This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
The numbers can’t describe how bad it is.
In Cambodia, human trafficking is a business so murky, descriptive statistics barely exist. Despite the country’s fast-growing economy, almost 18% of Cambodians live below the national poverty line of $34 a month, leaving them financially vulnerable to traffickers.
One Cambodian-based NGO reports handling around 300 cases of forced prostitution every year while thousands more children and people with disabilities are forced by their traffickers to work or beg on the streets, often being smuggled into neighboring countries and beyond.
Into the Underbelly
Lia Valerio witnessed the bleak situation firsthand during her initial trip to Cambodia in 2000. “I was out with some friends one night, in Phnom Penh,” she relates. “We ended up at an establishment located under a hotel, where the majority of the patrons were older Caucasian men. We also noticed a group of young Cambodian girls there.”
“Later, as we talked to other people who had spent their lives living and working in Cambodia, we came to the realization that we had witnessed a form of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.”
Fortunately, her run-in with human trafficking wasn’t Lia’s only memory from Cambodia. Having recently completed her service in the Peace Corps, Lia also connected deeply with Cambodia’s rich culture as she took the long way home through Southeast Asia.
The local textile art she was exposed to, as well as concern for those at risk of being trafficked, inspired her to co-found a fair trade accessory company producing bags, clutches, and more recently, masks. Today, Malia Designs links vulnerable Cambodian artisans to enthusiastic customers in the States — customers who literally tote the makers’ cause and craftsmanship wherever they go.
Designed for Change
During her four-week stay in the country, Lia spent her time investigating and buying from artisan organizations suggested by fellow travelers. “The textiles are amazing. To watch them weave on these looms underneath their houses is really a full-body experience. I was just blown away by it.”
Cambodia is perhaps most famous for its long history of sericulture, ever since silkworms were introduced to the area from China in the 1200s. The silk industry peaked during the 19th century and continued through the 1960s, only to face near-destruction in an era of war and extreme unrest. But since the mid ’90s, artisan organizations have striven to rebuild Cambodia’s traditional art while simultaneously working with other types of textile, like cotton canvas.
“I picked up stuff everywhere I went,” Lia recalls. “Coming back to the States and talking with my friend, I said, ‘Oh, we should start importing. There are these organizations doing amazing work.’”
Lia found three organizations, in particular, that used textile manufacturing to protect vulnerable populations, such as women living in poverty or men with disabilities. Rather than reinvent the wheel, she decided to work with them to open up new markets and adapt their products to Western tastes.
Collaborating on the Cause
Lia describes the creative process for each product line as being “very collaborative in nature.” Until the onset of Covid, that process involved a yearly trip to work shoulder-to-shoulder on designs inspired by Cambodia’s colorful marketplaces.
“All three artisan groups we partner with are 100% Cambodian run — owned and run by women,” Lia told us. Each organization works to ensure women and men with disabilities are able to access good jobs and build economic independence for themselves, rather than fall prey to traffickers.
In addition to the social mission, Malia Designs is committed to reducing waste and boosting sustainability in a notoriously wasteful industry.
Worldwide, the garment industry produces over 430 billion square feet of leftover fabric which could be repurposed. On a mission to reclaim as much as possible, Lia and her colleagues scour local shops selling remnants from cut-and-sew factories. In recent years, Malia Designs has expanded their upcycling efforts to include innovative totes and wallets fabricated with castoffs from other industries too, like cement and feed bags.
“Aesthetic-wise, fair trade used to be pretty crunchy!” quips Lia. “Over the past fifteen years we’ve been in business, our goal has been to bridge the gap between producer groups who have really cool textiles and fashion-forward design.”
“We’re part of a larger movement. Products from so many other ethical brands are almost indistinguishable from other really cute items you’d see at a boutique.”
Paying the Cost of Opportunity
As members of the Fair Trade Federation, Malia’s relationships with their artisan groups revolve around not only fair payment and exemplary working conditions, but long-term capacity building as well.
For instance, all three partner organizations endeavor to help talented makers gain autonomy and stability by accessing services like banking and medical care.
With steady employment, Malia’s producers can afford to send their children to school, giving them a better chance of finding well-paid work as they grow up — a rare opportunity among Cambodia’s poorer communities.
What does it take to offer those opportunities? Malia has contributed almost $170,000 to its social impact partners, with much of that going to Damnok Toek, the company’s Cambodian partner with a special focus on creating stable futures for previously trafficked children.
Over the 12-year partnership, Damnok Toek has used Malia’s funding to further educational activities as well as a bevy of other projects. “We’ve contributed to healthcare, buying beds, building bridges, buying food and clothes,” Lia says. “We helped buy a van for their disabled population.”
Lia recalls visiting Poipet, a gambling hub on the Cambodia-Thailand border with a reputation for being “exceptionally hazardous” for children. There, Damnok Toek runs a clinic and a drop-in center where street children can find refuge, provides informal education for elementary-age children, and vocational training for young adults. Since 1997, they’ve also cooperated with governments in repatriating children trafficked across borders, and, if prudent, reuniting them with their families.
Malia Designs and each of its partners endeavor to create conditions for Cambodia’s most vulnerable individuals to build safe, dignified lives — and every tote, purse, and messenger carried brings them closer to fulfilling their mission. Who knew cute bags could do all that?
Spend for good: From clutches to cross-bodies and laundry bins to luggage tags, Malia Designs offers scores of unique, handcrafted accessories that let you “carry a cause” in style. Check out the online store and enjoy $4 flat rate shipping in the U.S. for a limited time only.
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