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Can you tell us a little about the work you were doing in Haiti when you two met?
Susannah and I (Jeremy) went to the same university and were both involved with the veterans group on campus. The group sends a team to disadvantaged locations around the world with the aim of creating positive change within the community. Susannah had went on the inaugural veterans mission trip to Ghana, Africa and chose to return to Haiti with the group the following year (Dec. 2012), after she had graduated. This was the trip where we met.
Our group was tasked with building a home for a family of six that had been living under UNESCO tents following the natural disasters that ravaged the country. We worked for 10 days constructing this house and our friendship blossomed from there. Haiti was a great experience for us and we have tried to carry that passion for helping others into not only our personal lives, but our business as well.
After meeting in Haiti, what inspired you to travel to Southeast (SE) Asia together?
I (Susannah) had been to SE Asia before with a friend in 2011-2012. That was a pivotal time in my life (in between college and getting a “big girl job”) that I fell in love with traveling and the people I met in Cambodia. I went on to travel all over Europe, SE Asia and South Africa in the coming years.
Jeremy and I did not go to SE Asia together until 2016. He endured years of me constantly telling him how incredible the region is. We went with the intent to travel, but I also wanted to introduce him to a sustainability idea I had been sitting on since my initial trip.
Where does the name CEMENT6 come from and what does it mean?
We envisioned something simple and to the point to describe our small business. The very first night of being in Cambodia together, our guesthouse was cluttered with discarded cement bags because they were doing construction across the street. Cement bags were the original material we had seen and used, but have since found a plethora of other bags, like grain and fish feed, that add vibrant colors to our creations. The bags are durable, water resistant and the logos that the cement/feed/grain companies use are very creative and appealing.
The six encompasses the six different social impacts we aim to have as a brand. We literally work and design our products from the comfort of the artisans’ homes and provide living wages. There is a village school we teach at and help support by providing the ~80 students, and teacher, with supplies.
We also sponsor monthly food drives that provide meals for the families of the students at the school. Stepping Out is a transitional home that houses youths who have been forced out of orphanages and provides a safe place for them to continue their education and stay off the streets. We work directly with the organization while we are there and also help support them monetarily when we are stateside. It holds us accountable as we continue to use this business to strive to make positive change, both locally and internationally.
Can you tell us more about the Give6 initiatives and how/why you picked them?
We have chosen to highlight six different ways that our brand is able to give back, but our work goes beyond that. Truthfully, we try to help wherever we can but the “6” comes from the six ways our business will continue to support, and promote, as long as we exist. It is paramount for us that CEMENT6 is always actively working to create positive change within the world.
Our work with Stepping Out and the village school both came about through meeting other individuals on our travels that had invited us to visit. Both places were mainly being supported by Australian non-profit organizations at the time we began and we saw a place where we could help, physically and monetarily.
What would you say were key "aha" moments when you were in Cambodia that made you want to start CEMENT6?
On my initial trip to Cambodia, while browsing for souvenirs at a night market in Siem Reap, I met a woman named Sothea. She had sewn handles onto cement bags and was using them to transport all of her wears to and from the market. She was also selling a few of the totes to tourists. One night I talked with her for a while, listening to her story and returned to see her almost every night I was in the city. Since tourism had spiked in the area, there were heaps of these discarded bags lying on every street corner. Her ability to reuse these bags so beautifully and practically inspired me to take it a step further. After a few years, a bit of collaboration, planning, saving and product designing, Sothea now has her own shop and manages our team of 40+ talented artisans making handmade bags and wallets from recycled materials.
Do you have any recommendations for where to go in Cambodia or in SE Asia in general?
Due to visa restrictions, we always hop around between Thailand and Cambodia. We love the bigger cities and their ease of getting around, but we also like to take the bus to many of the smaller local villages as well. Our favorite cities are Siem Reap, Cambodia and Chiang Mai, Thailand. We will usually take one short trip to a beach location and my absolute favorite is Koh Tao, Thailand—which is where Jeremy and I got engaged.
I recommend any of the “Lonely Travel” guide books. They have different itineraries that work with different budgets while giving excellent tips on safety, transportation, culture, etc.
Can you tell us more about the makers of CEMENT6's upcycled bags?
Many of the incredible men and women we work with have prior sewing skills, as they transitioned from the garment industry to work with us. This industry is notorious for young workers, low wages, unsafe working conditions and extremely long hours. Creating an environment where the maker can work from home (or a local shop) provides the safety and flexibility that is not typically allotted to a garment worker in this industry. On top of that, we ensure children attend school and families have access to transportation.
After CEMENT6 began to grow, we branched out and began working with artisans in more desolate villages by providing this same work structure for individuals displaced from the workforce due to polio and landmine disabilities.
Many of our makers have phased out of our workshop and went on to start small businesses for themselves. We are honored to work with such a talented group of individuals.
What was the process of creating a business after finding an awesome artisan maker?
We were incredibly fortunate to have initially met Sothea. She played a vital role in linking us to men and women in this industry. We now spend 2-3 months a year in SE Asia. During this time, we are able to sit down with the makers to design new items, search for different cement and farming bags and continue to provide them with the necessary tools to be successful workers. They are our friends and we want them to be equipped with everything they need. A huge part of our mission is creating a positive work environment for these individuals. As we expand, we must take the necessary steps to not become another fast fashion brand, by keeping our artisans and their families at the forefront of the process.
Any key challenges along the way to share with anyone wanting to create a similar business?
Language is always a barrier. Our first trip together, we met a college student named Vey. He spoke great English and was willing to travel around with us to assist in translating.
As we grow, we are learning that the logistics of getting our products here from Cambodia can occasionally be overwhelming. There isn’t a class that I know of, that teaches you all the minute details of importing and fair trade. For example, we have been paying a certain fee to the US government that we didn’t realize until this year that we are exempt from paying. We’ve done everything from stuffing our luggage on the way home, to air freight, and more recently sea freight. Honestly, we’re still figuring out what works best for us but have become more comfortable with the process after doing it for almost 5 years.
Do you have a go-to bag that you love from the collection?
2020 was difficult in that we could not be there physically to design new products. This year was the first year I designed a bag solely from sketching a graphic and simply emailing it back and forth to our team. The mini backpack is so sexy and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
The best seller for the past 4 years has been our Weekender Backpack. It’s simple, but practical. It’s the bag that both of us carry, and we both think it looks really rad.
Can you tell us how the company and makers have been impacted by the pandemic this year?
The largest impact the pandemic has had on us is the closure of 95% of the markets we had on our schedule. Markets are our main revenue stream and we have had to become creative in the ways that we get our product out there. Susannah has worked tirelessly to grow our online presence this year and that has led to our wholesale accounts increasing and boosted website sales. We may not be making as many bags, but like we said before, as long as CEMENT6 is in operation, we will continue to provide living wages to our makers, we will continue to support the village school and we will continue to support Stepping Out. The pandemic will not stop us from helping.
Are there any content recommendations that have inspired you that you'd recommend to OM's community (e.g., books, journalists, podcasts)?
This may not be very helpful, but I (Jeremy) listen to mainly historical-themed podcasts. I thoroughly enjoy Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. History of different areas and times interests me because I think it makes for a well-rounded visit. Going into a different country/culture is already hard enough without knowing the language. Why make it harder on yourself by not knowing anything about the place you are staying or visiting? History, for me, provides a window to understanding more about the people of the world and has helped me on my travels to experience more culture than I would have not knowing.