How the Fashion Industry Can Help Fight Extreme Poverty

In 2007, I was brought on to help the Cotton On Group, a global retail chain, find a way to make a difference for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.


Two years ago, I was like many other corporate executives. I worked long hours, managed the day-to-day to keep the business going. Little did I know, this would all change.

In 2007, I was brought on to help the Cotton On Group, a global retail chain, find a way to make a difference for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As a global retailer, we knew we could do more, so we gave ourselves the mission to figure out how we could help empower people who needed it most.

My first mission was to visit Mannya, a remote village in southern Uganda. It was rife with AIDS and it lacked the basic education, healthcare, and infrastructure that we often take for granted and need to survive. It’s a beautiful place, full of beautiful people. Yet my most vivid memory is when I set foot in a classroom for the first time.

I stood in the rain looking at a small, decrepit building. As I entered, I immediately noticed 30 children huddled in the corner as rain poured in from all angles. As they gazed at me, time stood still. Their sheets of paper wet, their pencils broken. I thought, “No child deserves to live like this.”

Most of the teachers didn’t turn up that day, nor did the rest of the children in the community. The simple fact that it rained was an obstacle to accessing education in their community. Yet, these 30 children had tremendous resilience to learn at all cost. Because that one teacher showed up, these children did, too.

At that moment I realized our company had an opportunity to empower these children. We had the means to help share knowledge and skills needed to create change within their communities. And I was full of excitement.

But before we could begin to help, we needed to learn directly from the community how we could be most helpful. Over the next few days I met with villagers, farmers, priests, and politicians throughout southern Uganda. Ideas, both big and small, were thrown around, and we walked away inspired to help create change in Mannya.

And change eventually came. Shortly after this trip, we formed the Cotton On Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of the Cotton On Group, guided by our own “four pillars,” which still propel our work in Mannya: Education, Healthcare, Infrastructure, and Sustainability. We saw it as a pretty simple thing: empower youth more, participate more, understand more, and change more.

We haven’t looked back since. Over the past six years, knowledge has become the center of gravity for the community. Given the opportunity to learn, these students are now advocates for education—with school attendance up across our primary and secondary schools. We’ve seen firsthand how important education is to empowering individuals, and communities.

As for the 30 children that needed an opportunity back in 2007, this small group has grown into 3,500 students, who are achieving a pass rate of over 95 percent. But this is only a fraction of the girls and boys who are in their same situation. We can't act too soon to help make a difference for more of them.

Since we launched the Cotton On Foundation, corporate social responsibility has been a huge focus for the Cotton On Group. It’s the DNA that runs through our 17,000 staff and in our 1,033 stores across 14 countries. It’s our shared core philosophical belief that we can make a difference and that to do this, we must focus on the people outcome. For us, it’s not about cutting checks; it’s about raising awareness, empowering people with truth so they can engender positive change that’s tangible. It’s a simple as that.

When our customers buy Cotton On Foundation charity items, 100 percent of their purchase goes toward our projects, directly impacting the lives of children in southern Uganda.

Looking back over the past few years, there’s no doubt it’s been a life changing experience. Starting up the philanthropic arm of the business and working for the Cotton On Foundation has changed the way I view my career, ambitions and even how I bring up my children. I’ve developed some great relationships with our friends in Uganda, in local communities and now with the Global Poverty Project.

With so many more people in need of a hand up, we now have a vision to educate 20,000 people in Southern Uganda by 2020. And we need more supporters to help us get there!

So do something good today and lend your voice. In partnership with The Global Poverty Project, we’re asking you to pledge to support us in our quest to bring education to southern Uganda. And it’s easy. All you have to do is visit, sign up, and pledge your support to help educate 20,000 people in southern Uganda.

We all have a part to play. If we join forces, together we can achieve so much. There’s no doubt we can end extreme poverty within our generation.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

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