Lessons in Cambodian Silk Supply Chains

Marcelia Muehlke one of the great young entrepreneurs I get to hang out with.  She's just your 'average' 20-something creating an international supply chain in the fashion industry, and succeeding.  In the spirit of 'and/both' instead of 'either/or', Marcie doesn't accept the 20th C cut throat culture of the Garment District.  This is a wonderful story, with lessons for all of us! 

Marcie Muehlke

My boyfriend Brian and I were backpacking in Washington State when he proposed.  The engagement caught me off guard, but I didn’t know then just how many more surprises that proposal would lead to--in my professional life. 

Based on my experience as a bride, I've started a fair trade wedding dress company that cares about the workers, working conditions and the environment. Making eco-socially-responsible wedding dresses requires a very special international supply chain and lets me combine my background in international development and my MBA. I thought I was keeping it simple (just a handful of designs and one color) but in the past year I’ve learned just how complex even a seemingly simple supply chain can be.

Weddings are a $50 billion industry in the US and green weddings are growing rapidly (about half of all brides choose at least one “eco” product or service at their wedding) but there are few options for eco or socially-responsible wedding dresses. That lack of options means little competition which is tempting but also gave me pause – was it possible to build the kind of supply chain I was imagining? To find out, IFigure 1 bought a plane ticket to Thailand and started setting up meetings with silk makers and sewing groups there and in Cambodia and Nepal.  To get started, I just needed one reliable silk making group and one talented clothing producer that followed fair trade practices and would agree to my low minimum orders.  This was my initial view of the supply chain (figure 1).

It has been a year since that first trip and I am still learning just how challenging, complex and rewarding it is to develop an ethical supply chain Figure 2 (Figure 2).

The Celia Grace supply chain starts with our fabric, heirloom Cambodian silk.  Our silk is hand woven in rural villages on wooden non-electric looms using traditional craft techniques passed down through families for generations. I visited the village where our silk is woven and walked under houses on stilts to visit with the women as they wove, chatted with neighbors, and dried rice on tarps in the sun.

Silk: Making silk “thread” is a difficult process.  It requires growing mulberry trees, raising silk worms, unwinding cocoons, spinning thread, and crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia. Customers ask if Celia Grace silk is organic or pesticide free and whether silk worms are killed in the process.  These are excellent questions but ones I can’t yet answer – I’ll be visiting the Vietnamese silk farm on my next trip.

Cut & Sew: This is when we make the actual wedding dresses.  I am incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing women’s sewing cooperative in Cambodia where several dozen women work in safe and fair working conditions. They pay a living wage and treat members like the smart, talented, professionals they are by offering benefits, professional development and upward mobility unheard of in the rest of the country’s garment industry.  We had to figure out how we’d handle a surge of orders and ensure a steady supply of work, and therefore wages, despite the cyclical demand of the wedding industry. We are regularly in touch about work conditions, pay rates, work policies, and adding an additional layer of (extremely important and rewarding!) of communication, documentation, and thought, helping us earn fair trade recognition (currently in review).

Wedding dress need the right trim and supplies like liner fabric, zippers, buttons and embellishments.  This is a challenge since the high quality zippers and beautiful glass beads we use can’t reliably be found in Cambodia.  I don’t know who was more shocked in this process:  me when I discovered how little was available, and with regularity, in Cambodian markets (“what do you mean you can’t get the same buttons this month?”) or the Cambodian women when we sent a few pre-fab sections of beading from the garment district in New York (“You can buy all these in a store?”).  Quality control poses additional issues: even thread coloring and thickness, every dress element done completely and correctly and arriving perfectly white and pristine after traveling around the globe. 

Another important element of the supply chain is building and managing relationships and business-to-business issues.  This involves all the logistics of a business relationship – invoicing, payments, product changes, placing orders, inventory, and more, but with the added layer of language barriers, cultural differences, and the learning curve of a small business.  And we haven’t left Asia yet!

Import & B2B: Sending dresses from Cambodia to the US is the last step in the Celia Grace supply chain.  How will they be shipped, what is the port of entry, what classification does each dress style fall under and what is the rate of duty?  I went to a daylong course on this topic only to learn that people do only this professionally for decades--and still get it wrong!

The amazing thing is that what I have described is an incredibly simple supply chain: one source of silk, a cut and sew producer, export/import from one country.  We are looking ahead to next year and have plans to expand to more regions.

What have I learned through these past two years? I can summarize them in three lessons that apply not just to my supply chain, but I believe to many supply chains:

  1. Partners matter! Given the kind of product and impact I am trying to make, building a mutual relationship with trust is essential.  This starts with face-to-face meetings and spending time to get to know one another’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses.  It continues through regular, clear communication, flexibility, and transparency.  While it is a partnership, both parties are also businesses that want to grow and earn money, so negotiation will take place but should look for win-wins rather than distributive solutions.
  2. Supply chain and product development go hand in hand. With a socially responsible supply chain, chances are you can’t take your product and tell a producer “I want exactly this, reproduce it without any changes.” Instead, developing a product takes place alongside developing the supply chain, which will take extra time, more communication, and probably more money.  Be flexible and open to changes and new solutions that you might not have considered but work in context.  For Celia Grace, one example of this was adapting our designs so that they worked with the local silk.
  3. This will take longer than you think.  This advice is nothing new but it is important – physical distance, communication challenges, natural disasters, delays from times when I am particularly busy, even abundant national holidays seem to conspire to slow things down.  So plan for this, give yourself a buffer, and create systems as you learn to move things along and make them run smoothly.

It is no surprise that building a supply chain, even a simple one and especially a socially responsible one, is a complex process that takes time, flexibility, and the understanding that you are building a partnership.  What is surprising is just how exciting and rewarding it is – in my case the highlight has been meeting the most incredible women who live and work in really tough situations.  These women are smart, honest, savvy business people who care deeply about their work and the impact it is making.  I am so honored to work with them, share their story, and support the work they are doing, all while adding meaning and beauty to weddings here in the US.