This week we find ourselves inspired by Mackenzie, Ben, and Rami, the founders of Kotn, an ethical clothing company based in Toronto but with its roots and its heart in Egypt.
This latest edition of Inspirations is an especially meaningful one to me. My parents were both born and raised in Egypt, and I count myself very lucky to have visited the country several times throughout my life. I’ve taken a boat on the Nile and witnessed the contrast between bustling cities like Cairo, and the simple way of life people still lead on those riverbanks, seemingly unchanged since the time of the Pharaohs. It’s a beautiful site to see, but the beauty belies the struggle and poverty that is an inescapable reality in the lives of those living there. The once-booming cotton industry kept many Egyptians in various lines of work, from farming to weaving, gainfully employed. Unfortunately, global demand for Egypt’s “white gold” has been on the decline (95% according to Kotn’s website) for more than a decade now, with cheaper alternatives being used as companies focus less on quality and more on their bottom line.
Seeing a problem to be solved, the founders of Kotn sprang into action.
Founded by Mackenzie Yeates, Benjamin Sehl, and Rami Helali, Kotn came onto the fashion scene in 2015 with a mission: to make a classic men’s t-shirt with a luxury feel, without the luxury price. That luxury feel would come from the Egyptian cotton they would source, as would their name. They then built a network of cotton farmers and clothing factories in Egypt, eliminating the middleman and ensuring not only that their products are of amazing quality, but that every employee from start to finish is paid a fair and decent wage while keeping consumer prices reasonable. And, in order to combat child labor issues, Kotn works with pro-literacy organizations in the Nile Delta to help raise literacy rates among children, a huge step in improving their quality of life and chances for the future.
In the past 3 years, Kotn made a name for itself as one of the best places to get your basics. In 2017 they developed a full woman’s line and added more amazing styles, all while supporting the community from where they source their cotton, even if it is an ocean away. Along with helping to rebuild the cotton industry from the inside out, Kotn has raised enough money to build two schools in Egypt, all with the funds raised from the sales of the clothing made on that very same land.
It’s Kotn’s commitment to creating ethical, sustainable and soulful fashion that caught my attention, and the story behind the brand that has made me a dedicated follower.
I got the chance to chat with Ben, Mackenzie, and Rami about how they do what they do.
What is your WHY? (The reason why you do the work you do)
In our search for the world’s finest natural fibre we discovered Egyptian cotton, grown in the Nile Delta farming regions of Egypt. After taking the time to meet with people from Egypt’s primary farming villages, we learned that cotton farming is often a family business carried on for generations, with little innovation from century to century. What with the rise of globalization and the ever-evolving garment industry, it is now more important than ever to help educate the people on the ground in order to help them grow their businesses in the future. 33% of women in Egypt are illiterate, with a much higher percentage dominating rural farming regions: children often have to walk far distances to get to school, or are otherwise forced to drop out early to help their parents on the farms. Egypt has an illiteracy gender difference of 16%, making it one of the worst in the world. We set out to help save the dying Egyptian cotton industry, and quickly realized that that couldn’t be done unless we looked to the future and helped create a path out of poverty for the people growing it. This path starts with providing accessible education and supporting women.
What are the biggest challenges/setbacks you’ve had to face?
Production has been a challenge for us because well-made ethical products are the core of what we do. Cutting out the middlemen and ensuring that every step goes off without a hitch is definitely the toughest job in our organization, and none of us had experience with it before launching Kotn. We’ve been learning as we go and are now lucky to have a great production team working with us to standardize the process.
What are some of the successes (big or small) you’ve had?
Over this past Black Friday weekend, we raised money to build a second school in the Nile Delta. Amazingly, we were able to hit our goal over the four days of the campaign: our team worked long hours to pull it off, and our customers really showed up to support. It’s amazing what we can do together, and now our collective efforts will have an impact on the lives of 40 children in rural Egypt who otherwise wouldn’t have access to education.
How do you do manage to do it all?
Mackenzie : No one can do it all. Things get pushed down the priority list. I don’t get to see my friends or travel as much. My apartment is rarely in tip top shape, and I don’t get the long uninterrupted sleeps I used to. After working at a startup for a while, you find ways to slot in quick coffee dates and take some time to relax. For me, being busy always gives me momentum, and allows me to take on more in the down time.
If you could pick one charitable organization to ask our readers to donate to or volunteer with, which would it be?
We’d ask your readers to support our efforts to improve literacy rates in the Nile Delta region of Egypt. Many children in this region have no access to education at all, and we believe that working to give them access to school is the first step in helping to pull these families out of poverty. A small percentage of every Kotn purchase is allocated toward the building and maintenance of schools in Egypt.
So the next time you look in your closet and realize you need a new t-shirt or sweatshirt, consider giving your money to a local and ethical company like Kotn. The quality is amazing, the prices are incredibly reasonable, and you’re supporting not one but two economies, and so many people both here and in Egypt. They say money is power. Here is a chance where you can use yours to make a real difference and look great at the same time.