SHE Spotlight: Fashion & Compassion

So there are a lot of ways you find companies you admire and choose to support. Sometimes it’s through an active search and sometimes you happily stumble across them randomly.

It just so happens we were scrolling through Instagram, sipping a cup of tea, when “Bam!” we scrolled right up to a shot of jewelry from Fashion and Compassion. It was stunning and sparked the instant question, “Who is this company?”

Quite frankly, new products or companies always spark the researcher in us. We want to know what products a company makes, what a company’s motivation is, and allllllll the details!

Not every company ends up having a #sustainable, #healthy, #ethical component that lights us up, but some do. In this case? We fell in love with everything we read about Fashion and Compassion (and simultaneously fell in love with even more of the company’s products : ) So much so that we reached out to them on the spot, right on Instagram!

We were so happy to connect with them: There are a lot of companies that purport to give back. Founders, Michele and Celeste, have seen the best — and worst ­— of aid and “giving back.” But even aid with the honest intentions can fail to truly create positive change (read more about that here) if it’s not done the right way. But as you’ll see below, Fashion and Compassion’s mission is calculated to create the deepest — most thoughtful — change.

We think you’ll learn something in our interview with the two founders. They give some fantastic insight on the landscape of social justice and companies that are built to give back. It will help you wade through the growing field of companies giving back and have some key standards to look for. Enjoy!

Everyone has a different road into a more sustainable, healthy, ethical lifestyle. What were your journeys’ like?

Michele – My desire to purchase more sustainable, ethical products came from a desire to see the items I purchase have a positive effect on the people & communities who make them. Initially, I was entirely focused on the empowerment of the artisans who make the products, but I’ve since learned that fashion has actually become cheaper in the last 20 years through less responsible labor & sourcing practices.

The movie “True Cost” was really eye opening for me & I highly recommend that anyone who’s interested in building a sustainable wardrobe watch it.

Celeste – I’m honestly still on my journey to a more sustainable lifestyle, but I’ve found true joy in watching the women we work with become self sufficient & in turn, help their communities become more stable.

How did you come together to found Fashion and Compassion?

Michele - Celeste and I met on a mission trip to Rwanda & Burundi in 2009. I’d started selling paper beads out of my dining room from an African organization called African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) to help raise funds for women in Uganda who made the beads. After the trip, Celeste started helping me & in 2012 Fashion & Compassion was born.

You do business as a 501c3. Can you explain what that means and why it is so important to you?

Celeste- We chose to be a 501c3 because we started our work with the desire to raise funds for our non-profit ministry partners through the sales of our products. We believe in generosity & in the work of our partners.  

Helping individuals overcome poverty & injustice is a huge task & it’s not something we can do alone. We can provide employment, opportunities & community for our artisans, but our partners can take it a step further by providing things like housing, recovery, counseling & work readiness programs.

Why isn’t your company fair trade certified?

Michele - This is a great question! When customers ask if we are fair-trade certified & we have to say “no,” it can be quite difficult to explain why . At the end of the day, we don’t qualify for being Fair Trade certified because fair trade applies only to goods made outside of the United States.

To qualify for fair trade certification, organizations can only source 15% or less of their goods from the U.S. Our Freedom Collection, which is hand-crafted jewelry made in our hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, is our most popular product line & represents about 40% of our product offerings. So that definitely puts us way over the 15% limit, but we love working with women in our own community & have no plans to stop that.

Ok, if we stopped by the office, what would it be like?

Michele - Our office is a very happy place! It’s in a Victorian house (which is actually on the National Historic Register!) & it’s painted a beautiful aqua blue, with a bright yellow porch swing & door.

When you walk in, you’re immediately greeted by fun, beaded chandeliers, our gorgeous jewelry & original artwork by our “housemate,” Multiple Blessings by Caroline Simas. The vibe is super fun & feminine! You’ll also likely hear the chatter of our local artisans as they make jewelry!

Celeste – I love coming to work because of the warm, heart-felt greetings that you receive from our artisans.  They are truly grateful to be a part of the project & it provides great encouragement to do the “administrative” tasks behind the ministry.  Big hugs, beautiful smiles & laughter that fill the halls, allows our office to have a very “homey” feeling, not only for our artisans, but also for our staff & volunteers.

Picture: Fashion & Compassion Offices

Picture: Fashion & Compassion Offices

Your mission is to bring DIGNITY & opportunity to individuals who have been caught in a web of poverty and injustice as they heal spiritually, emotionally & physically. What’s different about how your company is set up to tackle that massive mission?

Michele - While our main focus is providing employment opportunities for our artisans, we do so much more than that! We really want to see our artisans lives transformed as they become self-sufficient. And we work closely with our ministry partners to address all of their needs & help them move on to permanent full-time employment. No one organization can do it all for the women we serve & we are proud to work collaboratively with other organizations to completely serve the artisans needs, whether they’re financial, emotional or spiritual.

Celeste – One of the main differentiators of Fashion & Compassion & our competitors is that we are a non-profit. That means that we not only provide all of the materials to our artisans to produce the products (they do not have to purchase any supplies with their own funds), but we also pay them a fair wage post-production so they don’t have to wait for the product to sell to be paid.  We then donate ALL of our net proceeds back to our Ministry Partners so that they can do their part to holistically bring dignity & opportunity to our artisans & the communities we work in.  It’s not just about our artisans; it’s about the communities as a whole gaining dignity & opportunity for their success through sustainability.

What are your favorite quotes to keep you hopeful in the middle of all the injustice and poverty?

Michele - "All men and women yearn to be loved, accepted, validated, & to have purpose & freedom." Virginia Satir

Celeste – Isaiah 58:6-9 NIV which describes the type of fasting that God desires & gives His promises to answer when you call.

There are many companies diving in to make a difference with artisans and jewelry. What sets your company apart?

Michele – It’s wonderful that there are lots of organizations that are empowering artisans through jewelry, clothing & home goods! It means that more & more consumers care about who made their products & that is an awesome thing!

But, we are different from other social enterprises in several ways:

  1. We strive to not only empower the artisans, but to transform their lives by promoting self-sufficiency.

  2. Most for-profit fair trade companies donate a small percentage of net income to their charity partners. We donate all of our net proceeds to our partners & the heart of the communities we serve.

  3. While we love the communities we work in outside of the U.S., we also love working right in our own backyard on issues impacting women in our own community.

You’ve been doing this for 7 years. What have you seen change in the landscape of social justice and companies that are built to give back?

Michele - It is truly great to see how many people, particularly young people, want to make a difference in their communities. We are passionate about seeing more people engaged in the fight against injustice in whatever way they can. It’s exciting to see both for-profit & non-profits with a desire to make a difference.

When we started in 2009, I didn’t even know what sex-trafficking was & now, it’s by far on of the hottest social justice topics. It seems like new organizations fighting trafficking pop up every week in Charlotte. But we love that because our model then allows us to partner with them, rather than compete with them.

Celeste – Early in our journey, we found out that North Carolina consistently ranks in the Top 10 for trafficking in the United States & that was really hard to comprehend. We kept asking,  “How can this be happening in our own community?”

But God has allowed us to work with women who escaped that lifestyle & seeing lives drastically change because of an idea to create a jewelry line that gives back has been nothing short of a miracle.  We truly believe that anyone can help end trafficking, domestic violence or issues that come along with immigration by what they purchase. Anyone is capable of being a part of the solution that ends social justice issues, not only here, but around the world.

Picture: Cross Cuff & Chevron Cuff

Picture: Cross Cuff & Chevron Cuff

You have a great video that highlights the LOVE the women you support and the artisans feel.  Can you talk about how you weave LOVE into your relationships with the artists?

Michele - This is my favorite part of what we do! We know the women, we love them & they love one another! None of us are perfect & we all have our issues getting along from time to time, but that is exactly how we heal & grow.

It is in the relationships, the community, the sharing, the laughter, the tears, the encouragement & the prayer that life transformation ultimately happens. Sitting around making jewelry is a means to bring about a healing community & that is what Fashion & Compassion is all about!

Celeste – The initial desire to love the least & the lost is “easy.” Taking the next step to build relationships with our artisans & weave love into those relationships can be difficult.  In doing so, I can’t help but reflect on 1 Corinthians 13. 

We all – everyone from our staff, to our artisans, to our volunteers – have to practice patience.  We have to be kind. We cannot boast of our own success  & we have to rely on the strength of others. We try to implement grace in all situations while also providing structure & discipline. 

We want our artisans to know that we’re always here to protect them, trust them, hope for them & help them persevere in all aspects of their lives. With God’s help, our collective love for one another will never fail. And that’s true love…it’s a difficult love, but it’s the only life-giving love.

How do you choose your ministry partners? There is so much to tackle in this world. It seem kind of hard to narrow it down! What’s your checklist? Others can use this to evaluate other companies they may be thinking about supporting with their dollars?

Michele – The most important part of our relationship with our partners is exactly that – the relationship! Especially since we work alongside our partners to serve our artisans together. We look for organizations who understand our mission & have the same heart for transforming lives through empowerment vs. dependency. 

Most of the organizations we partner with are small & community-based, but they understand the needs of the communities & the people they serve.  And that allows them to be more flexible in their ability to meet the artisan’s needs. 

We visit every international partner project at least once a year & they often come to visit us in Charlotte too! For our local partners, we stay in regular contact with them & they help us by referring new artisans & helping current artisans through ongoing support. 

What are your favorite sustainable, healthy, ethical (SHE) brands?

Michele - For jewelry & accessories, Fashion & Compassion, of course! For clothing, I like Raven & LilyEileen Fisher & Indigenous. For shoes, I love Root CollectiveOliberte & Nisolo.

Celeste – When I think of healthy & ethical, one of the first things I think of is chocolate, but that could also be because I’m currently snacking on a Divine Chocolate Snack Bar! I also love all the products that you can find on our website & two of my other favorite brands would be Elegantees & Sseko

What is your favorite, healthiest guilty pleasure when the going gets tough?

Michele – A berry white mocha from Caribou Coffee with a chocolate chip cookie! That might not be healthy, but that’s why it’s called a guilty pleasure, right?!

Celeste - Chips & guac from Chipotle…OMG!  That’s the best guiltiest pleasure ever!

Michele Dudley & Celeste Bundy Fashion & Compassion Co-Founders

Michele Dudley & Celeste Bundy
Fashion & Compassion Co-Founders