Symbology: Fusing fashion with social responsibility

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For most companies, CSR is a single facet of an overall business—just one way to give back to communities. I am a CSR supporter, as obviated by this blog, and I believe these campaigns can create positive impact. But it is a rare and special thing when social responsibility exists at the heart of a business. North Carolina fashion startup Symbology is one of those gems.

Symbology is a fashion company with sustainability at its core. This new label uses a fair trade model to combine ethically sourced fabrics with high fashion design. (I actually had the chance to model for Symbology’s fall/winter 2012 lookbook, but please don’t hold that against them.)

Founder Marissa Heyl said she was intrigued by the idea that through fair trade, capitalism could empower people rather than exploit them.

“I visited women in slums and in villages, and really just fell in love with the women and their families,” Heyl said. “More than feeling sorry for them, because a lot of them came from really difficult situations, I felt more just a sense of bonding.”

Symbology currently works with five artisan groups in different parts of India. Heyl develops samples with interns from NC State and Meredith College. For some designs, she uses graphic design software to create patterns that she knows the women in India can recreate. The women carve the patterns out of a block to print the fabric. Heyl also uses traditional blocks from India that will translate well to clothing in the US. After creating the fabric, the women send it to the United States to be sewn into a final product.

Heyl sees fair trade as a way of connecting women through fashion. By creating economic opportunities for women in India, Symbology helps these women break the poverty cycle using their existing skills.

“Fair trade is much more than a buying relationship,” Heyl said. “It’s about developing holistic communities and retaining wealth and talent and education in villages in India.”

The model is especially significant for helping women. Heyl said in some communities, women aren’t allowed to leave the house without a man.

“There’s literally half of the population in a lot of developing countries where women are not given an opportunity to be part of the workforce,” Heyl said. “By utilizing these techniques of home based craft that are handed down from generation to generation, women can earn an income without having to get a lot of additional training and education.”

Symbology’s socially responsible business model comes with some challenges. The label is still fairly new and faces all the obstacles of any fashion startup. In addition, Symbology has the unique challenge of educating customers about sustainable design, quality of fabrics and the importance of knowing where their clothes come from, according to Heyl.

“It’s central to our success as an ethical fashion label, and more importantly, to the sustainability of the fashion industry.”

But despite these challenges, Symbology is on the right track for growth. The label’s upcoming lines were featured at Redress Raleigh, an eco-conscious fashion show on March 23. The clothing is sold at Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer, as well as high-end fashion boutiques. And Heyl said she’s planning on expanding to new communities in South America.

“I want to be able to travel and visit new groups…and work with these artisan communities,” Heyl said. “That’s my dream.”

To learn more about Symbology’s roots, check out Heyl’s TEDxRaleigh talk below. You can also shop Symbology at symbologyclothing.com.

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