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.

Five (Free!) CSR Mobile Apps

Corporate transparency has become more and more prevalent in today’s digital age. Shoppers equipped with a smartphone can access business and product information with a tap of their thumb. Taking advantage of this, organizations have created mobile apps focused on a variety of aspects of CSR, so consumers can take this information with them wherever they go. Below are just five of the free CSR apps available!

GoodGuide

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No matter what issues you support, the GoodGuide app can help inform your shopping decisions. The app connects to the GoodGuide website, which ranks consumer products based on a number of areas of social responsibility, including climate change, fair trade, human rights and nutrition. In addition, the GoodGuide app allows users to scan products in stores in order to access an overall company rating for social responsibility, as well as certifications the company has received. The app also allows major personalization—users can filter based on the issues they care about the most, flag problematic product ingredients and track purchases. It’s available for both Android and iOS devices.

Seafood Watch

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If you’re a lover of seafood and sustainability, Seafood Watch is a great resource for you. Created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch provides up-to-date recommendations for sustainable seafood at restaurants and stores geographically near the user. Users can access “Best Choice,” “Good Alternative” and “Avoid” rankings, as well as “Super Green” seafood that is both healthy and sustainable. The newest version also allows users to share locations where they have found sustainable seafood. The app is available for Android and iPhone.

Free2Work

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Free2Work seeks to eradicate human trafficking and modern-day slavery by telling “the story behind the bar code.” A project of Not for Sale, Free2Work allows consumers to access company ratings on policies, transparency, monitoring and worker rights by scanning product bar codes. The app links to social media accounts so users can share findings on Facebook and Twitter. Free2Work features information across a number of consumer industries, including apparel, chocolate and technology. It’s available for both Android and iOS devices.

HRC Foundation Buying for Workplace Equality Guide

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Like others on this list, the Human Rights Center app is designed to inform buying decisions on the go. It focuses specifically on LGBT equality in company workplaces. The app includes a highly comprehensive catalog of business and products and their HRC Corporate Equality Index ranking. Each featured business and brand has its own detailed breakdown of workplace policies that contribute to the ranking, such as non-discrimination policies and domestic partner health insurance. The guide links to social media outlets. As of now, it appears to only be available on the iPhone.

Fair Trade Finder

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Created by Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade Finder is a crowdsourcing app that encourages users to add, tag and photograph Fair Trade Certified products to add to the catalog. The app seeks to help users find fair trade products wherever they are. Fair Trade Finder is available on iPhone and Android, and can also be accessed on Facebook.

Know of another great CSR app? Share it in the comments below.