This week I had the privilege of visiting Samatoa Lotus Farm just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, which specializes in fabrics made of lotus, silk, kapok, organic cotton and banana fibres.
Started in 2003 primarily as a silk-weaving facility, Samatoa has developed into a eco-responsible and fair trade textile company. It operates on two major values and every decision the company makes are based on these: sustainability and social respect.
Social respect: Samatoa employs women from the local villages close to Siem Reap and Battambang where its facilities are based. The women recieve vocational training as well as English lessons, and are provided with meaningful and steady work which can be hard to come by as more and more jobs in rural areas are replaced by machines. They work in small groups of family members and friends, and are able to work at their own pace and on their own time. In Cambodia, I've been told, though work is important, family is valued above all, so being able to work closely with your family is huge. (This is a work/life balance I can definitely get behind...)
Sustainability: The workplace itself operates on almost no electricity (just a few fans to keep the workers cool!) and has virtually no carbon footprint. The lotus fibre is made from the stems of the lotus, which is a waste product from the food industry, and the fibre is completely man-made, no machines or chemicals are used in cleaning, prepping, extracting, spinning or weaving the fibre. The leftover product from the fibre is of course compostable, but Samatoa also partners with another local company to make paper and tea from the waste. They are also working to create an entirely new fibre by spinning the lotus fiber with recycled polyester - which would at the same time make lotus fibre much more accessible to a wider market, and also solve a problem of plastic bottle recycling which Cambodia (just like everywhere else) has a huge problem with.
Lotus itself is an incredible plant that I hardly knew anything about until this week! It is phyto-sanitary, which means it cleans the water it grows in thereby protecting fragile ecosystems. It grows without any chemicals, and the entirety of the plant is edible or useful. The petals, placentas and stems can be dehydrated for tea and infusions, and the seeds can be planted or eaten raw or cooked. They can also be ground into flour to be used in baking!
Lotus is the only *naturally* occurring microfiber, and it takes one women a full 10 working days to create enough fibre for one meter of fabric. 1 meter!! Talk about slow fashion!
Observing these women work REALLY drove home how important it is to know where your clothing comes from. Of course, in most commercial textile production machines are commonly used to bring prices down, but there is still a *huge human element to the production of textiles for clothing and home. Someone, somewhere is growing a crop, picking the crop, cleaning and prepping the crop, extracting the fibre, spinning and weaving and dying the fibre - and this is all before it's even THOUGHT of as a garment.
Samatoa is supply chain transparency at its finest. It's a brilliant example of how this industry SHOULD and CAN work. If every company focused this much on their human and ecological impact, the world would be a much cleaner, happier place.
Samatoa currently employs 30 farmers, spinners and weavers and harvests over 20 hectares of lotus. Their goal is to be able to provide over 500 jobs within the next 5 years. Bravo to this incredible company and here's to the beginnings of an industry standard that we all should be doing our best to follow.