BUSINESS & ENTREPRENEURSHIP
What does progressive fashion that makes a positive difference look like?
If you ask social entrepreneur Veronica D'Souza, part of the answer is to say no to seasons and sales, limit waste and overproduction, and get as far away from the constructed fashion wheel as possible.
We need to say yes to beautifully made timeless clothing that lasts beyond this trend and that. We need to strip down and simplify—in life and in our wardrobe. Fashion with a social conscience never goes out of style!
Veronica founded the clothing brand, Carcel, back in 2016, after having visited and researched female prisons around the world. She found that poverty is the primary cause of female incarceration and decided to do something about it in her own way.
With Carcel, she aims to create sustainable change within the fashion industry while empowering some of the world's most vulnerable and marginalized women, stuck inside a broken system, with production in prisons in Peru and Thailand in places riddled with the highest crime rates due to poverty.
The ambition is to transform the time the women serve in prison into a meaningful and productive stay while creating opportunities for education, developing new skills, and fair wages, in return for their know-how. Hopefully, the experience can be a way out of poverty for the women when released.
We have had the opportunity to meet Veronica at Carcel's tiny Copenhagen headquarter, showroom, and storage combined in one. Where we talked about how she found her own path into social entrepreneurship and had the chance to ask her a couple of questions about the past, present, and future. We hope you'll find the meeting as inspiring as we did.
CARCEL IS THE SPANISH WORD FOR JAIL OR PRISON.
DANISH CLOTHING BRAND, FOUNDED IN 2016 BY SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR VERONICA D'SOUZA.
ALL STYLES ARE MADE BY MARGINALIZED WOMEN SERVING SENTENCES IN PERU AND THAILAND, PRIMARILY DUE TO NON-VIOLENT, POVERTY-RELATED CRIMES, TO SUPPORT THEIR FAMILIES.
THE WOMEN WORK VOLUNTARILY IN EXCHANGE FOR FAIR WAGES, TRAINING & EDUCATION.
CARCEL DON'T ADHERE TO SEASONS AND SALES. THEY ONLY PRODUCE LIMITED QUALITIES TO ELIMINATE OVERPRODUCTION AND WASTE.
ALL MATERIALS ARE LOCALLY SOURCED AND CAREFULLY SELECTED BASED ON QUALITY, SUSTAINABILITY & DURABILITY.
BY SETTING UP AND RUNNING THEIR OWN PRODUCTION SITES INSIDE THE PRISONS, CARCEL CAN ADJUST TO DEMAND IN REAL-TIME
EVERY PIECE OF CARCEL CLOTHING IS SIGNED BY THE WOMAN WHO MADE IT.
INTERVIEW — VERONICA D'SOUZA
How are you... really?
It's a good opening question ... The first thing I think about is when I lived in Nairobi, and when I would ask someone I was working with how they were, the answer would always be plural. We are good. My wife is good. My children are good. My animals are good. The "How are you?" is never about one person; it's always about the community you belong to. I always thought that was nice, instead of talking about the I ...; I didn't really sleep well last night ... you know! I like that the individual emotions are dependent on the greater well-being of a bigger whole, and therefore in order to feel good, you need to invest in your community.
So, I'm going to do it the Kenyan way ... We are really good—both from a family perspective, which is, of course, the closest circle. I feel extremely lucky and grateful that we live here in Denmark, where it's possible and has been possible even through the shutdown, to move around and be outside. Not having to be stuck in a small apartment with the kids and not being able to go anywhere. You just really get to appreciate nature and freedom in these apocalyptic conditions. I feel extremely privileged about health, as well, when there is something like this going around. We are all healthy, and I think that is the bottom line. We are really good.
Also, our employees are healthy, which is really important to me. Obviously, it has been and still is a challenge right now because there is a lot of overpopulation in prisons. It can be detrimental if COVID gets into the prisons we work with, so far, knock on wood, everyone is healthy. We're trying to navigate the best possible way and work with the governments and the prisons to figure out how we work around it—when it is safe to go in and teach, or do work, and when it's not—basically to protect them.
Oh, and the team here in Copenhagen is good, as well. We are all good and healthy.
"Today, more than ever, there is a connection between what has happened in the past and where we want to go in the future. There is no stillness about now."
On the broader range, I'm also very excited about this time. Even though it is full of chaos. A lot of things are coming to the surface that need to be dealt with, discussed, and experienced, not just COVID-19 but also race, gender equality, and capitalism; there is a lot of big conversations right now.
Actually, I have probably been waiting for those conversations my whole life. And been part of them. But they haven't been mainstream topics in society. So, I'm really grateful and happy, but it's also a very vulnerable time and a tough time for many people. It's not just waking up and feeling happy. It's a complicated and thoughtful time. It's full of emotions, and I think historical emotions. There is some kind of...
Okay, this is me, rambling ...
The "How are you?" is for me both "How are we as a community?" but there is also something about the collectivity of time. Today, more than ever, there is a connection between what has happened in the past and where we want to go in the future. There is no stillness about now. We need to understand, deal, and connect with the past to figure out how we move forward. It's the progressive energy in that, which excites me. The progressive energy in the fashion industry, in production, in the conversations that are happening, but also in all the societal movements regarding equality.
Well, that was the long answer to your question.
For people who are unfamiliar with the brand, where did the story of Carcel begin?
Well, it's a brand, but it's actually so much more than that. It's a vision—multiple visions. We have set up production spaces inside of women's prisons in Thailand and Peru. The idea was formed after a visit I had to a prison in Kenya. I started researching and learning that particular women are most often incarcerated due to poverty-related crimes—women who come from low levels of education and extremely marginalized groups in society. Women who have children, who are mothers and when incarcerated, can't provide for their families anymore. When released, there is a lot of stigma in society, and it's very difficult to get a job.
"The point with Carcel is to enter a space where nobody really goes. A place where there isn't a lot of interaction and definitely not a lot of opportunities for making a wage to provide for yourself, send money home, save up, and become included in the economy."
The point with Carcel is to enter a space where nobody really goes. A place where there isn't a lot of interaction and definitely not a lot of opportunities for making a wage to provide for yourself, send money home, save up, and become included in the economy. These are some of the most marginalized women in the world who are most often forgotten about. We want to provide opportunities here and shed light on the women's capabilities, so they can gain dignity and continue to provide for their children, which makes a big difference for them. It's about self-esteem. It's about feeling that you can be a mother, that you can give your child a birthday present, and support them in school. Many of them actually lost connection with their children before because they were ashamed that they couldn't contribute to their lives and be some kind of provider. It's also about education and learning a different skill, so they don't necessarily have to go out into the streets and continue trafficking drugs, which is what most of them did.
The question we asked ourselves was: How do we then create a sustainable business model that can create these jobs in a dignifying way? The way we thought about it was looking into places where there already is an incredible tradition for crafts amongst women in rural areas. Places where their craft is something we honor, where they're actually the best, and where they have the skills to be able to contribute with their know-how, so it's a real exchange.
Carcel is also about looking at the materials we use because thinking about the environment is fundamental for even existing as a fashion brand. That's a key driver. We are an extremely dogmatic company in many ways; we source locally in each country of production and only use natural materials that can become earth again. For now, we use alpaca wool from Peru and handmade silk from Thailand.
What did you do before you started Carcel?
Oh, where do we start? Actually, I was really into music and literature and very idealistic. I wanted to be part of and participate in the world. I've always felt strongly about social justice on a global level, but I'm way too impatient for politics.
I went to UWCAD, an international school, as I got a scholarship to study in Italy when I was 16, together with 200 people from 80 different countries. That was a major game-changer. I came from a small village in Denmark and suddenly found myself in a microcosmos of the world. I was like, wow, okay, you can make friends everywhere, and I was exposed to so many different cultures. That experience made it even more obvious that I wanted to be part of the world somehow and contribute to it.
However, at the same time, I was extremely cynical about NGOs in general, and the UN, like the classic, "do good" field. Not to generalize that every NGO isn't good, I think there are many great NGOs, but unfortunately, there have also been a lot of inefficiencies and focusing more on the fundraising and the fundraisers than understanding how to create solutions that people really want to use. That really didn't motivate me to go into those fields.
"I decided to apply for business school. I thought, if I could get a better vocabulary, infiltrate capitalism from the inside, and understand why it's creating so much harm, then maybe I could find a way to work within it, change it, and somehow make it work for good."
Instead, I chose to look at what I thought was the core evil of the world. The things that were really bad. For me, there were two things; capitalism and the military. This was when I was a bit younger (ha-ha). So, I decided to apply for business school. I thought, if I could get a better vocabulary, infiltrate capitalism from the inside, and understand why it's creating so much harm, then maybe I could find a way to work within it, change it, and somehow make it work for good.
One of the things capitalism does very well is scale. If you could make good solutions scale, you didn't have to convince people to be less selfish. You could just use the system against itself. That was my motivation to go to business school. My mom was like: "Seriously, you do literature and music. Are you sure you really wanna study finances and budgets?" and I was like: "Yeah, there is this whole world of evil, and I know nothing. I want to have a better vocabulary and not just a big anarchist sign."
I think I was lucky. Right when I started, there was a new movement of social business and social entrepreneurship. It was the first year, and it was exactly what I was looking for without knowing it—how to make sustainable business solutions where doing good and solving problems in society is ingrained in the core. I became a supernerd and studied all the cases and literature I could find.
Together with two friends from school, I started my first company in 2011. We tried to apply all the knowledge we had gained from case studies, particularly inspired by the bottom of the pyramid theory ... maybe now is not the time to disclose the literature list (ha-ha). But anyway, we stumbled across a study that said that menstruation was the biggest cause of school dropout for girls living in poverty. This was in 2011, and the study was from 2007. Still, nothing had really been done about it. We thought it was weird that there was this obvious fact from the UN, stating that this is the biggest issue, and then there was just not much else.
My friend was part of a group that was using a menstrual cup. At that time, it was completely unknown, the really early days. She was German, and in Germany, it was connected to some kind of a hippie movement. In Denmark, it was seen as something very gross, unnatural, and weird. We all tried the product, got superexcited, and immediately saw an opportunity to use the cups in a different context. We developed our own product, moved to Kenya, and then founded the business, Ruby Cup, together with women and girls in the slums. It was a very anthropological approach, where we lived there. Everything from the packaging to the marketing, the pricing model, and adjustment to different living situations was done together with the women!
The project was extremely meaningful, and we learned a lot from just starting a company in a different country. There are a lot of things to be said about that, but it was also a lot of fun. That's how I got into that whole field of social entrepreneurship.
"I had never gone to a prison before. I knew nothing, and I couldn't find very much. It always makes me curious when you can't really find anything on Google."
While I was living in Kenya, I visited a women's prison in Nairobi because I was curious about why women were incarcerated. I had never gone to a prison before. I knew nothing, and I couldn't find very much. It always makes me curious when you can't really find anything on Google. For me, it's always about speaking with people: How is it? How do you feel? What is going on? Where are you? The women's answers inspired me to start Carcel. They needed employment, financial inclusion, and something to do they could feel proud of. They needed to be able to be providers for their families. We just needed to find a way to create meaningful and educational employment that would make the women feel valuable.
COVID-19: No one can get around the fact that there is a worldwide pandemic raging; How has it affected you, Carcel, and your employees here and in the prisons in Thailand and Peru? How have you dealt with the current situation?
We have changed our business radically. We saw it as an opportunity. In order to explain that, I need to explain our business model. Like I said in the beginning, Carcel is more a vision than it is a brand. The brand needs to follow the vision. The vision is a lot of different things. What connects everything is an ambition to be a driver for positive change. Both when it comes to the fashion industry and at the same time creating opportunities for responsible employment and new ways of ethical production, inside a system that is meant to deprive you of everything, which is an oxymoron in itself.
"Because the fashion industry is as damaging as it is, there is a need for finding new ways of existing. It's very challenging, but if we are not trying to do that, I don't think that the industry should exist at all."
Because the fashion industry is as damaging as it is, there is a need for finding new ways of existing. It's very challenging, but if we are not trying to do that, I don't think that the industry should exist at all.
We have always been against seasons. We don't have sales, and we don't have collections in order not to be part of the traditional retail wheel, where you basically sell things in stores for a few months, then it goes on sale, and then there is a new collection—so much waste and devaluation of quality and value.
After having worked in the industry for a few years now, I know that retailers are extremely happy if we have a sale-through rate of 60% for an order. If they buy something and sell 60%, that is like the most successful you get. They still stock a brand if it sells in between 30-40%. That's the norm worldwide. Everything else is sold on sale, thrown out, or sold on outlets.
If you just look at that ...
I think there are so many meaningful conversations going on. Especially about materials and innovation when it comes to recycling—and that's great—but if we don't address the consumption pattern, the way we buy and sell products, then we are actually not changing much.
We have been working with many different stores, and until now, what we have done in order to not become part of that system is that we have bought back stock that the stores couldn't sell, and then we have sold it to other stores. Great when you want to save the world, but very bad for business (ha-ha)! We couldn't handle taking the cash flow risk, and we couldn't grow that way, without either compromising on being part of the system and allowing stores to put our products on sale or go out of business.
We have been thinking about that for a long time, and when Corona came, and we basically shut down the world, it was very easy to see that the sell-through rate would be terrible. It wouldn't reach anywhere near 60% because the stores were closed. We thought, now is the right time to do it, to go out of this model. Either we would be left with so much unsold stock that we would have to allow the stores to put it on sale, buy it back, or think of a new model—anyway, the current model wasn't working that well for us. So, we kind of took it as a brave kick in the butt.
We love our retail partners, but let's just say we will be back at some point with a new model. For now, we are stepping out and doing everything online. This also means that we have been able to cut down prices, which I think is a big conversation when it comes to thinking in sustainable ways. If you actually pay proper wages and invest in good materials, it's also an expensive product. There is something about trying to make the prices more accessible to more people. Therefore, we removed the retail markup. Right now, we are developing a new way to be in stores where the stores won't have any stock! We're experimenting with a new way of digital retail.
"There is a value in being physical—this is not a hateful argument towards shops—I love shops! It's just the way that it works right now that doesn't make sense."
There is a value in being physical—this is not a hateful argument towards shops—I love shops! It's just the way that it works right now that doesn't make sense. There is something about redefining and cherishing the reason for being physical. How can we extend that emotion and make that even more special, and when does it make sense to be digital, so we don't continue the way it works today?
We have to admit that we are slightly biased when it comes to the fashion industry and sustainability. At LULU—LAND, we only want to promote brands that attempt to change the status quo of the industry. In your opinion: How are we ever going to get out of this mess we have created? What have you learned? And how can we move forward?
I think I already kind of answered part of this question, like what I have learned and how it works. You sometimes have this conversation; Who is supposed to make the change? Is it the consumers? Is it the politicians? Is it the brands? Who has the responsibility? I think that is such a stupid conversation because obviously, we all have to change! The answer is manifold. There is a need for a business model that allows brands to be seasonless. That is currently not possible. We were set up to be seasonless from the beginning. However, we realized that it was impossible, or close to impossible, in the way retail is set up, and if you want to work with stores. There is a need for structural innovation that makes it possible to work in a different way.
"I honestly feel that if we aren't working on a better solution, we should probably shut down as an industry. In my personal opinion, I don't think there is a right to continue to exist if we don't ambitiously work in better ways. "
We need new business innovation more than guilt. Obviously, if you have a way of doing it, more people would. Right now, it's a shaming game. You shouldn't continue having collections and seasons, and brands are like: "So how are we going to survive?". I honestly feel that if we aren't working on a better solution, we should probably shut down as an industry. In my personal opinion, I don't think there is a right to continue to exist if we don't ambitiously work in better ways.
There is a little bit of time, but not a lot. We should spend that time figuring out how we can use real creativity to create change. Creativity in fashion today is as much about the model as the expression of the garment. There probably isn't a piece of clothing that we haven't seen before somehow. Where fashion is really strong, and the reason why it makes sense to not just kill it is that it can be a powerful way to communicate movements in society, identity, and expression—that's when it becomes progressive. I think that what we have seen for many years is a regressive industry. It's been about clothes and not so much about what is going on in the world. It's been pretty disconnected from the fact that the planet is falling apart and that people are not getting paid. If we do not change that or start working with it, then the industry simply shouldn't exist.
Something that is really on my mind right now, particularly right now, is that there is such a huge need to deconstruct, and there is also a lot of anger that makes sense, but we also need to reconstruct. That inspires me as a creative thinking person. It's much more the construction than the deconstruction.
"At Carcel, we believe it's less about the "need" and more about creating the "want" to change. Talking to the "want" will make it possible to transition humanity to the post-consumer era, the next perception of beauty."
Carcel has always been about a desire to create a movement that people want to be part of. That's also why the clothes need to be beautiful and attractive, and the brand needs to look cool. We want to create an emotional space, which is not a rational argument. We're getting told so many things from a rational point of view ... "did you know that..." and then we are supposed to change behavior, but we don't want to do that.
At Carcel, we believe it's less about the "need" and more about creating the "want" to change. Talking to the "want" will make it possible to transition humanity to the post-consumer era, the next perception of beauty. We need to transition to somewhere and not just say: "everything is shit," "capitalism is shit," "politics is shit," "the climate is shit" that creates apathy. I think that's what we all feel. This feeling of "I don't know what to do about it" and "I can't think about it too much because nothing is good; we shouldn't even be breathing; there are already too many people on the planet, my phone is made by I don't want to know who, and the Internet is using too much CO2"—it's never-ending. What we actually need is human beings to feel agency to create change and drive that change. We can only do that through creating a "want" and "desire" to change.
What are some of the challenges you experience because of the way you do business? When we met you outside of the shop during the Corona lockdown, you mentioned that social media can be harsh and challenging at times?
When you talk about things—it's like at a dinner party—if you bring up intimate and personal stuff, people will comment on it. You need to make a choice. You can't both share everything and then get frustrated when people have opinions about it. For us, part of being progressive is also to be transparent. To allow people to make their own choices and give information about everything—the production cost, labor costs, the materials, the business model—all of it.
However, the most challenging with our brand is that we are operating within a system, which is a prison system. We are doing that in order to create an impact for people who basically have close to no opportunities, but it's also a complicated situation.
It's a really emotional conversation. Particularly in the US, where there is a horrible past and present of putting people in prison because of race and private companies exploiting prisoners as free labor. But it's not just in the States; exploitation of prisoners is taking place globally. Obviously, that is what we are trying to change by creating a different model based on fair living wages, code of conduct, and protection of prisoners' employment rights in order to create rehabilitation. But there are not a lot of great examples to lean against.
We realized this when we had a social media backlash in 2019, which came as a big surprise. Until then, we had been in the media a lot, but only with positive stories. It was a big debate about what we are doing as equal to modern slavery. People on Reddit wrote that we were white supremacists that wanted to exploit poor women of color. It was a huge challenge to communicate how complex this topic is in only a few sentences.
Still, at the end of the day, it also motivated us to pick up the phone and call everyone we could find on this planet in order to talk about this and the different aspects of prison labor. We contacted people from the UNODC who are working with prisons, the ILO (International Labour Organization), and the American Prison Association, amongst others. There is a global framework that everyone has agreed to, and it's called The Nelson Mandela Rules, which are basic human rights for people incarcerated. It's a human right to have access to a job in prison if the job is fairly compensated and voluntary.
However, there are no guidelines to ensure that a prison job is fairly compensated and voluntary. What we realized was that the reason people reacted was that this is not the norm. The norm, across the globe, is that companies are exploiting incarcerated people and that they don't have any rights. This is what people know. It's so brutal and crazy. So it makes sense to doubt our little company, to be critical towards our intentions and demand answers.
For us, this was a wake-up call. We needed to bring in people, and we needed someone who could check on our practices. We asked ourselves: Is there an NGO? Is there a union we can engage with? Is there someone we can look into to improve ourselves, and who can help us find out what we are doing well and where we can do better? But we couldn't find anyone specialized in ethical employment rights for prisoners. In general, there is very little research globally around the topic of work and incarceration. Because of that, we started creating a draft of the first global 'Code of Conduct for Protecting Prisoner's Working Rights' because we needed it ourselves, and we thought it might be useful for others.
We got advisors from different fields, from the UN, from the ILO, from the unions, and asked them to look into this. We started working with a consultant, Luke Smitham, from Kumi Consulting in London, who has in-depth experience working with extremely vulnerable supply chains like mining, places where there are child labor, and risk of exploitation, which can be the case when you're incarcerated. We asked ourselves: How can we create a codex and different steps of implementation that protect prisoners' rights?
We were invited to speak at The OECD Annual Garment & Footwear Meeting in Paris, where guides for responsible business conduct are discussed within the fashion industry. We invited all the unions we could find, governments, NGOs, not to say: "Listen, Carcel is a great idea" but to say ... "Listen, there is an issue here; we have a global population, who is currently working, and no one is upholding their rights. These are some of the thoughts and things we have learned ... We then made a roll-out plan, but are delayed due to COVID-19. Our goal is to both create a case with implementation research and work to lobby for global attention to this group of people. However, this is just to say that we are also very engaged on a political level to actually be part of progress, but within a broken system.
That doesn't mean that we are for or against prisons. I think that's what people sometimes misunderstand. If you work with a prison, then you are pro prisons. That is not how we feel. But, what we do think is that a large group of people in prisons are being forgotten about who deserves a chance to be included as capable humans beings.
"I like constructive criticism, it allows us to have so many meaningful conversations, and it gives us something to work with."
For us, the most important thing is to hear what the women want and what matters to them. They say that having a job is essential for them in order to be able to contribute to their families and to have their dignity back. They are so proud to be a part of this, and it means a lot to them.
Obviously, you get in doubt when you experience a backlash like that, but I think that is a healthy thing. We should always get in doubt when we are critiqued. I like constructive criticism, it allows us to have so many meaningful conversations, and it gives us something to work with.
Compared to Ruby Cup, this has been extremely challenging. Ruby Cup had a straightforward vision. Who doesn't want to keep girls in school? We can all agree that it is not a political topic. Labor in prisons is a political topic. Some people think that prisoners are criminals and don't deserve the right to work and shouldn't get a job. Others believe that prisons are evil and shouldn't exist—if you even engage with the people there, you support prisons' existence. There are a lot of different aspects to it.
I think communication is essential, and that's something we are working on right now. From the outside, you could get the idea—if you don't know us—that we are this huge, wealthy company that has set up production in prisons to exploit cheap labor. However, when you meet us and sit here, you realize that we are 2 1/2 employees and underfunded (ha-ha). We've got so much positive exposure that people sometimes think we are a much larger company. It's not that I'm not proud of the brand, but it's easy for people to think that we are super wealthy, but that's not really how it is at all! That's also why transparency is so important to us. We want to make sure that people understand that everything made on the products is reinvested into the business. No one is exploiting profit from this.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, we are working on a new way to be in retail that eliminates stock and waste—that is the core focus.
We are also working on creating a production facility outside of prison in Thailand—even though we can't go there, so the women who are released can still work together with us if they would like to. We have four women from our team coming out next year. Last week, we learned that they have gotten amnesty, which is many years off their sentences. We are planning for it and also planning to do it in the right way. Corona has speeded things up in some ways, but in other ways, it has also been, "Okay, let's wait a few months more and do it well and hopefully go there and be a part of the process."
Right now, we are also in the exploration phase on how to make our own silk. We probably want to set up a weaving mill outside of prison. Also, there is a lot of natural dye in Thailand. We are thinking in the outside space in terms of different types of craftsmanship that we can use for different projects and products.
Oh, and one of the important outcomes of Corona, which I didn't mention before, is that when you have a humanitarian crisis and a global pandemic like this, overpopulated prisons start to release people before time. We actually just had a woman released who was supposed to stay there for 5-6 years more. As a result, we have started a small production outside of the prison in Peru, with our first employee called Vanessa. During the pandemic where everything was shut down, and we couldn't rent anything, somehow, we managed, and she managed.
This was ahead of time. It has always been something that we wanted to do, but we thought that most of the women had so many years left that we would wait and do things in a different order. All of a sudden, it was like: Okay, she is out. How do we get a machine? How do we get started? We feel really lucky and fortunate to have her on our team, our first employee, on the outside!
Does the work the women do for Carcel have anything to do with them being released ahead of time?
Officially, no. Unofficially, it's different from country to country. If you don't have a hard sentence in Peru, it diminishes your time if you work. But if you are in for a hard sentence, like drug trafficking, it doesn't affect your sentence. But your papers, good behavior, and recommendations do. In that sense, everyone in the prisons can see that it's a really positive system. The prison director in Peru wants us to employ everyone because it changes a lot. She says there are an entirely different energy and positivity among these women. Their goal is to get as many women into the Carcel project as possible because it leaves them with some kind of prospect and creates a positive culture. The same in Thailand.
Does it give the women hope for a better future?
It is always hard to speak on behalf of someone else, but it is also very difficult not to say that it gives them hope because they can't call you up or be here for this interview and answer themselves.
"Whenever there is a bleak day, a shutdown, or business challenges, I always think about our teams in prison. They are incredibly positive and extremely powerful—they really want this!"
Whenever there is a bleak day, a shutdown, or business challenges, I always think about our teams in prison. They are incredibly positive and extremely powerful—they really want this! I may think that life is a little bit hard and that it's challenging to be an entrepreneur sometimes, but their energy motivates me. They are so proud whenever they see their work in magazines or when someone writes an article about us. For them, it's a cultural acceptance—even though they are prisoners, which is such a cultural, social stigma.
One of our women in Thailand said that she thought she was cabbage, which translates to feeling like garbage in Thai, but now she feels that she is a valuable human being. Being incarcerated is so full of shame for these women. We can't possibly understand or relate, but we can listen and try to create ways for the women to be heard and act.
We had the princess of Thailand visit our production facility; she is the UN goodwill ambassador for female prisoners' rights. She came to visit our project. It was such an incredible experience for them to get to show her their work and give her a present that they made themselves. That is basically the highest level of acceptance they can think of; how can we make something for a princess when we are not supposed to be anything?
How will you look back at 2020, and what are your hopes for 2021?
You know, I was always sad that I wasn't born in the 60s. Back then, conversations were about something—at least that was how I felt growing up in the 80s and 90s. I felt that I grew up in a very shallow time. With really shallow music—a lot of it—very bad dance music. Of course, there was some good music, but most of it, like mainstream music, was horrible in the 90s. It was reflected in design as well; everything reflected this shallow wealth era. I think that the conversations were like that as well. People were not going into deep topics, and if you did, it was the "political" conversation.
"You know, I was always sad that I wasn't born in the 60s. Back then, conversations were about something—at least that was how I felt growing up in the 80s and 90s."
In the 60s, things were about something, and things changed. They were also painful and cost lives, but stuff got done; the mass movement for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and a lot of other things that are fundamental for how we even think today. I hope that what we are going through in 2020 and hopefully also in 2021 and 2022 is about that. So that the chaos, the pain, and the change are what's necessary in order for us not to have a planet that is heated by more than 2 degrees in the best-case scenario. We will know that within 7-10 years. That's the time frame we have. We need chaos. We need radical transformation. We need either a complete breakdown or a really fast revolution. I'm hoping for the last. But if not, then we need to break down. That is what I hope to look back on this year, but also in the years to come — that it's not just another year. My nightmare would be that we end 2020 or start 2021, and everything is back to normal like it was at the beginning of 2020. Then I would feel really sad. But I don't think that is going to happen. Hopefully, 2020 brings a lot of positive change.
"We need chaos. We need radical transformation. We need either a complete breakdown or a really fast revolution. I'm hoping for the last. But if not, then we need to break down."
What does the future look like? Where do you find your inspiration for the further development of Carcel?
Carcel has always been a very collaborative project. The fact that we were started with a Kickstarter campaign and everyone in Denmark who worked at Carcel worked for free for the first two years, made everyone involved, from interns to the women in the prisons, part of shaping the company. That's also pretty much how it is today. We are a few people who are getting paid now—a little bit—but I think the inspiration and the ideas always come from a collective. We meet new people along the way, and they become part of the journey, in everything from our design processes to strengthening our ties in Peru and Thailand.
"We want to build something bigger than Carcel. That's the dream. Carcel can hopefully be a catalyst for change, and that change can then be a platform for other people to engage."
We set things up in a way that'll hopefully allow our facilities to be its own function run by the women, where they can have other clients and customers. We want to build something bigger than Carcel. That's the dream. Carcel can hopefully be a catalyst for change, and that change can then be a platform for other people to engage.
I hope that it will be a continuity of a collective and collaborations with a lot of people who can chip in and who can participate. In the world I think we should live in, it's never about ownership. We need as many people to get involved as possible to at least try to address some of the things that we have been talking about.
Anything we missed you'd like to add?
Not other than, I think it's a really exciting time. It's nice to think about the fact that we are not alone. I don't think we are a hero company leading the wave. There is a massive movement going on right now, and we can all learn from each other. There's also a new generation who is not stuck up in whether it's "do good" or "fashion," is it "business?" or is it an "NGO?" The young generation sees the world much more connected. It doesn't have to be either-or, and I think looking at the world like that makes a lot more sense. We are moving in the right direction. It's not a conversation on whether we should have sustainability anymore. I'm not concerned if we had the time. If we had 40-50 years, we would definitely get there. My concern is the timeframe that we have if we want a habitable planet for the number of people we are today. We have to do whatever we can to speed up the process—and sometimes that might be inappropriate and not wanted conversations.
Veronica is a passionated, business-savvy, social entrepreneur by heart. Prior to Carcel, she co-founded the award-winning social business Ruby Cup in collaboration with local women in Nairobi, Kenya, where she lived. She is recognized as a 'Global Shaper' under World Economic Forum, the youngest jury member at INDEX: Design To Improve Life, a SOCAP selected entrepreneur, a senior fellow of Humanity in action New York, a UWC graduate, and co-author of 'The Road Map for Sustainable Leadership'.
A SPECIAL THANKS TO EVERYONE ON THE CARCEL TEAM
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND
Suu, Nana, Pang, Rin, N’an, Nong, Pat, Kaim, One, Nu, Mem, Aom, Fon, Pla, Pa, Jang, & Aod
Surya, Theodomira Q. P., Benigna, Flor Rosa, Edith, Rocio, Nina, Esther, Doris C., Diana, Dianne & Yolanda
Vanessa & Hannah
Veronica, Sofie, Caroline, Frederikke, Mathilde, Ella, Ira & Nana
WE LOVE TO CONNECT PEOPLE
PUBLISHED BY LULU—LAND
INTERVIEW BY LOUISE BØGESKOV HOU
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEPHANIE GEDDES & CARCEL PRESS
EDITED BY CATHRINE JOON BJØRNBAK