All too often the negative side of the apparel industry makes the headlines: management exploiting staff, the industry exploiting the third world, and customers boycotting well-known brands for exploiting their suppliers. So it's a welcome change to hear of the fashion industry helping the community - and much good news on this front is coming out of Brazil's social programmes, as Niki Tait reports.

In the words of Marisol, one of Brazil's largest apparel manufacturers: "Companies that do not have strong links with the community tend to have a poor image and, consequently, lose credibility and market."

Carlos Miele spring/summer
2003 showing work carried
out by Coopa Roco
Based on these criteria, Marisol, like many large companies, performs and supports various activities that strengthen its social commitment. It has also provided help to the Municipal Sporting Foundation of Jaraguá do Sul, Santa Catarina, involving 1500 children from 15 volleyball school groups.

It donates 10,000 T-shirts per year to a Community Joint Effort where more than 13,000 students from 180 universities are helping needy communities in 270 Brazilian municipalities. And in the north east, 800,000 pieces of clothing made by trainees at the Marisol Nordeste SA have been distributed to the needy through the Department of Labour and Social Action.

Brazil has great extremes of rich and poor. Social conditions are particularly harsh in the big cities of Rio de Janeiro where a fifth of the six million inhabitants live in illegal settlements or shanty town slums known as favelas, and Sao Paulo where it is estimated that 10 per cent of the ten million population lives in favelas.

The favela syndrome is a big social and ecological problem for Brazil. Projects are underway to urbanise these settlements and introduce water, electricity, roads and sanitation. This is not an easy task: the high density houses are in bad constructive conditions with little road access; there are few public and social facilities; and there are huge social problems associated with urban violence, powerful drug cartels, AIDS, unemployment and teenage pregnancies.

Social programmes
However, a trend that has been changing Brazilian society in recent years is the boom in voluntary work which goes beyond simple handouts. Much takes place inside companies, and a recent survey among 100 of the 380 firms affiliated to the Ethos Institute, which promotes business ethics, showed that 94 per cent had their own voluntary projects.

The state-owned Bank of Brazil's 'Read, Write and Liberate' programme, for example, involves more than 2,100 of its employees and has taught more than 31,000 people to read and write. Meanwhile, around 20 per cent of the Dutch multinational clothing firm C&A's Brazilian employees (approximately 1,400 people) are doing voluntary work.

Camilda da Silva trains at the MVN training
school in the favela do Jagare
One of the top children's brands, Green, offers a customer loyalty program through which 18 loyalty points can be exchanged for a handmade rag doll - the clothes for which are sold in Green's shops. The dolls are made through a social program called Spring Group, which teaches the poor the skills necessary to make the dolls. As the dolls are bought by Green the social program gains, as do the people who make the dolls, the company, the customer and the child.

A group of people employed within the fashion business has also set up the Nucleo Voluntario de Moda (NVM) - the voluntary nucleus of fashion - to train potential sewing machinists within the favelas. The Favela Vila Nova Jaguaré in São Paulo has ties with one of the best schools within the city, the local University donated the expertise of three sewing machine instructors, and the industry donated time, 15 machines plus materials.

The first 18-month training course started in April 2002 with 30 students who are trained in two three-hour sessions every week. Additional courses have since been started.

Although the trainees are learning all the basic sewing machine skills necessary to gain jobs within the industry, they also undertake practical projects. They recently customised 5000 promotional T-shirts for Volkswagen cars, in return for which Volkswagen donated six brand new Juki sewing machines to the school. Next year the plan is for key Brazilian designers to design four products which will be made by the students and labelled and marketed as such.

The project aims to help women from the favelas gain secure and reasonably paid employment. Currently those who are employed tend to work for little pay as maids in unregistered jobs. The clothing industry in Sao Paulo pays around three times the country's basic wage.

Coopa Roca cooperative

Carlos Miele design on
the catwalk
In South America's largest favela, Rio de Janeiro's Favela de Rocinha with 180,000 inhabitants, a longer established program has been operating. The handicraft cooperative known as Coopa Roca was founded over 20 years ago by Maria Teresa 'Tete' Romeiro Leal who discovered that women living in the favela had learnt many innate handicraft skills.

Tete helped form the cooperative to share these skills, producing, marketing and selling handicraft products such as rugs, patchwork bed covers and pillows from donated industrial cutting room waste.

In 1994 when international fashion interest focused on Rio de Janeiro, Tete used local events to promote the cooperative's merchandise including Coopa Roca's new clothing line. Cooperative members even travelled to Berlin, showing at the Has der Kulturen. Gradually national and international media recognised the seamstresses' work, and brand equity in the Coopa Roca name grew.

In 2000, Tete organised an international exhibition called "Retalhar," a Portuguese word that means both "patchwork" and "to give a new shape to something," and invited Brazil's best designers to the show.

Through Retalhar, Tete met Carlos Miele who not only develops his own designer range but is also the head designer for the increasingly international brand M Officer. Miele's collections sell in England, Hong Kong, the US and Brazil.

Miele and Coopa-Roca fit well together. In Coopa-Roca, Miele found craftswomen who could transform his visions into real stitches and cloth, whilst in Miele and M Officer, Coopa Roca found an appreciation for their quality and techniques, international outlets for their work, and steady orders.

180000 people live in Favela de Rochina

Since 2000 Miele has become Coopa Rica's main customer. When developing a new design, such as a crocheted blouse, Carlos Miele will send a sketch to Coopa Roca, along with an idea for the texture he would like to use. The cooperative members then play around with different threads and crochet hooks until they come up with a potential pattern. A mock-up and costing is then sent for approval. Once the order is received it is divided between the members.

With over 70 members between the ages of 18 and 65, growing to a predicted 120 within the next year and tripling in size over the next five years, Tete points out that Coopa Rica is still very much a cooperative, not a normal business. The women are jointly responsible for all decision making, they determine which new business to pursue, their own workloads, work at their own pace, set their own hours and are thus in control of their own level of earnings - currently averaging between 200-600 reals per month (US$55-165) depending on how many pieces they produce.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, which provides independent assistance to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology and quick response.