Fair Trade Brand of the Month: Symbology

Marissa Heyl, the Founder of Symblology, didn’t know what Fair Trade was, or Sustainable Fashion and Lifestyle. She always had an interest in fashion and was a big consumer for the industry.  But one day in 2001, she walked in to a Ten Thousand Villages shop and things changed for her.  She was truly fascinated by the vibrant colors and textiles surrounding her at the shop, she also loved the energy of it all.  And then she saw a poster of a female artisan in India embroidering a beautiful pashmina scarf. 

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The poster told a story of how this woman's craft skill has helped her life.  Not just hers, but also the well being of her daughter.  This artisan was able to send her daughter to school by creating this gorgeous item, carried by Ten Thousand Villages for consumers in the U.S.  Marissa was uplifted and inspired.  She was intrigued to understand that her shopping habit can actually be used to create good in the world. 

She went on and pursued a degree in Journalism and Anthropology.  In 2006, she received a grant from University of North Carolina to do a study of how Fair Trade Empowers Craft Women in India.  She went to Mumbai and then to a village called Kutch, a place without language where they use embroidery on their textile to tell a story.  With the help of an interpreter, Marissa interviewed more than 30 female artisans and listen to repeated stories of how their craft abilities have gained them financial independence and the freedom to be able to leave their homes.

 Marissa and an artisan in India

Marissa and an artisan in India

She remembered watching one of the artisans working on a cloth and thought to herself if this piece is cut a certain way, give it more of a modern and simple appeal, it would make an amazing dress.  From this trip Marissa became very fascinated with the culture: the colors, prints and especially the motifs that reflect deeper meanings and heritage that have been passed on for generations.  When she finally started her own Fair Trade brand, she chose the name Symbology to honor the use of these motifs, similarly used by many cultures in the world to convey stories.  A shared trait of our humanity.

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Symbology aims to partner with artisan groups of women from all over the globe to provide income.  This partnership is not without challenges, Marissa laughed as she told me stories of festivals, holidays and even monsoon seasons in India which postponed production process.  On a more serious discussion, she talked of the challenges of finding suppliers and supervisors who are on the same page as her, people who understand demands from consumers in the US and quality control.  She also makes sure that she works with groups who provide healthcare program for the artisans and scholarship programs for the artisans’ children.

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Marissa doesn’t stop there, she continues to find ways to assist more communities.  Her next project is to work with a group of refugee women in the US, “A lot of these women have great skills.  There are 40,000 refugees from all over the world in Dallas, Texas.  I’m looking to collaborate with them, and possibly have other brands to work with them as well.”

For people who wish to learn more about Fair Trade, Marissa suggested Conscious Chatter podcast to listen to, The True Cost documentary to watch and the book Slow Fashion, Aesthetic Meets Ethic to read.  For her own favorite Fair Trade brands to check out, she suggested Osei Duro, Soko, Tribal Life, Maven Women, Fortress of Inca and The Citizenry.  These brands range from clothing, jewelry to home décor.

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I asked her what is the best thing about being in the Fair Trade movement, without hesitation she answered, “The community and the positive support we provide each other.  Just everything, from supply chain to customers, a global community of women who support and respect each other’s work.”  Her wish for the future of Fair Trade is for this to no longer be the exception but the norm, for Fair Trade to be the mainstream and no longer a niche.

Lolo Santosa