What “ethically made” means to us

What “ethically made” means to us

You can’t trust everything you read. I, for one, am that person in the grocery store squinting at labels and madly googling. “This pasta sauce has ‘natural flavours’. What does that mean?”. This toque from a Canadian retailer has a Canadian flag on it, except the label says it’s made in China. Hmm…

So I totally get it if you don’t trust us when we say our products are ethically made. You’re due some skepticism. In fact, we encourage it. So we’ll tell you what we mean when we say we only work with “ethical” brands and you can tell us if we come up short.

1. Start With Why

When we consider a potential partner, we begin by asking, “why do they exist?” Any brand we work with must exist to solve a social problem. Help victims of sex trafficking? Poverty alleviation in Uganda? Reduce landfill waste? No matter what it is, their social purpose has to be real and the rest of their business has to revolve around it.

Dim Sum Handmade Good Paper Card

The Paper Project, partner of our Good Paper cards, was started by a family in the Philippines who knew sex trafficking was a problem. One of the brothers is a lawyer who prosecutes criminals charged with human trafficking in the Philippines. Through his work, he saw how many of the rescued women continue to be vulnerable. They have no work prospects, little or no education, and nowhere to go (many have lost their homes or been ostracized from their communities). The sad reality is, many of these women end up returning to their traffickers because at least it’s an enemy they know. The Paper Project, in collaboration with Good Paper, employs these women as card makers to help get them back on their feet. The women are provided job skills training, education, stable employment, and fair wages. As the business grows, so does their impact.

When we talk about “purpose” and a social mission, we have to go beyond mission statements like “making our employees happy” or “creating a positive workplace.” These are honourable goals but, frankly, all companies should already strive to do these things. In our books, this is simply how business should be done.

2. Actions speak louder than words

You know those businesses that claim to alleviate poverty (for example) in Philippines, but their workers in America are paid at- or below minimum wage? Yeah, we’re not into those. In the same way, it’s not okay to donate a percentage of sales to [insert environmental cause here], and then use raw materials that pollute rivers or contain toxins. This sort of mixed-messaging is exactly what makes consumers (like you and me) so distrustful of companies to begin with. We want partners who walk the talk and carry their social mission into every fiber of their business.

AKABA Artisanal Bag

AKABA Limited Design Co., the partner who makes our gorgeous artisanal duffle bags, is one of these businesses. They train and employ indigenous artisans from impoverished communities and pay them above-market wages. AKABA is also a big believer in the power of local: they use only ethically and responsibly sourced raw materials from businesses in the Philippines. On top of everything, they work with a network of cooperatives and non-profit organizations to implement livelihood projects in vulnerable communities. AKABA goes beyond some feel good mission statements and marketing tactics – they genuinely care about people, community, and planet.

3. Go slow – appreciating handmade

We’re living in a fast fashion, disposable world and that has had repercussions – we have lower standards for quality, we throw without thinking, and we buy things that don’t mean much to us (not to mention the social and environmental impacts). Fast fashion retailers are working on crazy timelines – it used to take six months for new styles to get to market, and now it only takes three weeks. That might not sound like a big deal, but if you stop and think about the effort it takes to design, create, source, sew, and ship new clothing every three weeks - that’s pretty crazy. Plus, what do you think happens to the stuff from three weeks before?

Woman using footloom

We want to go back to slow. You should love the products you buy. You should feel the work and effort and love that goes into every item. You should know the people behind your products and how they were made. Quality over quantity, authenticity over marketing, appreciation over consumption. That’s why we only include products in our store that are handmade by artisans and skilled workers. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Our handbags from VESTI embody the lifestyle of “slow.” VESTI bags are handwoven by indigenous artisans, using traditional handlooms and weaving techniques passed down through the generations. Our JanJan Handmade Clutch, for example, is made of natural banana fibers that are intricately woven together and hand dyed using flowers and tree bark. It takes over a day to make one clutch. When’s the last time you bought something that was made with so much care and love?

4. The product has to speak for itself

This isn’t directly related to the ethical side of things, but we wanted to mention it anyway. We often get requests from ethical businesses asking us to add them as partners. Surprisingly, we end up saying no a lot more than we say yes.

The thing is, it’s not enough to have a compelling story or social impact (we wish it was). The partners we work with must also have products that are unique, beautiful, and quality. If we don’t imagine buying or using these products ourselves, then how could we expect others to? Truth is, we learned this lesson the hard way. Early on, we purchased products from partners that were nice, but they weren’t really our style or useful to us. Eventually, we realized that this isn’t the way things should be done. Always think of design first, social impact second, and buy what you love. We’re trying to stay true to that.

Do all our partners meet our requirements 100%? No, they don’t. We struggle like any other business to understand the full scope of our supply chain. Most of our partners are so grassroots they don’t have the capacity to track where everything comes from or how it was sourced (even big retailers suck at it). But the point is we (you, us, our partners) are committed to trying and striving to create a community where businesses pull people up instead of keeping them down.

We know we probably didn’t answer all of your questions (there’s too much to cover in one post). But we’ll continue working to earn your trust while staying true to who we are.

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co


  • Gelaine @ Cambio Market

    @TEAGAN. Thanks for the kind words! There’s always room to improve (especially for small businesses like ours), but like you said, as long as we have key principles and stick to them as much as possible, then we can really change how traditional business is done. Thanks again :)

  • Teagan

    Really love the honesty of this piece. It’s so inspiring to find shops like yours that really create fundamental values and follow them as closely as humanly possible. Tons of respect for Cambio!

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