Ingenuity in Quarantine: The Story of SweetIndigo™
Nest’s Artisan Guild highlight series focuses on our community of makers, craftswomen, and entrepreneurs, introducing you to their stories in their own words. We’re excited to feature founder, Denica Flesch, and her organization SukkhaCitta, and how she is holding onto hope in the midst of human disaster.
While any social enterprise has its own inherent challenges, the coronavirus pandemic has heightened economic risk on the informal handworker economy worldwide. Denica has witnessed those implications firsthand in Indonesia, and shares SukkhaCitta’s experience of COVID-19 with us here. Despite the state of the world, or perhaps charged by it, Nest also wants to recognize Denica and SukkhaCitta for their recent (and incredibly innovative) launch of SweetIndigo™ dye. Read on for Denica’s story:
Our big world has seemed a lot smaller in recent months, with a large percentage of the global population under self-quarantine at any given time. Watching the situation unfold here in Indonesia has been nothing short of an emotional battle of helplessness and uncertainty. On March 15th, our government finally declared a state of emergency and urged social distancing. While many could wait the crisis out in their homes, it became clear quickly that millions could not afford to.
I founded SukkhaCitta in 2016, with the goal of transforming an all-to-often exploitative industry into one where artisan employees make enough to meet their basic needs. Through investment in training and capacity building, SukkhaCitta’s craftswomen have increased their income by 40 percent on average. The women I employ are among the 70 million of Indonesia’s population surviving on daily wages. I worry for them, as our country braces for a severe economic crisis following the COVID-19 outbreak. As demand for non-primary needs—like sustainably-produced fabrics and clothing—has already virtually evaporated, the blowback on the supply chain is real. Especially for those who usually remain unseen.
Our artisan partners are mothers working from home, in villages, not factories. I was quickly able to feel the impact the crisis is having on life in their communities. All it took was one week from the announcement of the state of emergency for virtually all of their husbands to be laid off, along with most of their villages. SukkhaCitta’s artisans are not the primary source of income for their families.
As the World Bank raised concern that informal artisan workers, who depend on craft for their livelihoods, would be most vulnerable to the economic impact of COVID-19, I thought long and hard about what SukkhaCitta could do. Even before the pandemic, less than two percent of workers in Indonesia earned a living wage. For decades, these artisans and workers subsidized the growth of Indonesia’s craft and fashion industry. Today, they don’t have the luxury of working from home, or of waiting things out knowing there is a social safety net to catch them. The women I employ needed support and opportunity now more than ever. It wasn’t going to come from the government, or from global retailers.
Rumah SukkhaCitta is our craft school, the first in Indonesia. We closed all three locations, in Flores, Central Java, and East Java, transforming them into community safe houses to stock basic needs so our artisans didn’t need to leave their respective villages as often. Despite the blow on market demand, we issued individual work orders so each of our more than 100 artisans still have access to work at our regular premium living wage rate.
From a humanistic, health systems, and economic perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic still feels dire – in Indonesia as elsewhere. I feel more hopeful now, though. It is my hope that together, we can transform the horror and fear of this crisis into a new way of doing business that respects both people and planet—where people no longer have to feel hopeless and invisible. This crisis offers a unique opportunity to reflect on what kind of economic order we want to rebuild. To rethink the impacts of our everyday choices as individuals, businesses, and the world. To consider what we all will have to do differently.
And it is up to all of us to seize this opportunity, as we all rush for things to return to normal, to reimagine what ‘normal’ should be.
Editor’s Note: In addition to the direct aid SukkhaCitta has provided its workers, Denica’s team recently culminated years of research into the final development and launch of SweetIndigo™. SweetIndigo™ is Indonesia’s first 100 percent clean, traceable, and empowering dye, replacing the hazardous reducing chemical typically used in Indigo dyeing with locally-sourced palm sugar. Not only will SweetIndigo™ production provide both farmers and artisans with a source of work and continued income, it will also help to combat the 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally that is caused by synthetic dyes. SweetIndigo™ has been a win for SukkhaCitta and its community of workers during trying times, and a true testament to the organization’s mission: to “Build a bridge between you and the women who make your clothes, giving her more chances in life while regenerating our Earth.”
Denica Flesch is a trained economist who set out to change the standard of Indonesia’s craft industry. Through her social enterprise SukkhaCitta, she empowers artisans in villages across Indonesia—providing intensive training in craft, design and business skills before connecting them to the global market. Her vision is for craft to be at the center of a new #MadeRight economy.
World Bank Group, East Asia and Pacific in the Time of COVID-19, April 2020. https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/eap/publication/east-asia-pacific-economic-update
Susanty and Makur, The Jakarta Post, 70 million informal workers most vulnerable during pandemic, 3 April 2020
Fashion’s Supply Chain Disruptions, Business of Fashion, 31 March 2020. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/professional/fashions-supply-chain-disruptions-what-you-need-to-know
Statista Data on Size of Advertising Spending of the US Fashion Industry. https://www.statista.com/statistics/470617/apparel-and-accessory-stores-industry-ad-spend-usa/