Fashion Innovators: One Woman’s Fight for Fairness

This article focuses on the fashion innovator, Nurjahan Begum, and includes an exclusive interview with her. This is the debut article on The Switch for new writer Tasha White.

The year 2022 is a big one for many reasons; The opening of the Ethical Local Market was one of them. It popped up in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood nearing the end of covid mandates. It is a collection of ethical and sustainable entrepreneurs operating out of one encompassing storefront. Each artisan brings a unique touch to the shop. Founder, Nurjahan Begum, has a simple yet impactful approach to business, focusing on what she considers to be fair.

Nurjahan acknowledges her privileged existence within the fashion business. She shares her view, in her younger days, of the financial polarity stating, “we were fortunate and we got to go to other countries and see and learn.” She often wondered why some people had to struggle or suffer for a decent life. Instead of waiting around to find out, she decided to do something about it herself.

In October 2017, Nurjahan established her own clothing company online, Progoti, with hopes of giving back to a community she knows and loves. She is also encouraging other buyers to pay better and demand better. While achieving success in her business, she noticed that her small-scale store would reflectively be contained within small-scale social impact.

Figure 2: Progoti’s Prices

After realizing she wouldn’t make the impact she had hoped for with a strictly virtual shop, Nurjahan proactively began searching for a storefront that would illuminate her priorities. Having already made a name for herself as an ethical and sustainable entrepreneur, she got in touch with a multitude of different business owners she had met in her journey in establishing Progoti. Combining retail costs also allowed for less investing in property and more free money to put towards her true goals. That is, moving toward an equal global community.

“I met a lot of people who were also doing social good when I was in the market selling my product and going to different markets,” Nurjahan explains, “Their model is different… I want to work with their model too, I don’t want to impose on them to do my model.” Nurjahan chose partners based on their involvement in ethical production locally or because they are ensuring fair working conditions and wages internationally while maintaining a sustainable platform.

Figure 1: Ethical Local Market

Her previous work experience as a buyer led her to develop a deep understanding of the ins and outs of the business. In fact, Nurjahan had an extensive learning experience, while working under Bata Shoe Co., of being submerged within each different department and understanding the reality of what their job entails and getting to know what is expected of them. Nurjahan comments, “The world is a series of relationships… the fairer we are the better the world will be.

Nurjahan says her brand is a hybrid of her experiences: commercial business and developing organizations. “Your [profit] margin shouldn’t be [the only thing getting] bigger,” Nurjahan states, “You should see what the other person needs.” Her focus on equity among the entire business production is refreshing in a capitalist-dominated society.

“My model is helping garment workers because [they] have been working for the last four decades [to] now go empty-handed. They have nothing,” Nurjahan begins, “so I want to give them something direct and with minimum cost.”

Figure 3: How It Works

Nurjahan is changing the game for underpaid fashion workers in Bangladesh. She has set up a social welfare system based on customer contribution, stating, “I want people to be happy to give, not forced to give.”

Progoti’s contribution system encourages customers to give more if they can, with each inventory item including a description of what exactly you are paying for. This is important, as it includes a fair wage for labour and manufacturing as well as for the rest of the process.

Figure 4: Honest Pricing

Progoti’s transparency doesn’t stop there. Their contribution page outlines exactly where money from customer purchases goes. It is invested in insurance policies for the most senior seamstresses and seamers. This manifests in the form of a retirement pension and insurance coverage, giving the employees a financial safety net after having spent their lives working for less than they deserve.

Nurjahan has created an effective ethical and sustainable business template that allows her to directly impact her employees’ lives for the better. She works within the system to truly benefit the people. The priority for her work never wavers as she continuously checks in with herself and her journey. She is exemplary in her work and in the modern world.

Find Nurjahan and her fellow entrepreneurs at 1630 Queen Street East in Toronto’s downtown east end. With the wide variety of goods and the knowledge of the ethical good your purchase promises, you will be eager to visit again!

To visit her shops see here: Progoti & Ethical Local Market.

To learn more about fashion innovators, see our category titled fashion innovations here.

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