Alumnus of the year 2009

Carry Somers

Carry Somers was presented with the award in recognition of her work as a pioneer in Fair Trade in the UK. She is the creator of the fashion and accessories brand Pachacuti, founded in 1992 it is the UK's only fair trade hat specialist, and co-founder of Clean Slate, the UK's first fair trade and organic school uniform company.

Pachacuti means 'world upside-down' and describes Carry's endeavours to run a successful clothing business that benefits the producers and is environmentally sustainable. Pachacuti even supplied the hats for the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The extra income generated by such sales has meant elderly weavers now receive a pension – unheard of in the industry. Carry works with women's co-operatives in Ecuador in order to ensure that more of the money stays in the hands of the producers. The women carry out the entire production process from weaving to finishing and thus retain more of the final value of the hat. Passion, principles and perseverance have helped Carry Somers take Pachacuti from strength to strength and has made a significant contribution to improving the lives of hundreds of artisans in the Andes of South America.

Orations and responses

Oration

Oration given by Jules Lubbock on 15 July 2009

Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Carry Somers shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2009

In 1991, after completing her first degree in Modern Languages, Carry Somers came to do an MA in Latin American Studies here at Essex, one of only a handful of universities in Britain far sighted enough to specialise in this vitally important region which contains 6% of the world’s population and covers an area double the size of the United States. Pursuing her dissertation on textile production in the Andes she visited Ecuador in 1991. She was horrified by the poverty she saw, and particularly by reports of how two textile co-operatives had been intimidated by the middlemen who supplied them with their raw materials, even suffering from arson attacks. She resolved to help them and after completing her MA in 1992, using £500 of her own money she supplied them with raw materials as well as with knitwear patterns based upon local cave art, even though she had no training in textile design. The products sold out in six weeks. She borrowed a further £6,000 from friends to continue the business, returned to Ecuador and got robbed of everything at gunpoint. At this point most of us would have given up and returned to work on our PhD, which she had already started. Not Carry Somers. She lived in a van in order to repay her debts and continued to develop the business, now called Pachacuti after the 15th century Inca Emperor who conquered much of the western side of the continent and whose name means, appropriately enough, “He who remakes the world”. Remember also that 1992 was the middle of the last recession.

Today the business has a turnover of about £400,000, with ten employees in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, employing some 700 textile workers and milliners in the Andean region. You can shop online and see Carry herself modelling some of their extremely elegant designs. Pachacuti’s main product, accounting for two thirds of their sales, is the Panama hat, made not in Panama but for the past 5,000 years in Ecuador. For me, one of the main benefits of writing this tribute has been to discover this source of Panamas, which I always wear in the summer. Carry’s hats are around half the price of those in the West End. Yet, the most remarkable thing is that as a Fair Trade business the craftswomen far from being exploited are paid excellent rates, provided with pensions in a country where state pensions do not exist, as well as medical benefits. In addition Pachacuti trains the next generation in these age old skills so that they do not disappear as they are in danger of doing as a result of the westernisation of clothing in Latin America. Consumers and producers all benefit.

Although the PhD was never completed Carry has co-authored a book with her mother, Leslie Somers, amongst others, who used to work for her and has now set up her own Fair Trade business. Published in 2007, just before unethical practices in commerce and politics brought the world financial system close to breakdown, it is appropriately entitled Working Ethically: Creating a Sustainable Business … Without Breaking the Bank. Written in the simplest language it sets out the stringent and logical process any organisation, including our own, government as well as business, must follow if it wishes to embed key moral values into its everyday practice. I can’t summarise it here but I will recommend it to all you graduands as you enter upon the next stage of your lives.   

Chancellor, I present Carry Somers.

Response

Response by Carry Somers

I feel very honoured to be here speaking to you all at the start of your careers. When I was asked to speak, I deliberated over how I could draw from my experience and talk about the importance of working ethically in your future careers. Surveys have found that almost 90% of graduates consider high ethical standards to be important when deciding where to work, but will you still have the luxury of that sort of choice in the current economic climate?

I really believe that it is important not to adopt the cynicism of the marketplace. Not all organisations and markets are in decline and the good news is that ethics are going to be increasingly important in this post-recession world. I believe that a new approach to conducting business must arise from the ashes of this boom and bust period in our economic history and that actually makes this a very exciting time to be graduating. At a time when the world is struggling to recover from financial crisis, as well as dealing with political uncertainties, economic disparity and the challenge of climate change, we need new political, economic and cultural models which can change people's attitudes and behaviour. I hope that you leave this University with high aspirations that you can be role models for a new way of doing business.

I certainly know about working counter to prevailing trends and I also know that many alternative business models are thriving in these challenging times. I started Pachacuti in the last recession in 1992, the year after I completed my Masters in Native American Studies here at Essex. Whilst researching for my dissertation, I went to Ecuador and saw the opportunity to provide work for producers with traditional skills by providing training and design input. I set up my business with a £1000 loan and the belief that I could make a difference to preserving traditional skills and improving the livelihoods of textile producers in the Andes. Seventeen years on I now have 1200 people who depend on me for their income. As an entrepreneur and an optimist, I went into this current recession with very a positive outlook, really believing that it was an opportunity for us to dig out a bigger niche in the marketplace and oust some of the brands who had become complacent over the years. Well it certainly seems to have worked as sales are up over 100% on last year.

I believe that the reason Pachacuti has been so successful is that I didn’t simply pioneer working ethically in the fashion industry and then rest on my laurels, but I have constantly pushed standards higher, frustrated at the low ethical claims many high street retailers are making. Pachacuti this year became the first organisation in the world to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation for our sustainable, fair trade supply chain. We are now working on an EU project to track our Panama hats by satellite from the communities where they are woven to provide visible accountabilty of their provenance. If I can push Fair Trade standards as high as possible, I can use this vantage point to shine a light back on the abysmally poor working practices in other parts of the industry and help to bring about positive change for garment workers around the world.

As you embark on the start of your careers, or set up your own businesses, every single one of you has an important contribution to make to society. We all need to play our part in making sense of the world we live in today and to create more sustainable ways of living and working in the future. You will need to react to change quickly, to seize opportunities and find ways to work collaboratively, to help create sustainable institutions which put people and the environment ahead of the need to maximise profits. Your task as the new generation entering the workplace is to propel our society toward a better way of life based on the growth of the arts, science, culture, experience, education, rather than the interminable and unsustainable growth of mass production and mass consumption.

As you leave this phase of your education, Be brave, be creative, be optimistic, keep learning and believe that you can play a positive role in creating a more sustainable society for our future.