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Stanford students support Ugandan women with eco-friendly fashion show

By Alexandra Wexler | 23 May 2011

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Project Have Hope helps women in Uganda help themselves by selling their sustainable jewelry to Americans. (Photo: Project Have Hope)

Here in California, a lot of people are conscious of being green.  It’s good for global warming, the oceans and the air we breathe.  Less discussed, though, is how living a sustainable life is helping others half way around the world to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

In a slum on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, there is a group of 100 women who work with Project Have Hope, a small not for profit that’s dedicated solely to helping the women in this one slum help themselves.  Collectively, these women have sent 106 of their children to school by selling sustainable jewelry and textiles to Westerners.

Recently, the Sustainable Fashion Collective at Stanford University put on a sustainable fashion show featuring Project Have Hope’s necklaces.  The necklaces are vibrant and colorful, made mostly out of varnished recycled paper and clay beads that the women make themselves, from scratch.

Kiyan Williams, one of the students who organized the show, included the necklaces because he thought that people should be more aware of not only the environmental, but also the social impacts of their fashion choices.

“At first I bought the necklaces because I liked them,” Williams admitted.  “But after checking out the website and seeing the incredible work they were doing, and how they united and joined together issues of social justice and environmental sustainability, I contacted one of their reps, and that’s how we got them into the show.”

The women began to make the necklaces and bracelets not because they were green, but because they could get the materials, which are mostly recycled paper, for free from a nearby paper plant.

Karen Sparacio, who is the founder and director of Project Have Hope, initially saw the necklaces about five and a half years ago during a trip to Uganda.

“While I was there, I saw the jewelry and I thought, ‘This is absolutely beautiful,’” said Sparacio, who is a professional photographer.  “I had really wanted to do more of a social work kind of thing, and I saw the jewelry as an ideal way to fundraise.”

Sparacio brought the jewelry back with her to the United States and sold it.  She continues to do so, both directly online, as well as through approximately 100 retail stores.  The jewelry sales raised just under $200,000 per year in both 2009 and 2010, with the bracelets selling for $5 to $20, and the necklaces from $10 to $30.

As it turns out, being green can have a massive social, in addition to environmental, impact.  Close to 35 women have completed vocational courses and the organization has given out over 70 micro-loans.  The money has also paid for a community center, where adult literacy classes are now taught.

The women typically make their beads at home, according to Grace Ayaa, who runs the day-to-day operations for Project Have Hope on the ground in Kampala.

“Most of them work at the stone quarry, so the day begins with about five hours at the quarry, and then they come back home at around mid-day and prepare lunch or late breakfast,” Ayaa explained.  Afterwards, the women will begin to cut their papers for beads and roll them into shape.

“Around 6 p.m., when the weather is a bit calm (the varnish needs to be put when there is very little sunshine), she then does her varnishing, leaving the beads to dry for stringing the following day,” Ayaa added.  It takes two days work to come up with a finished product.

All of this hard work by women half way around the world helped to make the Sustainable Fashion Collective’s show a big success.  The students are now conducting a giveaway of the Project Have Hope necklaces through Facebook to promote the mission of Project Have Hope, as well as the Sustainable Fashion Collective.

“Sustainability is not just about the earth, but the people that inhabit the earth as well,” said Rachel Kraus, the financial manager of the Sustainable Fashion Collective.  “It’s nice to know who made your jewelry and to be aware of what you’re putting on your body.”

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