Monday, 27 March 2017

Made in Sample

A visit to MadeinSample’s studio is like time travelling gone wrong: you’re first transported back in time through an antiquated lift, before you’re introduced to the social enterprise’s visionary and passionate founder and co-owners, who prove the possibility of founding a company that is both environmentally and financially sustainable, not least with their socially inclusive business model as solid proof. 

It all started in late 2014, when Clive Sit, then owner of an interior design firm, contemplated a change in business direction down a less commercial path. It was a time when the concepts ‘social enterprise’ and ‘sustainable development’ finally reached the greater mass in Hong Kong, and Clive jumped on the bandwagon, determined to do something with the plentiful of sample fabrics that did nothing but lying around in sample rooms, looking pretty and expensive. Among those impressed with Clive’s idea was Terry Law, who, to research for his graduation project, happened to be one of the audience when Clive did his business pitch at Good Lab in late 2015. The two clicked, in spite of the 13 years between them, and soon they were joined by Sam Fu, a friend of Terry’s who also read graphic design at Polytechnic University. 

With sustainable development and sharing economy in mind, they decided that MadeinSample would be a financially viable and environmentally conscious social enterprise that promotes social inclusion, not least through the interdependency they establish with their employees - retirees as seamstresses and tailors, and people with mental disabilities as fabric trimmers. MadeinSample’s is not your conventional business model, for they believe in interdependence and collaboration to make our community whole. 

When and why was MadeinSample founded? 

Clive: About two years ago, I was looking for a change of business model for my interior design firm, something slightly off the commercial track was what I had in mind. It happened to be a time in Hong Kong when social enterprise became a ‘thing’. I wasn’t very clued up about the concept of social enterprise. Naturally I went to Google, and learnt about the largest social enterprise convention yet, to be held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in two days’ time. What I took away from the convention was the initial idea of founding a social enterprise, utilising my expertise in design. That was in late 2014.

I thought about the sample room at my interior design firm. The sample room is basically a space used to store fabric samples, and I know some designers - myself included - like to create handicrafts with these fabric samples. Two weeks later, I rang up my designer friends who were working in big interior design firms, talked them into donating their fabric samples, and soon my office was packed to the brim with these samples. It was then that I started contemplating about a social enterprise that would utilise these fabric samples. 

I signed myself up for a course run by Dr K K Tse’s Education for Good to learn more about social enterprise. At a pitching session held at Good Lab, my business pitch received positive response from my peers, and among them was a young man, who was waiting for me at the door after the crowd has dispersed. Terry Lam was not only enthusiastic about my idea, but he also offered valuable input. I’ve spoken about my business model with many people, but it was with Terry that I clicked. We agreed that our business has to be a sustainable social enterprise, whose services and products are widely available to and accessible by the public. Our business is not only financially sustainable, but also environmentally sustainable through repurposing fabric samples - we try to avoid the term ‘upcycling’ for the simple reason that the fabrics we use have never been used as a part of a product before, they were just high-quality fabrics costing up to the thousands, left idling in the sample room. 

Terry: I was at Good Lab for a reason: I had to research for my graduation project. What Clive spoke about his social enterprise model got my attention, and we soon found out that we both live in the Shatin area - the half-year after that saw us taking the same commute home together, and exchange of ideas through WhatsApp. We decided that we wanted to produce consumer goods that are environmentally conscious while financially sustainable. 

Tell us about the first large-scale project MadeinSample was involved in, in early 2016?

Clive: Our office was at St. James’ Settlement’s upcycling centre in Wanchai then. I learnt about an event to be launched by the Swire Group on social inclusion. Now that I think about it, that event was probably the largest-ever upcycling event in Hong Kong. It was a three-day carnival called ‘Love’s Team’, which was held in partnership with 15 NGOs, featuring stalls selling handicrafts, experiential workshops, and live performances. Our main role was consultation with the NGOs on their products and services, so as to come up with the event concept and set-up. In the end, we also devised the branding, logo and relevant graphic work for the event. The prominent artwork was around 300 patchwork pieces hanging down from the ceiling, so that the event also looked like an exhibition decorated with upcycled denim from Chevignon, a client of the Swire Group. 

Sam: One reason we decided to use denim fabric is that it doesn’t matter if you’re poor or rich, you’re bound to have at least one pair of jeans at home. Additionally, since the level of contamination resulting from the manufacture of denim products is relatively high, we thought it would make more environmental sense to upcycle denim. 

The people at Swire were amazing. They were willing to listen and adopt our ideas, at meetings that often lasted half a day. It was through the countless rounds of discussions that it dawned on them that ‘upcycling’ doesn’t have to mean repurposing trash, that it could be adopted into upmarket designs as well. One of the greatest things about the event is that we were able to upcycle or recycle up to 80% of the materials used - some were given to the participating NGOs, some we took back to the studio with us for future design work.

Clive: This event actually marked the joining of Sam to our team, through recommendation of Terry, as they both studied graphic design at Polytechnic University. 

What are the challenges for a producer/designer of durable and environmentally sustainable consumer goods in Hong Kong? 

Terry: The majority of Hongkongers are inclined towards fast consumption while compromising on the durability and sustainability of products - this is evident in the continual positive sales in IKEA. The small size of the average home is a reason as well, as you would need to get rid of some old things to bring the news things in, and people always want new things. So naturally, people tend to buy things that are cheap, and that which they won’t grow too emotionally attached to. The problem is that the market share for good-quality, durable products is relatively small. What we’re trying to do here at MadeinSampel is to produce products with unique designs and premium fabrics, which can’t be copied by fast consumption brands. 

Clive: Anyone familiar with the eco-friendly and responsible restaurant Mana! will have heard of the concept called ‘fast slow food’, and the consumer goods version of that is what we’re trying to achieve. We want our brand and products to be available to the mass as well, just not the mass production adopted by H&M, but the maximum level that we can reach while maintaining our principles of environmental sustainability and real artisanship. 

Terry: We try to avoid calling ourselves ‘craftsmen’, even though the majority of our products are made by hand, because we would also like to engage in consignment projects - for hotels and restaurants, for instance - as long as they fit our business model and principles. 

Explain to us the production model here at MadeinSample? 

Sam: Once we’ve received previously unused fabrics from our suppliers, architect firms and design firms, we will sort the fabrics according to their colours, further down to their subtle colour tones, and the presence or absence of patterns. When turning these fabrics into cushions, currently our prominent product, we need to draw sketches to ensure the fabrics will be trimmed to their respective sizes for the patchwork that will be made into a cushion cover. We will then take the fabrics and sketches to a psychiatric rehabilitation centre in Ma On Shan, where recovering individuals at the sheltered workshop will help us cut the fabric into desirable sizes - a tedious and time-consuming task that people with certain mental disabilities excel in, and which they seem to enjoy. I was particularly impressed when I was at their centre once, and they could spot a disproportionately trimmed fabric from afar! Not only do they have stringent standards on fabric vetting, they also make sure all trimmed fabrics are delivered back to us meticulously bundled in batches.

Terry: Back at our office at St. James’ Settlement, we found that many people with mental disabilities possess specialised skills, and we realised that we could enlist their help on repetitive tasks that require utmost precision. Along with fabric trimming, we also hire them for sewing, though that is a task mostly done by retirees, such as a couple of tailor husband and his seamstress wife. Through them we have been introduced to a network of retired tailors and seamstresses, whose skills and expertise are indispensable to us, especially in times when deadline is tight. 

Sam: Their efficiency is remarkable! Whatever task we entrust them with, they deliver, despite it being an eleventh-hour request. For the Swire event, we needed almost 300 patchwork fabrics measuring 2.5m x 1m. They gathered together a team of three, and had the 300 pieces done within a month. I’ve seen this couple work, their division of labour is amazing, and I’ve never heard them voicing their doubts, it’s probably down to the rich experience they have accumulated since their factory workers days. 

Memorable experiences? 

Terry: For me it would be the Swire event. I’d only just graduated from Polytechnic University, after all, and it absolutely was a great experience to add to my portfolio. We were lucky to have Clive, who has quite some years of working experience under his belt. It was actually Clive whom Swire trusted, not fresh graduates like myself. The event was a great experience also because I learnt the importance of communication. There was always a lot of communication going on - with the client, the countless vendors, the 15 NGOs. We literally transformed the event from two-dimensional to three-dimensional and later digital, for social media. It drained our energy, but it also offered itself as a rare opportunity to learn and grow. And it definitely helped that Swire, our client, respected us as humans while giving us the creative freedom.

Clive: Founding and running a social enterprise has its challenges in Hong Kong, one being that people tend to think you’re just ‘running a business’, often not understanding the rationale behind. It’s not news anymore that many social enterprises in Hong Kong will fold after their funding has depleted after three years. Right now, we’re only going to focus on what we do best. 

What can Hong Kong do more in terms of sustainable development? 

Terry: There needs to be an intermediary platform for people to seek takers of used items, as well as to learn about items to be given away. This platform could store the items for a certain period of time, and only dispose of them when there really isn’t any taker. For instance, when Clive was devising his social enterprise business model, a great deal of sample fabrics were being discarded by suppliers and interior design firms. Had there been an intermediary storage platform for those fabrics, Clive would have had access to even more unwanted fabrics. 

Sam: Many people aren't aware that there’s a place called EcoPark in Hong Kong, because it’s located far away from the city centre. In a city with 18 districts, there’s only one EcoPark, and the application and administration procedures are unbelievably complicated for someone who may want to research on eco-friendly solutions. When it comes to sustainable solutions, the government is hesitant, especially with things that haven’t been done in Hong Kong before. 

Terry: It would be great if the government could offer support and subsidies in terms of funding and space provision. An upcycling designer normally won’t have the space it requires to store a great amount of materials, not to mention that it takes time for a designer to come up with a practical design, and yet in the time it took the designer to consolidate a design, many reusable materials have already been dumped to the landfills. 

Clive: I wouldn’t count on the government. I think collaborating with businesses and corporations might be a good start - the combination of corporations’ funding and designers’ creative ideas could lead to something good. In fact, such collaboration has seen success overseas. 

What’s the best thing about being the founders of MadeinSample right now? 

Terry: Essentially, we are running our social enterprise with an ordinary product design standard and an extraordinary business model. Unlike conventional businesses, we aren’t going to boot our competitors out of the market so that we can monopolise it. There is a sense of interdependence here, between us and the many individuals and organisations that we work with. Without our friends in the architecture industry, we won’t have the generous donation of fabric samples; without our seamstresses, we won’t have the end product. And in return, we give back to our environment and our community. Put simply, MadeinSample is an intermediary and a social enterprise that encourages social inclusion. 

Clive: With conventional business, the main goal is to make profits. But all over the world, people are increasingly running businesses that result in mutual and greater benefits to the community, with principles based on the ‘sharing economy’ concept, it’s sort of like how the ecosystem is, and I think this is a much healthier economic model. 

Terry: Back in the old days, getting rid of old stuff at home was a hassle. People would have to phone and arrange for movers. Now, though, people don’t actually have to dispose of unwanted furniture - they can put it up for sale of free giveaway on social media platforms, so that the item can be passed on to people who need it. Sharing is the trend right now, and it would be great if this trend could stay. 

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