SOFFA – Social Fashion Factory provides training and work integration in the eco-sustainable fashion industry to women victims of human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and to refugee women. SOFFA is an intermediary stage before the labour market; it provides vocational training in fashion and the development of soft skills for work inclusion and work integration empowerment, enhancing social inclusion and gender equality.
The founders of SOFFA are fashion entrepreneurs, experienced start-uppers in other ventures, seasoned professionals across a broad spectrum of areas and multinational in origin. Co-founder Fiori Zafeiropoulou is an academic, social entrepreneur and the holder of an award-winning PhD on Social Entrepreneurship.
Intro question: What is the social innovation about?
SOFFA is a Sustainable Fashion Factory that offers ethical employment to refugees and survivors of human trafficking and produces only from sustainable textiles and materials (natural, man-made or recycled biodegradable). Beneficiaries are offered vocational training in sewing and fashion design on a programme simulating real work conditions.
Vocational training takes place through:
- SOFFA mobile Training Production Workshops located in refugee camps and shelters for survivor women.
- The SOFFA Main Unit, currently located in the Agora Kypseli Impact Hub Athens and in Votanikos ANKAA NGO facilities.
Trainees who complete the program are awarded a Certification in Fashion and are offered employment in either the SOFFA main production unit or in collaborating brands.
SOFFA has created a job-matching platform, Refergon.com. Through online and offline processes, SOFFA Job Developer identifies prospective employers and SOFFA Job Coach (refugees) mentors prospective employees after recruitment.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
Fashion is the second-biggest polluter of the environment after oil and the second in human trafficking, after sex, with 21m people in forced labour. It is estimated that across Europe there are 1,243,400 people in slavery, with Greece in the 5th ranking (Global Slavery Index, 2016). They are mainly women and children.
Refugees are the group at greatest risk of being trafficked. Greece is the country of first arrival in Europe, but at the same time it has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, with youth unemployment at 47.5%.
It is against this background that SOFFA’s interaction with women survivors of human trafficking started in January 2016, with the aim of identifying fully professional female tailors from the population of refugees and survivors that could be integrated into full-time employment. All professional tailors identified at the time were male.
To overcome these women’s high risk of exclusion, and with them also facing high barriers to entering the labour market and gender discrimination, we decided to focus our training programmes only on women survivors of human trafficking and female refugees.
These women are socially marginalised to stay at home. They are kept dependent on males, are very low skilled, are at great risk of exclusion and exploitation and face greater labour barriers and very high gender discrimination.
SOFFA thus decided to provide its training programmes only to women survivors of human trafficking and women refugees. The limitations on women’s access to vocational and technical training and employment opportunities are being addressed through the programme by responding to the following identified women’s needs.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
I had just been nominated for a PhD on the scaling strategies of social enterprises from Brunel University, UK and decided to return to my home country of Greece to act on the pressing issues of poverty, unemployment and recession in these turbulent times. My family had a sportswear fashion factory for two generations that had ceased production, as had most of these types of production venues in Greece.
The Social Fashion Factory (SOFFA) story began during a start-up event at Impact Hub Athens, where I was looking for partners to set up a social cooperative factory in the fashion industry that would provide for the livelihoods of vulnerable groups. It was there that I heard about the terrible disaster of the Rana Plaza accident and the thousands of lives lost. I became a founding member of the global movement of Fashion Revolution in Greece, of which I am now the elected Country Coordinator. Around the Fashion Revolution movement a group of like-minded talented professionals are gathered under the common vision of ‘break the chain’ in the fashion industry. And thus SOFFA was born as a social cooperative of fashion designers and professionals, establishing a holistic model that would provide value to all stakeholders involved.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
I was afraid of whether my vision would ever become reality, if I would be able to do it. I continued to be afraid even though it was becoming a reality, and it took some time before I realised that this was actually happening.
What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?).
In September 2015, we raised our first income from the European Commission to create a training programme on how to become a social and sustainable fashion entrepreneur. In November 2015, we won sponsorship as a Web Summit Alpha Team. In April 2016, we were invited to the Skoll World Forum ’16 at Oxford University’s Said Business School. We were based on volunteering, self-funding and cross-financing from other projects until we started generating some of our own income from sales.
SOFFA has successfully run three short-term training programmes at survivors’ shelters and refugee camps in Attica for 22 beneficiaries (82% women) through SOFFA mobile training units. It has now provided part-time employment to 21 beneficiaries: 8 refugees, 3 migrants and 10 unemployed Greeks, paying a total of 30,000 euros in salaries. It collaborates with 5 monthly contractors and 14 volunteers.
SOFFA regularly provides revenue to various local SMEs, including weavers, mills and printing shops, and has produced and sold 12,000 garments, raising 43,000 euros from sales, while also recycling 146 kilos of textiles and clothes from landfill.
SOFFA has its own income-generating approach from sales that is gradually targeting the self-funding of its training and inclusion programmes.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
We have used a variety of tools and means to attract attention, providing a combination of mass media and press coverage, awards and grants obtained.
We share our story with everyone, we held (and hold) daily meetings with people to share our story and we wrote about it in newspapers. Items on SOFFA have featured on US Channel TELEsur and Greek Epsilon Channel Central News, and also in Bright Magazine and The Huffington Post.
Being present at conferences and presenting our venture is also important; for instance, we were the central speaker at the UN Women’s Day event 2018 in UNEP Athens.
Awards and nominations are a very powerful tool to attract attention; for example, we were runner-up with the ‘Refergon’ project at HackTheCamp competition organised by the US Embassy, Onassis Foundation and Impact Hub Athens in 2017, and were semi-finalists in The Venture – Chivas Competition 2016 for Social Entrepreneurs.
We are part of networks and have collaborated constantly, e.g. we are supported by the Representative of UNHCR – UN Refugee Agency in Greece and receive mentoring and support from IRC – International Rescue Committee in Athens. Being the Country Coordinator of the Fashion Revolution global movement has helped greatly with exposure.
One of the most important highlights has been the fact that we were the central character of the international documentary film ‘One Over Many’ by Swiss director Daphne Bengoa, produced by Geneva-based Flux Laboratory 2017 & OOM.
We have offered benefits to our partners and created conferences to increase public awareness. We built all parts of the profit-making and social activities in parallel.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
We focus on providing custom-made, high-quality and unique designs, giving our clients access to unique sustainable textiles, certifications and origin and location information. Our customers are those who care for the preservation of the environment and the inclusion of the most vulnerable people living in our communities; we offer them a garment that has a strong social and environmental footprint with zero-waste production processes. Our clients are ethical private labels, commercial clients merchandising customised goody bags and uniform apparel, food labels replacing plastic with sustainable packaging for food industry producers, and the general public through our own-label garments made from sustainable, organic, vegan, recycled textiles and upcycled techniques during training.
We give our clients the opportunity to create social impact through the fashion supply chain, by offering socially responsible production processes, reinvesting profits in the employment and training of survivors of human trafficking and refugees and incubating unemployed young fashion talent. Revenue is used to offer vocational training in sewing to refugees and women victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?
We used cross-financing from other projects and also used our own funding. SOFFA is a spin-off from the Nest Social Cooperative Work Integration, whose aim is to create socially innovative business models that achieve the work inclusion of excluded groups through transformational engagement, empowerment and the mobilisation of their talents.
Through the NEST SOFFA secured funding through 2 European-funded projects: the SOFE training programme, training on how to be a social and sustainable fashion entrepreneur, and the SOG-TIM training programme, which developed entrepreneurship training for NGOs on human trafficking and the refugee crisis.
Our offices are within the incubator of Athens University of Economics and Business, ACEin. Our refugee workshops are held in a space managed by Impact Hub Athens and a new refugee centre named ANKAA Project.
The sustainability of the programme is targeted through a twofold strategy:
- sponsorship from philanthropic funds and private funds,
- an income-generating approach from the production and sale of garments for our clients.
- How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
The SOFFA programme has seen a huge rise in demand as it is said to resolve the main issue of work integration and skills development that those women need in order to be able to stay off the streets and away from exploitation. Eighteen NGOs that provide front-line support to victims and refugees have applied to SOFFA programmes, and 77 beneficiaries have already registered. To accommodate this demand, SOFFA is now opening a full-time vocational training programme targeted only at women trainees in its own Tailoring Production unit in downtown Athens, along with a pilot replication training programme in an A21 human trafficking shelter house in Thessaloniki.
SOFFA aims to gradually sponsor the bigger part of its training and work inclusion programme from the selling of goods. SOFFA works on order-based production rather than bulk production, to avoid creating stock. Training happens on real orders which are then sold to local and international customers, including SNFCC, Posidonia Maritime Events, Ancient Greek Sandals, TEDx Athens in SNFCC, ActionAid Hellas, BCA College, Ioanna Kourbela, and international designers’ private labels from Singapore, the US, Spain, the UK, France and Cyprus.
How do you change the whole system?
Our vision is to empower women victims of human trafficking and refugee women to integrate into work and enhance gender equality in those cities where refugees have been relocated, through a social network of training workshops in eco-sustainable fashion with our front-line NGO partners. To set an example of how small, impactful ventures can change the lives of many.
We empower our population to become self-reliant and to use their own economic resources to achieve their livelihoods and own long-term goals, incorporating unemployed local designers through a holistic approach that creates value for everyone involved, fostering environmentally sustainable processes through a zero-waste production process and through the use of sustainable, vegan, plant-based, organic and recycled textiles. We run awareness-raising events through an emerging cluster of sustainable designers, city leaders, friends and collaborators in various Greek cities and Cyprus through the Fashion Revolution Greece network. We are integrating mills, cotton farmers, weavers and the whole supply chain.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world after the oil industry. SOFFA produces clothes, accessories and sneaker shoes from natural, man-made, vegan or recycled materials. It utilises plant-based fabrics like Tencel and PLA fabrics, recycled materials such as PET-based recycled polyester, ECONYL yarn, recycled cotton and other fabrics that comply with OEKO-TEX standards and have been certified organic and Fair Trade. Moreover, SOFFA recycles and upcycles all its waste, turning it into clothes and accessories like shopping bags, backpacks and wallets. It also collects industrial waste and household clothing waste.
We are integrating all refugees and migrants from any religion, ethnic background or age group. Each class comprises people of different skill bases and experience, allowing for peer-to-peer mentoring through a paired learning approach that we implement.
What would be the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
There are only two dimensions that are necessary and sufficient conditions for successful social entrepreneurship based on research: the enthusiasm of the founding team and their networks. So I would advise them to be really and truly committed to being ready to sacrifice their personal lives to fulfill their vision and to network aggressively. To talk with everyone about their idea. To meet with people and share. To mobilise their networks and be part of all the important networks in the field in their country. To attend the relevant conferences and start-up events. To collaborate and co-create. To network with different groups of people, from beneficiaries and customers to policymakers and academics.
Interviewed by Manon van Leeuwen
Fiori is an academic and social entrepreneur and holds an award-winning PhD on Social Entrepreneurship. She was the central speaker at UN Women’s Day ’18 and the central character in the Swiss film ‘One Over Many’ by Daphne Bengoa. Executive Producer of TV Show Social Growth. Founder & CEO of SOFFA.gr social inclusion for refugees, the Refergon.com platform, the rebirth of iconic Zita Hellas Sneakers and The Nest Centre on Social Entrepreneurship. Country Coordinator of the global movement Fashion Revolution.org in Greece. Academic Coordinator of the incubation programmes ‘Social & Sustainable Fashion Entrepreneurs’ and ‘Social Growth for Trafficking and Refugees’. TEDx talk ‘Are you still dreaming how to be a Doer?’
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