Your Story: Imagine Goods

Aiyana Ehrman and Michelle Kime were just two ordinary women with a love of traveling and a passion for justice who accidentally became entrepreneurs! I had a chance to interview Aiyana and hear her story. Prepare to laugh, go on an adventure, have your heart broken and find the courage to "just do something"!

Tell us a little about your story and how you started "Imagine Goods"!

In 2006, after having spent 12 years working, my husband and I moved to a another state for his job. I was a stay-at-home mom, my kids had both just started going to school, and I had no idea what to do with myself. I didn't know anyone in our small town, and so I decided to dye my hair blue and read a lot of books. 

Okay, I actually dyed my hair black with blue streaks, but still. . .  I read a LOT of books. On just about any topic you can imagine. (I even made a foray into historical romance, much to my husband's chagrin.) Some of the books were not such light reading, though, like the ones on extreme poverty and it's link to global issues like land rights, economic justice, and human trafficking. 

Around that time, I heard someone say, in response to my questioning -"What I could actually do to make a difference in the world?"........ "Do anything, but for god's sake, do something." 

Then a friend from England asked me if I'd like to go to Cambodia with her, and I said, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" ... So she, another friend, and I traveled to Cambodia for two weeks on an exploratory trip.  And that's pretty much how it started. I was hooked. I learned so much on that first trip--about poverty and justice issues, about the desperate need for people to care, to be involved, and about my own desire to do something. 

The "sewing project" began as just one of several ideas we had for how to help. Generally, we allowed our partner organization to take the lead in letting us know what they needed; after all, they were the experts.

Because the organization was located in a border town between Thailand and Cambodia, its slums were always full of trafficked people. This is because if a person had been trafficked to Thailand and was caught working without valid papers, they would be arrested and sent back to Cambodia. (Sometimes an employer would arrange for this to happen so that they wouldn't have to pay any wages.) You could go and watch the dozens of (mostly teen-aged) people being released from the police station by the border every day. 

Once in this town, they would often have no safe place to go--home was often in some other region of the country, and may not have been a safe place to go back to anyway. If they had been trafficked, money may have been owed to a trafficker, or a family member may have been the one to sell them in the first place. So our partner organization set up vocational training schools for the teenagers who were too old to go back to traditional school--sewing training for girls, and motorbike repair for boys. Once a young person graduated, they could take a micro-loan to buy tools or a sewing machine. 

The day we had the idea for the "sewing project", we had visited a cooperative group made up of these sewing-school graduates. They were using foot-pedal-powered sewing machines in a palm thatch-roofed hut in a village, and were making shorts. These shorts were pretty similar to what you might see for sale here in a store in the mall--zippers, belt loops, cuffs. Not simple to make, in other words. I asked how much they made when they sold the shorts, and I was told that they made $0.15 each (they sold them to Thai middlemen, who in turn sold them to businesses in Thailand--it was the middlemen who made most of the money). I asked how many they made a day and was told about 20. I did the math in my head and then asked, "So. . . if they make about $3 a day, is that enough for them to live on?" And the answer, of course, was "No". A living wage in Cambodia is about $5 a day -- this much would pay for nutritious food, safe housing, basic medical care, and schooling costs for children. 

On that same trip, I was trying to come up with strategies as to how we could raise more money for our partner organization. Our friends, families, and churches were all so very supportive, but could only give so much a year, and the needs in Cambodia were so great.

Then I had an "aha" moment. Why not commission items for sale from the cooperative of seamstresses, paying them living wages, and sell the items here in the States? The profits could help to support our partner organization's other efforts, as well as paying for our overhead expenses. Our partner organization loved the idea. And this was the start of Imagine Goods, Sustainable Supply Co. 

What does "Sustainable Supply Co." mean to you?

The Urban Dictionary says that, "[sustainability] means living life to the fullest without compromising future generations' ability to do so. It respects the interconectedness of all life and acknowledges the responsibility that each person has to consider the effects that his actions have on other life forms, both living and to be born." 

We at Imagine Goods believe that when we buy a product, the cost of the item should be able to sustain every person connected to it with a living wage. That's why we call ourselves a "Sustainable Supply Co."

Do you work closely with the artisans? How do you get to know them?

Michelle and I have traveled to Cambodia fourteen times in the last seven years. Over that time, we've seen changes in our partner organization, and we've acquired new production partners. But that's a lot of times to have visited, and we've gotten to know some people pretty well. We work most closely with the managerial staff and head seamstresses, since these are the people with whom we communicate regularly about new designs, updates, fabrics, and quality control. We've also gotten to know the men and women from whom we buy our fabrics. 

Keep in mind that when I say we've "gotten to know them", I mean that we know and trust them, and vice versa, but a more personal relationship is difficult for several reasons. Firstly, although many people speak English on a basic level, none of our artisans speak English well enough to communicate with us (they were survivors of exploitation and trafficking, remember, so have very basic education). And even the ones who do speak English would rarely offer information about their personal lives. Cambodians tend to be incredibly warm and friendly people, but very, very reserved about talking about themselves. This stems partly from a cultural humility, but also from their history; the Khmer Rouge genocide was only 40 years ago, and the people remember well that it is invaluable to "keep your head down" (this comes from a saying of theirs--the head that sticks up is the one that gets cut off). 

A few times over the years we've been able to sit down and have more candid conversations with our artisans, asking questions about their personal lives. But we try to be very careful there-- we never want to take advantage of the fact that we are their employers (through our partners, granted, but they know who we are), and we don't want them to feel pressured to have to talk about things they are not comfortable talking about. Especially with our artisans who are survivors of sexual trafficking--teaching them that they are allowed to have personal boundaries is very important, and we don't want to inadvertently violate that boundary by asking pointed questions. This is part of the reason that some of the answers on our "Artisans" page are not very long. We try to ask open-ended questions and let them talk as much or as little as they are comfortable with.

What is the culture of Cambodia? 

I should mention that this is one of my favorite places to travel, and I've gotten around a little bit. Cambodian people are incredibly friendly, hospitable, and helpful (making travel safe even for a woman alone). And this all in a country that lost (according to some estimates) roughly 20% of their population to war less than 40 years ago (the war only officially ended in the late 90's). 

Don't get me wrong, though--the residual effects of the genocide and resulting conflicts are certainly there, seen if you look for them. The vast human trafficking trade in the region was made possible largely because of the conflicts. Villages and families, the most basic network of human relationships, were torn apart deliberately by the Khmer Rouge, who encouraged family members to turn one another in if suspected of being friendly to the enemy. No one escaped the conflict. I once asked one of our friends in Cambodia how their staff were able to work with a man who was former Khmer Rouge, and he shrugged and said, "Every person was either with Khmer Rouge or was a victim of the Khmer Rouge. It would be impossible for us not to work with one another now. So we all do."

Will you tell us a little about your travels?

Michelle and I do love to travel! ...

We try to take one day off at the end of every trip so that we can recharge before jumping back into life at home (which is often just waiting for us with a million little crises ;) Sometimes we try new things (like the time we tried horseback riding. . . let's just say it may not have been the smartest thing to do the day before taking a 20-hour plane trip -- ouch!), but often we relax and take time to visit the temples of Angkor Wat (one of the ancient wonders of the world). I always find myself able to center and refresh after visiting these ancient holy places. . . okay, except maybe for the time that a three-inch scorpion fell onto my lap from under the table I was sitting at. :)

I see that you partner with designers and charities, what are those partnerships like?

The partnerships we have with other designers and charities have all happened fairly "organically". What I mean by that is that rather than looking for strategic partnerships proactively and then finding people we could work with, these have happened more by chance--during a conversation with a friend, she might mention something they've been thinking about, and that conversation triggers us to think about a new product, and then we get to talking about what a partnership might look like. . . I'm sure that at some point we'll begin to think more strategically, but as I said, we're accidental entrepreneurs, learning as we go :) 

(The only exception to this is Rural Pearl, the designer whose cut-paper art we use on some of our products. We found her after looking online for a designer just like her, and we've loved her stuff!)

The "Goods" are BEAUTIFUL! Can you tell us how the idea and designs came about?

Thanks! We work closely with our production partners, developing products that we hope people here will love. We try to make things that we would want to buy. For so long, I would want to buy ethically-sourced products, and would look in"fairly traded" stores; I'd usually walk out a little sad that they catered to a very narrow style, which wasn't really my own style. I wished I could find fun, cool items that were also ethically sourced. That's what we try to make; we aim for vintage-inspired items that are classic with a twist. (So, yes, it's pretty much true that we started this so that Michelle and I could buy our own products, but that's beside the point ;)

What is the heart of "Imagine Goods"?

We believe that change is possible and every tiny little bit counts. 

Every time someone posts a Facebook link to a news article about an injustice happening somewhere in the world (or an awesome solution), it matters (because news organizations follow those posts, and pay attention to the kinds of things that people care about). 

Every time you sign a petition asking a large retailer to make themselves accountable for their worker's conditions, it matters (don't listen to the nagging thought that this little thing doesn't make a difference--it does.) 

Every time someone buys an ethically sourced product and explains to their friends where they got it and why, it matters (because people will catch on to the ethical shopping trend the way they catch colds--by being exposed). 

How can my readers and I get involved? 

Learn, learn, learn. Don't be afraid that if you learn about the issues, you won't be able to handle the pressure to "change your lifestyle". Take it one day at a time, and be okay with making small changes to your life. No one is asking you to give it all up and move somewhere exotic. If everyone took small steps--here a little, there a little-- the world would be changed in short order.

See your slavery footprint (how many slaves are employed around the world to make your lifestyle possible) at http://slaveryfootprint.org.


Thank you for sharing your story, Aiyana. I can't help but feel excited at the possibilities if we all do something... it matters! What will you do today to make a difference?

Please check out the Imagine Goods website/ blog/ shop/ & facebook page.

photos by Desirea Rodgers of Pennybird Photography, styling by Salvage + Design

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