This season - we’re kicking off a series of features on our site of people we admire - speakers, writers, community leaders, activists, makers, and creators - who envision a new future for fashion in which we all thrive. This series will feature people on the tonlé team - as well as people who have contributed to tonlé’s work - and people who have helped guide or inspire our work and thinking. We’re excited to introduce you to these inspiring folks, and contribute to sharing a conversation about how to make the fashion industry more just and equitable for all. This piece is a conversation between Manpreet Kalra and tonlé Co-creator Rachel Faller, and is representative of many conversations they have had over the last few months.
I'm excited to introduce you to someone who’s been in our community for a while - but who we’ve had the pleasure of working with more closely over the past few months. She has been helping us to hone our mission and values - as well as tuning the fine details of our marketing and website. (Check out our newly revamped philosophy pages to see the changes we're making and the new direction we're headed in) She and I have been having many conversations about justice and equity in the fashion industry - and how tonlé can shift from thinking beyond the bounds of conventional fair trade ideals of paying fair wages - to creating justice and equity across our entire business model. She has also been instrumental in shaping the narratives of many Fair Trade businesses and helping them move beyond a savior focus in their businesses to one of true co-creation and equal partnership with makers and artisans. Through her powerful workshops on anti-racism and cultural appropriation, to her strong writing and voice through these challenging times - she has been an inspiration to many and challenges with kindness and empathy much of what is wrong with the direction of traditional fair trade - while offering a better vision of what this industry can look like when done right. Without further ado it's my pleasure to introduce you to Manpreet Kalra!
Hi Manpreet - first of all, thank you so much for working with us at tonlé and helping us shape our vision for what the best version of this industry could look like! Can you share a little bit more about the work that you do and what motivates you to do it?
Over the years, my work has evolved quite a bit. I entered the social impact space from the venture and startup world, which as you probably know is dominated by men, white men in particular. At the time, I wanted to use my technical marketing skills to help brands build a more just and fair world. As I began working with more clients, I discovered how the fair trade, ethical, and sustainable space has a whiteness problem and continues to reinforce colonial power structures. I experienced micro-aggressions. People would assume I was an artisan (and not a business owner or a speaker at the conference they were attending) just by the color of my skin. I went from being written-off for my gender to being written-off for my heritage. Through each experience and conversation, I became more determined to change the narrative. I have always found true joy in my work when it has involved activism — from the publication I started in college to my brown feminist radio show as a young professional. I realized my work needed to evolve and become more intersectional with anti-racism education and deconstructing the systems global brands work within, and often abuse.
Today, my work lies in the intersection of brand marketing and social justice. I am an anti-racism educator on a mission to decolonize storytelling.
I believe the only way we can make the world a little more inclusive is by deconstructing the systems we each navigate on a daily basis.
I have been advocating for more conversations around anti-racism in the social impact space for a while, but only now are people wanting to listen. What has and continues to motivate me are those who have been historically marginalized reaching out and saying that they feel heard through a webinar, workshop or podcast I hosted.
I find that often people have lofty visions of what entrepreneurs do every day, but a lot of the day to day can feel mundane, and yet, is quite important. I’m curious what a typical day looks like for you. Or, what are your favorite and least favorite aspects of your work?
I love this question, because I have never really thought about what my day-to-day looks like. Partly because I have a serious issue with not being able to turn my work-brain off which means work starts for me the moment I wake up and ends to moment I finally fall asleep. But also because each day just looks different. Some days, I am working on writing, others I am working only on client work. I am constantly trying to put systems in place to help me create more structure, but the truth is creativity for me comes at the oddest hours.
My work consists of a few different key components: consulting, educational content creation (webinars, podcasts, articles), and self-educating. I am an academic at heart, so the educational part of my work has to be my favorite — I enjoy both teaching and learning. I strongly believe it is important to constantly be learning — may it be through conversations like one of the many you and I have had or through reading or sometimes through binging a show on Netflix!
My least favorite work is administrative. I really don’t like doing the operational work like finances and often find myself running behind on emails because I want to give each email special attention, which is something I am working on.
We’ve personally talked a lot about the problems with the "Fair Trade" model, and I’m wondering if you can share a bit more about what "Fair Trade" looks like at its worst, and how it could look at it’s best, when done well.
Fair trade at its worst is a manifestation of colonialism covered with a cloak of social good.
What I mean when I say this is, all too often fair trade brands end up furthering the very cultural hegemonies they claim to be addressing. They approach “impact” with a savior mindset which stems from this very raw human need to be the hero. While advocating for economic justice is something I feel strongly about, all too often fair trade is used as a solution without first deconstructing the issues brands try to address — may it be human trafficking or access to education. All too often, fair trade ends up appropriating the cultures of those it is “helping,” which only furthers this cycle of colonial extraction that led us to be navigating the inequities of the “Global North” vs “Global South.” Predominantly white companies working with communities of color to “empower them” cannot continue because it continues the internalized racism that marginalized communities continue to navigate.
Fair trade alone cannot be considered a solution. Done well, fair trade is one aspect of a larger initiative. I want to see more fair trade businesses approach social good without duplicitous motives, whether they are religious or financial.
The truth is that impact does not scale like a business. To assume economic justice alone can solve complex social or environmental issues is naive. Having a more intersectional approach to fair trade by building alliances and collaborating with those living and working within the communities themselves is just the first step. Fair trade is at its core built on the existence of inequities. Paying fair wages cannot be the end goal. Using fair trade to address histories of extraction, colonization, and exploitation is a starting point. We need to start reframing what “impact” looks like. Because, true impact happens when you collaborate with those within the communities you are working in, not by imposing on them.
Continuing on that theme - What’s your vision for the apparel industry or Fair Trade groups in particular? What steps do you think are most important to creating more justice and equity across the entire industry?
The fashion industry has historically been built on the exploitation of marginalized communities.
It furthers economic and social power structures that keep people at the top thriving and those at the bottom struggling. Which is why I believe we need to rethink business structures. We each need to understand our privileges, may they be racial, economic, educational, or a combination of a few. These privileges give us power to dismantle systems of inequity. We need to use this privilege by collaborating with those who are within the communities and already doing the work but may not have access to the same opportunities your privilege yields.
Just knowing “who made my clothes?” is not enough. Accountability is what is critical when trying to create more justice and equity across the industry.
We need to think beyond fair wages, and demand the companies invest in those who make the products they sell. Colonialism has left a profound imprint on global economies. To be more justice minded, we need to really take a step back and evaluate the many ways in which we continue to exploit not just individuals but their cultures. Just because things have been done a certain way for decades doesn’t mean it is right.
If we have any business owners reading this and are thinking about how they could improve upon their work - what one thing would you advise them to do first?
Language matters. Revisit your branding. Your branding is the foundation of your business. It dictates not just how you talk about your business, but also how you operate it.
It influences the way you approach partnerships, makers, artisans, and business structure. To create a more just society, we need to first look within ourselves and the spaces in which we have the most influence. For business owners, that means within your team. Involve and incorporate a diversity of voices in your brand conversation. It’s not enough to just change words on a paper. Once you revisit your branding, use that to guide how you shoot your next collection, how you create content for social media, and how you share your story with customers.
We had the pleasure of doing a photoshoot together a few weeks ago with Chloe Jackman and you talked about how it felt on a personal level to feel seen and represented. Can you share more about that - why is representation important to you on a personal level and on an industry level?
One of the things I have found to be most impactful in my work is unpacking the complexity and layers to how we identify. No single person has a single identity. We are multidimensional, with each layer of our identity shaping how we see ourselves and hope to be seen.
When people ask me about my “heritage,” I struggle. Over the years, I have navigated through various labels, some of which I have chosen, and some of which others have placed on me. I suppose that is what happens when your ancestors are a victim of divide. I am the daughter of immigrants who survived the 1984 Sikh genocide of India. I am the granddaughter of refugees who lost all sense of a homeland when Punjab was split in half during the 1947 India-Pakistan partition by British colonizers (I wrote more about this recently on my Instagram). Culturally, I identify as Punjabi. Religiously, I identify as Sikh. As a commitment to my faith, I have long unshorn hair, which over the years went from being something classmates teased me about to something those I work with are mesmerized by. Faith aside, my hair has become and always has been a significant part of my identity. After all, it has a life of its own.
When we did the photoshoot, I didn’t expect for it to have as profound of an impact on me as it did. It was in the days after our shoot, once I gave myself the time and space to reflect, that I realized I have never seen other women like me in brand photography, on shows, or in movies. From Canadian prime minister hopeful Jagmeet Singh to designer and model Waris Ahluwalia, I have seen the men of my community represented in mass media (though still not in great enough numbers or significance), but Sikh women with long hair, not so much.
During that photoshoot, I felt celebrated, and for the first time, I felt seen by the fashion industry. I remember growing up and not thinking I was beautiful enough because I didn’t look like what media portrayed as “beautiful.” For starters, I have brown skin and wide hips.
Representation is important. All too often, people of color are seen only as those who can make products, not actually enjoy them.
Representation normalizes difference and builds up those who are otherwise left unheard and unseen. Brands need to recognize that their marketing and branding should not just show what their current customer base looks like, but rather strive to represent the customer base they hope to have, one built on inclusion, not exclusion.
Let’s talk about tonlé for a minute! What are your favorite tonlé pieces and what are you most excited about wearing this season?
I have been living in my Midi Skirt! I’ve been over jeans since we started social isolation, so this skirt is my go-to “WFH, but still classy” wardrobe staple — even on days when all I have done is moved from my desk to my sofa. The pockets are of course an added bonus since I am not a purse-person!
Lastly - anything else that you want to add? Final parting words?
Empowerment is a very loaded word and one I see often used by fair trade brands and social enterprises to describe the impact of their work on the artisans they work with. Personally, I find the word empowerment to be quite problematic because it reinforces the idea that the person on the other end has no power to begin with, essentially discounting any form of agency.
This understanding of relationships being one sided leads to problematic marketing that is rooted in saviorism, furthering colonialist power dynamics between the Global North and Global South.
Businesses need to recognize and internalize that their relationship with the artisans, makers, craftspeople, farmers that they work with is mutually beneficial. Without them, you would have no business. To change an industry, we need to change the way we think about relationships, not just the way we market them.
Thank you Manpreet for being a part of this feature series and being a contributor to what we are doing at tonlé, as well as making the ethical fashion world a more safe and just place. If you'd like to learn more about her work - visit her site ArtofCitizenry.com and follow her on Instagram. Photos by Chloe Jackman Photography, also featuring jewelry by Mulxiply, Cashmere Cactus, and Penh Lenh, and shoes from Nisolo.