By MIMI LILIEFELDT
As I write this there is so much agony in the world, and everything we do here feels futile and insignificant. At least it does for me.
But the harsh reality is that wherever you are, life does and has to go on. That doesn’t mean we can’t use our voices and take whatever action we can to do some good in the world. In fact, it means we must make more effort than ever to balance the universal scales and strive every day to care for each other in all corners of our world.
Doing good in this corner of the world (and beyond), is Nurjahan Begum owner of ELM – Ethical Local Market at 1628 Queen St. E. just east of Coxwell Avenue. Nurjahan is a woman who really does care about making a difference.
ELM is a shop that hosts local entrepreneurs and creatives who share a passion in making a variety of goods ranging from handmade soaps, clothing, candles, jewelry, and much more. Nurjahan is also one of the creators with her ethical clothing brand called Progoti, which means progressive in Bengali.
Born in Bangladesh and raised in Myanmar for seven years, and Japan for two years, Nurjahan grew up with a wide range of experience. The daughter of loving parents and six siblings, she was taught the importance of family and how to be independent.
In 2003, at the age of 34, Nurjahan arrived in Toronto and set about finding a job which proved to be more difficult than she’d originally anticipated.
When asked how she felt coming to Canada by herself she responded, “A little bit nervous and scared but I had lived in different countries by then, that helped make it easier.”
Nurjahan’s tenacity and hard work eventually paid off and she secured employment.
After years of experience in the garment industry working her way from distributor to replenishment analyst to an associate buyer, Nurjahan eventually decided it was time to move on.
“Everywhere I went, I didn’t feel like I had much to do, that I can do much. They were just creating that barrier. . . 2016 I left my job and (at) first I thought I was going to do the supplying job and whatever profit I make I’ll try to do something for the workers, maybe an education program. Then finally we decided we’re going to do a brand. That was January 2017. When me and my husband were talking, we realized the only way we can really do something (make meaningful change) is when we own the brand.”
The ugly truth, that no one likes to think about, is that often the clothes we buy are made in faraway factories with abhorrent conditions, gender-based harassment, and zero to little job security.
Most often these garment workers are women and according to a 2020 report from the Asian Centre for Development, the average age of women factory workers is 25 years old; this means many of these women are let go once they reach their 30s. After supporting their families with minimal pay and daily pressure to reach quotas, they are suddenly left without any safety net and rarely any savings.
Because of all her experience working within the garment industry, Nurjahan was compelled to try to help these women have better outcomes.
Nurjahan describes Progoti: “It’s a social enterprise brand. The concept of Progoti, is we offer all our products to customers at cost. We give the customers all the breakdowns. If they go to the website, they will be able to see the individual product attached with the breakdown. . . and then give the customer an option to contribute. With that contribution we buy individual life and pension policies for garment workers in Bangladesh. That is what I started. I wanted to do something, to make a difference with that.”
Not only does Nurjahan provide these policies for 22 of the women who work on her garments, she said, “I can buy that (the policies) in the name of the worker. I’m not even the holder of the policies. Each policy costs me $200 per year, if someone has been with me for six years now, that’s six times $200 in their pocket. So, if something happens to me, they’re the holder, I’m not. If they want to continue the policy, they can continue by themselves.”
This type of protection for garment workers is rare and all it took was someone who cared less about greed and more about intentionality.
Nurjahan knows how lucky she is to have grown up in a secure, loving family with a father who worked for The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which enabled them to travel and learn more about the world.
“The reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because growing up my dad used to listen to a lot of international news and that impacted me a lot,” she said. “I read about different wars and things like that, and it bothered me. You know, how people become so cruel so quickly and do not care about the other life at all.”
At one point while still living in Bangladesh, Nurjahan was studying for an exam to apply for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs like her father.
For this endeavour she had to read and understand international affairs and Bangladesh affairs; it was through this deep learning that she realized, “I want to solve problems. . . So, this (her Progoti brand) is one of my ‘trying to solve some problems.’”
Nurjahan has aspirations to grow her brand and her stores so that she can help more people. This work is very important to her.
“It means a lot because they (the garment workers) do not have a voice, and no one listens to their issues. Being able to hear them out gives me peace, and I feel grateful for the life I have. I feel that I am very fortunate to do something for them,” she said.
While reflecting on how supportive her family has been she added, “I tell myself, if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? I have the capacity to sacrifice. Not many people have that opportunity.”
This self-reflection and accountability that Nurjahan possesses is remarkable. Many of us count ourselves as too busy or not important enough to take the time.
But what Nurjahan highlighted many times during our conversation was that we each can do a little something.
The sentiment that resonated for me the most was when Nurjahan shared, “I want to see the world a better place. That’s my goal. Whatever way I can make it, whatever amount. I don’t know how much I can achieve by the end of my life, but that’s what I’m inspired to do. Sometimes I tell people, I’ve got a good life. This is my thank you to the world for giving me a good life.”
Ethical Local Market is more than a store, it’s a community of local small businesses, which Nurjahan tells me are made up of 90 per cent women whose dreams are associated with her success in building ELM.
“I hope the customers who come through the door know that they are helping us make a difference in people’s lives and their continued support is vital for our existence,” she said.
And with this statement Nurjahan has given us a gift; we can all make a simple effort and contribution to making this corner and far away corners of the world better by shopping at local, ethical markets, like this one.
— Mimi Liliefeldt is a Beach resident and business owner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org