Students Staff

Alumnus of the Year Award

Orations and responses

Response by Carry Somers

I feel very honoured to be here speaking to you all at the start of your careers. When I was asked to speak, I deliberated over how I could draw from my experience and talk about the importance of working ethically in your future careers. Surveys have found that almost 90% of graduates consider high ethical standards to be important when deciding where to work, but will you still have the luxury of that sort of choice in the current economic climate?

I really believe that it is important not to adopt the cynicism of the marketplace. Not all organisations and markets are in decline and the good news is that ethics are going to be increasingly important in this post-recession world. I believe that a new approach to conducting business must arise from the ashes of this boom and bust period in our economic history and that actually makes this a very exciting time to be graduating. At a time when the world is struggling to recover from financial crisis, as well as dealing with political uncertainties, economic disparity and the challenge of climate change, we need new political, economic and cultural models which can change people's attitudes and behaviour. I hope that you leave this University with high aspirations that you can be role models for a new way of doing business.

I certainly know about working counter to prevailing trends and I also know that many alternative business models are thriving in these challenging times. I started Pachacuti in the last recession in 1992, the year after I completed my Masters in Native American Studies here at Essex. Whilst researching for my dissertation, I went to Ecuador and saw the opportunity to provide work for producers with traditional skills by providing training and design input. I set up my business with a £1000 loan and the belief that I could make a difference to preserving traditional skills and improving the livelihoods of textile producers in the Andes. Seventeen years on I now have 1200 people who depend on me for their income. As an entrepreneur and an optimist, I went into this current recession with very a positive outlook, really believing that it was an opportunity for us to dig out a bigger niche in the marketplace and oust some of the brands who had become complacent over the years. Well it certainly seems to have worked as sales are up over 100% on last year.

I believe that the reason Pachacuti has been so successful is that I didn’t simply pioneer working ethically in the fashion industry and then rest on my laurels, but I have constantly pushed standards higher, frustrated at the low ethical claims many high street retailers are making. Pachacuti this year became the first organisation in the world to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation for our sustainable, fair trade supply chain. We are now working on an EU project to track our Panama hats by satellite from the communities where they are woven to provide visible accountabilty of their provenance. If I can push Fair Trade standards as high as possible, I can use this vantage point to shine a light back on the abysmally poor working practices in other parts of the industry and help to bring about positive change for garment workers around the world.

As you embark on the start of your careers, or set up your own businesses, every single one of you has an important contribution to make to society. We all need to play our part in making sense of the world we live in today and to create more sustainable ways of living and working in the future. You will need to react to change quickly, to seize opportunities and find ways to work collaboratively, to help create sustainable institutions which put people and the environment ahead of the need to maximise profits. Your task as the new generation entering the workplace is to propel our society toward a better way of life based on the growth of the arts, science, culture, experience, education, rather than the interminable and unsustainable growth of mass production and mass consumption.

As you leave this phase of your education, Be brave, be creative, be optimistic, keep learning and believe that you can play a positive role in creating a more sustainable society for our future.

Carry Somers

15 July 2009