Two years ago, I attended a seminar in Amsterdam on global sex trafficking and met many people doing world-changing work. One of those incredible women was Molly Hardwick, who later went on to found The Simple Kind, an ethical clothing company employing women who have left a life of exploitation in Riga, Lativia. This month I had the opportunity to catch up with Molly and hear more about the journey of creating The Simple Kind.
J: Tell us about your name, “The Simple Kind.” How do you feel it expresses your mission?
M: I spent my teenage years being a real nerd and obsessively reading the writings of faith & social justice leaders like Mother Teresa, Saint Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King. One of the strongest things those writings imprinted on me was the belief that small, consistent, & courageous acts of love & kindness have the power to change the world maybe more than anything else.
I think once you start to become aware of some of the enormous issues facing our world (things like human trafficking & worker exploitation), it’s very natural to want to be loud and urgent in bringing solutions. But historically, that’s not the way lasting healing happens. Saint Francis said, “True progress quietly & persistently moves along without notice.”
We want to be a brand that brings lovely, colorful, ethically made dresses to the market; quirky dresses people can feel totally themselves in and empower others to be themselves as well. We want to be a place of empowerment for those who are economically vulnerable. We want to be a brand that inspires enemy love; as we stand for the dignity of the oppressed in the world by supporting fair trade working practices & community development, we must also recognize and fight for the humanity of their oppressors that can be lost in greed and isolation. We want to be a brand that encourages a sort of community around these ideals of nonviolent resistance to injustice. It’s simple, kind work.
J: Could you share some about the process of launching The Simple Kind? What did it take to go from vision to reality?
M: One of the most impactful and important things we did in the beginning was spend time in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe researching the issues we cared about and discovering a bit of the nuance & complexity behind them. I am overwhelmingly thankful for those experiences!
In Southeast Asia, we met with & toured dozens of fair trade garment production facilities. We met a Cambodian woman who works with the garment worker population in Phnom Penh, helping young girls complete basic education so they aren’t as at risk for exploitation. She told us that her research recently concluded that over half of the women who worked in prostitution in Phnom Penh had come from garment factories, basically because it was a better economic opportunity for them. That broke our hearts, and has encouraged us to see this connection more and more around the world.
In Eastern Europe, we met with several organizations that work with women involved in street prostitution specifically, hearing what they perceive to be some of the biggest needs of these women. The needs are many, but one of the most common & outstanding needs is viable economic opportunity.
From there, we’ve just put one foot in front of the other in seeing our dream come to life, taking risks and working hard.
J: Tell us about your partners, Freedom 61. How did the partnership come about? What have you learned from the experience?
M: Before The Simple Kind, I was involved in Christian missions for a number of years and I developed a really great network of friends all over the world. Some of those friends started working with Freedom61 in Latvia! They originally began by operating a small cafe in the area of Riga where street prostitution is common. Seven years later, they’ve opened a safe home in the countryside for these women to rest as they find health & wholeness, they regularly run seminars in local schools to educate young people about the realities of trafficking & exploitation, and as tourism in Riga has increased, they’ve begun a weekly outreach to the sex tourism clients in the city center, where men come from around the world to visit women working in bars & brothels.
Our partnership came about very organically and it’s been very relational every step of the way. When they were ready to start incorporating job training & financial planning into their curriculum at the women’s center, we were ready to start hiring others to help us produce our clothing. I went over there and taught a group of women how to sew our dresses, and one of them really loved it and connected with the work on a personal level, and now she’s worked for us for a year! As she graduates their transition program, we’re evaluating what our partnership looks like going forward in a more sustainable way. I’ve learned so much from them; valuing the [sometimes very long] process of justice work, being committed and trusting timing, and just a lot about what true empowerment in this field looks like. We’ve really just begun, and we’re excited to see where this goes!
J: What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced so far as a business? What has been your greatest joy to celebrate?
M: Boy, there have been plenty of challenges. It is a hustle to get anything going (I’m sure anyone who has started a small business would agree with me). There’s always a mountain of work to get done and not enough hands or money to do it. I have spent so many nights sewing till my eyes close, and I’ve had to ask for plenty of favors! Thankfully, I have found an army of support from my friends who have been so kind and helped us in so many ways. I think that’s been on of the biggest joys: seeing that community form around this cause.
Another huge joy has been to see the women we trained graduate Freedom61’s transition program. They are so strong and so beautiful!
J: What’s the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received on this journey?
M: Before we began, I spent a bit of time in Amsterdam studying human trafficking, and that city has some really neat things happening in the way of social enterprise. I asked a few of the folks involved in that what sort of advice they could give to someone just starting, and the thing I heard over and over was that it’s so important to have a good business model in place before you begin adopting the social aspect of your mission. That way, you aren’t inviting economically vulnerable people into something that may slip out from underneath them. That was so good to chew on, because I am definitely more of a social justice person than a business person. But a sly passion for business has emerged from that advice, and I feel like it’s been so vital to our success.
J: What do you envision The Simple Kind becoming in the coming years?
M: I want The Simple Kind to be the go-to ethical shop for women who love quirky & feminine dresses. And right now, the vision in my mind is helping to pioneer a sustainable production facility in Latvia. The country is so rich in cultural tradition & creative expression; garment production is far from a new idea there! I’m excited to meet people who are already doing that and see how Freedom61 can be a piece of the puzzle.
For more information on The Simple Kind, visit: thesimplekindclothing.com.
Jenna Funkhouser lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and a handful of mostly alive houseplants. She studied Creative Writing at Corban University and loves exploring the power of storytelling in giving dignity and advocating for change. She currently works in communications for local anti-trafficking nonprofits.