US$ 24 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. Militias and corrupt businesses have controlled much of the lucrative mining sector and pocketed most of the proceeds. At first, the minerals were a way to finance the militias’ war. Soon, control of the rare and valuable minerals became a goal in and of itself. As the militias plundered the country, they killed millions and raped hundreds of thousands of women. Mary was one of them.
Robin had traveled to Congo to meet with Mary and other rape victims and war widows to use her celebrity platform to shine a spotlight on how multinational companies, many of them household names (including Samsung and Toshiba), were turning a blind eye to the unintended consequences of sourcing metals and minerals from militia-controlled mines in Congo.
It was a transformative experience, to awaken to the immense suffering inflicted by some of the world’s largest and most recognizable brands through their callous and careless business practices and supply chains. And to recognize our own complicity.
Once you see something, you can’t unsee it.
With every call on our cellphones and every email sent on our laptops, a side of injustice alongside our coffee and toast each morning, we were reminded and pulled into action.
Our theory of change falls solidly in the systems change camp.
So, working alongside the Enough Project, Robin testified before Congress in support of laws to prevent U.S. companies from using minerals and metals from militia groups. She spoke to the media to bring awareness to the issues, lobbied government and private sector leaders to take action, and narrated the feature film When Elephants Fight, which chronicles the pillaging of Congo.
There has been some progress. Among tech companies, Apple and Google have committed substantial resources to developing processes for sourcing minerals from mines that benefit Congolese communities. However, research by the Enough Project indicates many more companies, such as Toshiba and Samsung, continue their harmful practices.
Likewise, Enough Project research indicates that some of the largest jewelry retailers sourcing minerals from Congo, such as Walmart and Neiman Marcus, still haven’t taken any action to ensure that the jewelry they sell doesn’t feed the conflict in Congo.
We know that it took a decade for the diamond industry to clean up its supply chain and stop the flow of blood diamonds and the wars they fueled in West Africa. It may take decades to reform the extractive sector in Congo.
Systems change is ambitious, profound, and because of that, slow going. And while we are committed, we crave something smaller, faster, and more personal.
That’s what Pour Les Femmes is for us. While it is not an answer for the atrocities in Congo, it represents something we can do on a more personal level with our brilliant partners there, while we continue to push and lobby for more systemic change.
When we first launched Pour Les Femmes, we donated all of the profits for the first 30 days to two local organizations that serve the women of Congo. Another trip to Congo for the two of us followed and we recognized that we could amplify our efforts by giving not just money, but also by giving these women work — in turn providing them with the ability to earn an income, provide for their children, and contribute to their community.
We went in with our eyes wide open — recognizing that whenever and wherever businesses operate there are unintended consequences. Where some companies looked away from the unintended consequences of their business practices, we pledged to look for those unintended consequences and to hold ourselves accountable.
That moment of reckoning came sooner than we expected. Because we knew that the war for mineral riches in Congo has brutalized women, we wanted to focus our efforts on creating a workshop for women so that they could sustain themselves. The fact that sexual violence is widely used across the region as a weapon of war has shaken us deeply — Doctors Without Borders reported that they’d treated 1,373 victims of sexual violence in the first three months of 2021 in one region of Congo alone.
Our first seamstresses raised a red flag. An all-women workforce would create conflict in women’s homes and villages. The women asked us to consider including a few men in the project to ensure wider community support.
We listened, learned, and will continue to do so.
So far, our capsule collection of pajamas made in Congo has provided more than 2,000 days of work. More recently, we established the Pour Les Femmes Foundation, a registered nonprofit that partners with local community organizations where our embroiderers and tailors live to invest in capital improvements, which so far include building a school and a new workshop.
As we do our part to help mend frayed lives and communities, we recognize that we are part of two promising systems-change efforts. One, nascent, as the extractive industry begins taking responsibility for its social and environmental impacts and establishes new policies and institutions to support a better version of itself. And the second, in the fashion industry, which is increasingly (like us) embracing the use of organic and recycled materials, paying fair wages, improving working conditions, and providing educational and health care benefits for its workers.
On our last visit to Congo, we sat down with Mwangaza, a single mother of seven children and one of the talented seamstresses who produce Pour Les Femmes pajamas. Just three women, sitting inside the workshop with sewing machines and bobbins of colorful thread around us.
Even in a country as desperately poor as Congo, Mwangaza’s situation had been dire. Her husband had disappeared, leaving her alone to care for their seven children. Her worldly possessions totaled two cooking pots, a few blankets, and the threadbare clothes on her back. Her children couldn’t attend school because she couldn’t afford the fees.
But once she was trained in embroidery by our local partner, Mwangaza stitched together a new life. She now has her own modest home, the school fees necessary to send all of her children to school, and most importantly, hope for herself, her children, and her community.
You don’t have to start your own clothing line to play a role in helping heal Congo.
First, as a consumer, buy better and buy smarter. Whether it’s the clothes, mobile phones, laptops, or jewelry you buy, make sure the brands you support maintain a clean supply chain, pay decent wages, and don’t exploit the communities where they operate. The Enough Project has rankings on these issues.
Second, make your voice heard in advocating for change. You can find advocacy tools at thesentry.org, a close partner of the Enough Project and at #StandWithCongo.
Lastly, when doing business, recognize the potential for unintended consequences and implement robust measurement and evaluation activities capable of catching potential negative impacts early.