Flying in the face of fast fashion

With its commitment to upskilling and supporting rural women in Thailand, fashion label Folkcharm has shown that fashion doesn't need to be a race to the bottom where low prices and poor worker conditions often trump quality and ethical business practices. We chat to Folkcharm founder and managing director Passawee Kodaka about developing a sustainable, ethically minded business and her connections to New Zealand through the Foundation's entrepreneurship programme.
Passawee sitting on a mat with a group of women looking at documents

Passawee meeting with rural women to discuss Folkcharm's business model

A trip to Bangkok isn't complete without a bit of retail therapy.

Tourists to the Southeast Asian capital jostle for knock-off clothing brands or backpacker staples at street-side markets and multi-levelled malls alike. 

They bargain with vendors to get bang for their baht. 

It’s fashion as fast as the tuk-tuks that zip through the city’s congested streets. 

But amidst the bustle is Passawee Kodaka, a Thai fashion entrepreneur with ethics that fly in the face of fast-fashion. 

Seven years ago, Passawee started Folkcharm, an ethical enterprise making clothes the slow way. 

Folkcharm’s cotton is grown locally, organically and without chemicals by farmers Passawee can trace. 

Yarn is spun, woven and dyed by artisans using techniques passed down from generations before. 

But that’s where the traditional begins to cleverly evolve – Folkcharm then stitches the fabric into contemporary items of clothing, which slip seamlessly into the wardrobes of fashion-forward (mainly female, mainly Asian) conscious consumers.


The inside of a Folkcharm store showing garments and accessories

Folkcharm creates high-end fashion using a sustainable, fair-trade business model

Passawee visited New Zealand with a crew of other sustainably-minded young business people from Southeast Asia, connecting with Kiwi counterparts on similar journeys, as part of the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative, a programme of work delivered through the Foundation's entrepreneurship programme. 

"The places we visited, people we met, ideas we exchanged and the discussions we had, made for an incredible learning experience, she says.

Then Passawee hosted fashioned-focussed movers and shakers from New Zealand on a Foundation-led reciprocal trip to Thailand, introducing them to industry contacts as diverse as Thai Fashion Week designers to traditional artisans in villages far from the catwalks. 

In previous years, Passawee injected an international flavour to an Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network hui on sustainability. Joining the group via Zoom she challenged participants to question the price they’re willing to pay to look good. 

Passawee is unapologetic about the price tag on her garments. She says people that can are willing to pay for clothing that doesn’t come at a price to the environment or the workers who make the garments. 

“It’s really important for us to create awareness and to help inform consumers of the side effects of things that they wear. 

“We communicate a lot about the why of how we do things.” 

In Loei Province, to the northeast of Bangkok, Folkcharm works with 40 home-based women workers, who grow cotton and then spin, weave and dye yarn. 

In the capital’s Bangkapi District, there are more women in business - tailors, seamstresses and crafters - supported by the label. 

The women are paid fairly for their work, and Folkcharm deals directly with them, cutting out the ubiquitous middleman, notorious for fleecing village-based artisans in this part of the world. 

“This is something we’re really strict on: everyone should know how much they’re getting for what they’re making.” 


Passawee sitting on the floor talking to rural women

Being transparent with suppliers and buyers is of paramount importance to Passawee

Plus, Folkcharm’s profits have been pumped back into community development, interest-free loans have been made available, setting newbies up with the tools and materials needed to start work, and upskilling established workers. 

Village communities are resourceful and resilient, and Passawee doesn’t try to claim any sort of saviour status. 

“But one thing we can say for sure is their income increased by 30 to 50 percent…that’s a big impact.” 

Navigating the impacts of Covid-19 has been challenging for the enterprise. 

“Our main income came from going to exhibitions and fairs, and also on consignment in department stores. 

“Once Covid hit, everything closed and all events were cancelled.” 

They pivoted to making masks, like everyone did, which kept them afloat for a few months, she says. 

Then, last year, they made a bold move: They took the bulk of their sales online, making garments to order rather than keeping large amounts in stock. 

“Internally, we changed pretty much the way we did everything, the entire back-office system.” 

Pre-pandemic, Folkcharm also offered tours to the villages where its workers are based to students, customers and tourists, highlighting what an ethical supply chain can look like. 

The tours will return. 

Passawee and Folkcharm are on a mission to challenge shoppers to ask bigger questions than: “Does this make me look good?” when buying a new item of clothing. 

Photos provided by Passawee Kodaka