Karin Stenmar

Co-founder, DEM Collective

T HE DAY I MET KARIN STENMAR, SHE HAD JUST RECEIVED A CERTIFICATE FOR HER CLOTHING COMPANY FROM THE U.S. PATENT OFFICE. "DON'T EAT MACARONI COLLECTIVE," IT READ, IN VERY OFFICIAL-LOOKING CAPITAL LETTERS AT THE TOP. THE NAME, DEM COLLECTIVE FOR SHORT, IS A REFERENCE TO THE AVERSION STENMAR AND HER PARTNER, ANNIKA AXELSSON, HAVE FOR EASY AND UNHEALTHY SOLUTIONS — WHETHER IN FOOD OR IN FASHION.


In 2003, Karin needed promotional tees for the jazz club where she worked – just 100 simple organic cotton tee shirts, made in fair working conditions. She couldn’t find any she liked, so she teamed up with Annika, who had 15 years of experience working with fair trade issues, and decided to make them herself.

Here is her story, which she told me in her office, one sunny Stockholm morning.

We took out a loan of about €10,000, rented a small factory in Sri Lanka, outside Colombo and employed three women there. They had all worked in the textile industry for quite some time—people working in industry are the best teachers.

People ask why we don’t produce in Sweden—it would be environmentally friendly and we have good working conditions. But we want to be where the problems are.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights says minimum wages should be paid for all workers, but the minimum wage is not enough for three meals per day. We asked one of the women we employed, Rukmani, about her costs. How much is the electricity bill? How much is the rent for the house? How much is the cost for your kids’ school uniform? What is the cost for travelling to work? And we set up a budget for that. The minimum wage was approximately $30 or $40 per month—not for enough for living. So we tripled that; instead of $40 it was $120. Even if you triple workers’ salaries, it’s a very, very small amount of money compared to how much consumers pay for the garment.

So, it all started with our tee shirts, which we sold for ten dollars. One of the biggest moments in the history of the company was when the first three women we hired opened their own bank accounts. They can be living proof for other women, that it’s possible to be secure and self-sufficient.

My aim is to develop our company in small steps. Now we have 15 workers with long-term fixed contracts, which is quite unusual. People say we should have 150, and we want to, but maybe in another three to four years. We need to have a solid ground if we want to be sustainable. To make long-term commitments to your workers, you have to work very, very slow.

Sometimes politicians and brands say it’s impossible to change. But when they budget without accounting for hidden costs to the workers and the environment, they are making the next generations pay, and that’s not a fair deal. But that change takes time. It’s very difficult to say, “we need to slow down and we need to make less money and that’s a good step to take."