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Mutur Eco-Sewing Centre

LCEJ Mutur Eco-Sewing Centre (MESC) was created in Fall 2020 by the second Director and his managing team to support the activities of LCEJ Programmes. The Trincomalee Diocese Eco-Programme (TDEP) included the distribution of eco-bags and eco-items to low-income families. The making of those eco-items required a reliable structure, and that structure took the form of an eco-sewing centre. Furthermore, the different Reuse and Recycle projects developed by LCEJ, in order to be effective, called for a stable structure that would bring transparency, fairness, trustworthiness, and accountability to LCEJ activities.

 
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In 2019, a dynamic young Sri Lankan Jesuit established a sewing centre in the city of Mutur to support women. That Jesuit received financial support from a Japanese organization called GNADAA that helps low-income group of women through “social fashion projects.” That organization develops sustainable business activities to provide regular incomes to women. GNADAA provides sewing machines, sewing material and sewing training courses to develop the skills of the women involved in the project. Eco-products are then shipped to Japan and the profits made from selling the bags sustain the charitable activities of the GNADAA organization. Unfortunately the Mutur project collapsed in the beginning of 2020 as the young Jesuit faced opposition to the development of his social activities.   

 
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The creation of sewing centres in Sri Lanka is not a new enterprise. However, those centres often end up becoming profitable (and profit-driven) businesses, integrating low-income families into the liberal capitalist system. The low-income families are not always the main beneficiaries of those profitable small businesses. LCEJ Managers did not want to transform the eco-sewing centre into a small profit-driven business simply because low-income families are the main victims of liberal capitalism. Furthermore, liberal capitalism, in its present stage, is the cause of the intensification of the ecological crisis. LCEJ was reluctant to commodify eco-products and to objectify the work of the women involved in the activities of its centres.

 
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 LCEJ is trying to find an alternative model. Though that model is still in the making, LCEJ Managers gave some basic principles for establishing and managing the first eco-sewing centre. The women working at the Centre work on a voluntary basis. They are in charge of the Centre, its activities and recruitment. They come together on a regular basis to participate in LCEJ efforts to reduce the consumption of plastic and make their city a better and safer place to live in. In the LCEJ structure, those women are called Associates. As Associates, they receive a stipend that is not related to the number of bags or eco-items they produce or the number of hours they work. The stipend serves as a predictable source of income for those women, often unemployed, so that they can fulfil their dream to become a solution to the environmental crisis. 

 
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LCEJ understands its role as coaching rather than mentoring or counselling. The eco-items produced by the centre are given to LCEJ and LCEJ distributes those items for free to low-income families who are engaged in a process of creating a plastic-free Trincomalee District. LCEJ provides the sewing material, and maintains the equipment, and pays the rental fees. The model does not rely on leadership or empowerment, but on collaboration, discussion and negotiation to bring out the best out of membership.  The first months of activities showed that the model was working. The quality of the eco-products, especially the eco-fashion bags, is quite remarkable.

 
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One day, a Jesuit asked to visit the Mutur Eco-Sewing Centre. We were quite happy to show him what we were doing. He spoke with the ladies working in the Centre, we had tea together and enjoyed a good moment. However, a few days later, we discovered that he had sent damaging e-mails to his friends telling them that LCEJ was exploiting low-income women in Mutur. He probably thought that LCEJ was running a business selling eco-bags. When LCEJ Associates were informed about that problem, they were quite scandalized. They had never seen themselves as exploited and could not understand what had led our visitor to damage the reputation of the Centre. We realized that it is difficult to think out of the box and that we should be ready to explain more clearly what we are doing. Luckily, damaging rumours faded away and the misunderstanding was overcome.

 
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The Mutur Eco-Sewing Centre is a very creative space. Not only does it produce very attractive eco-fashion bags, but it also produces eco-planting bags. The story of the making of those eco-planting bags is quite interesting. In one of the meetings with the Associates, LCEJ Director spoke of a difficulty he was having developing LCEJ Eco-Home Garden Project. Until then, Home Garden projects were distributing plastic bags to grow vegetables. The Director thought that those plastic planting bags had more negative effects on the recipients than the benefit of eating their own grown vegetables. He was looking for an alternative to those planting bags. The next week, the ladies at the MESC produced the first prototypes of our eco-planting bags using cotton and jute. Since then, hundreds of those eco-planting bags have been distributed to low-income families, with soil and seeds.

 
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LCEJ is very keen to develop a harassment-free environment. This is why LCEJ does not force anyone to participate in its activities. Associates can leave at any time, are free to voice their problems and help LCEJ do better work. When the second Director met two ladies who had worked in the first sewing centre established in Mutur, he was asked by one of them to come to her home. The home was very small, but in the corner of the only bedroom he discovered five sewing machines that had been kept since the centre had been closed. Those ladies had not given up. When they heard that they could participate in a larger project to reduce the consumption of plastic in the District of Trincomalee, they immediately volunteered. They recruited new Associates, and in a matter of weeks they were ready to make eco-bags. Since then, the new Eco-Sewing Centre is active, in the midst of a pandemic, and all kinds of difficulties have become a source of hope and joy.

 
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LCEJ aims at the sustainability of its centres without transforming them into profit-driven businesses.  This is part of the emphasis LCEJ is giving to improvisation. If our society is really developing an awareness of the intensity of the ecological crisis, it is not the eco-bag as a commodity that will be valued, but the choice those low-income women have made to be a part of the solution. That choice has no price but call for a generous response by those who have the means to give a financial help. Everyone, in its own way, has the means to become a solution. Here, improvising means finding one’s position in the network of  relationships that untie difficulties and obstacles. The role of LCEJ is to give an awareness to all about the logistics necessary to provide the most effective solutions.