Bonus – Why Does What We Wear Matter?

Ending Human Trafficking Podcast Logo
Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Marissa Peden. Marissa is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for Dressember, which is a collaborative movement leveraging fashion and creativity to restore dignity to victims and survivors of human trafficking. Dressember is partnering with our Live2Free team for the 4th annual Fair Trade Fashion Show, where you can learn more about supply chains and how it impacts human trafficking.

Key Points

  • Join us for Live2Free’s annual Fair Trade Fashion Show on October 17,2019  to educate students and community members about ethical business models and supporting fair trade businesses.
  • Dressember acts as a fundraising and awareness strategy to end human trafficking by wearing dresses for the entire month of December.
  • You can take action and be an advocate by what you wear!


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Dave [00:00:15] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:20] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:23] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And Sandie, today and another partnership that we get the chance to learn more from and really what you’ve always talked about overlapping networks right?

Sandie [00:00:40] That’s right.

Dave [00:00:41] We’re so glad to welcome to the show today, Marissa Peden. Marissa is Dressember’s director of strategic partnerships. When she discovered human trafficking as a sophomore in college, a fire was lit inside her to join the fight against modern day slavery. Marissa holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and International Relations from Roehampton University in London, where she focused her research on gender-based violence and human trafficking in the Middle East. Today Marissa is living her dream of overseeing partnerships, fundraising, and events at Dressember. Marissa were so glad to welcome you to the podcast.

Marissa [00:01:17] Thanks so much for having me. I’m so glad to be with you guys today.

Sandie [00:01:20] And I’m so excited about this conversation. I love being in an academic environment and seeing students do the same thing that you did, get lit up on what it means to join this fight. And I just want to know a little bit more personally about you. How does someone with a master’s degree in Human Rights and International Relations understand their work in fashion as human rights?

Marissa [00:01:53] Yeah, I never saw myself working in either fashion or fundraising. I don’t think anyone really imagines their career will end up in fundraising. But I think that you kind of find your place in this fight and whatever you can bring to the people is perfect. And I was very creative growing up and when I found Dressember, it was just a natural fit for me to align my creativity and my passion to fight human trafficking.

Sandie [00:02:22] And I do love it that you are Director of Strategic Partnerships because we do have a partnership with Dressember, and our Live2Free team here at Vanguard when we’re hosting the fourth annual Fair-Trade Fashion Show October 17th. If you are listening to this, you are welcome to join us. So, tell us about Dressember and then we’ll talk about what it means to have a partnership.

Marissa [00:02:51] Yeah, well we’re so excited about that event coming up. I love seeing universities starting to really shed a light on not only anti-trafficking, but the entire Fair-Trade movement and really starting to notice the link between human trafficking and fashion. So, a little bit about Dressember, is we are going into our seventh campaign this year, which Dressember started about 6 or 7 years ago when our founder decided to wear a dress every day in December and shortly after that she aligned it with anti-trafficking and teamed up with International Justice Mission, which I’m sure you’re all very familiar with. They are our largest partner in the first year she told IJM, OK I’m doing this. What was a very silly style challenge at the time and we’re going to raise, this is in 2013, we’re going to raise $25,000 for you this first December and they hit that goal on December 4th.

Sandie [00:03:52] Wow.

Marissa [00:03:53] And ended up raising $165,000 that first December in 2013. So, then I think people started to realize OK. And I think our founder too realized OK I think I’m onto something here and this is bigger than any of us even imagined. So, she continued doing it year after year and started noticing her friends wanted to join in and people that she didn’t even know that she would see on social media participating. A lot of students got involved, university groups, kind of a little bit of everyone, stay at home moms, women in corporate America, just a range of women in different areas of their life right now. So, fast forward to about five or six years later, last year our campaign in December we had about 8,000 participants. We call our fundraisers, advocates because that’s what they are there. They’re not just fundraisers they’re really advocating for change. And we had about 8000 from 45 different countries around the globe and we raised 2.4 million dollars last year.

Sandie [00:04:56] Wow. That’s impressive. So, what does a dressember advocate commit to do?

Marissa [00:05:05] Yeah, so just a commitment to take on the actual style challenge in December. We invite people to start registering and gearing up for the campaign in October. So, October and November, kind of your time to start telling people what you’re going to do in the month of December. You get your fundraising page set up on our Website, you start talking about it, and then December is the actual style challenge. So, that’s really when a lot of the fundraising is happening, the movement is happening, and this is all kind of gearing up for January National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. You have through January to continue fundraising until January 31. So, that’s what our advocates do and it’s just an incredible community that the creativity is insane, especially we have people in some of the coldest climates in the world that are doing Dressember and just wearing tights and parkas and layers and then you know we’re here in Southern California and it’s 70 degrees in December.

Sandie [00:06:02] Wow. So, for me the first time I heard about this style challenge, I actually thought somebody was making a comment on the fact that I maybe dress like a dowdy professor or something. So, I didn’t understand the context for a style challenge, and I felt oh I could never do that because I don’t have a stylish bone in my body, so kind of explain that style challenge thing.

Marissa [00:06:29] Yeah. So, you don’t have to be into fashion to do Dressember at all. We have so many advocates and some of our team actually that will wear the same dress every day in December. And it’s really what you make of it, so you get so creative. One of our team members, I love to tell this story, she wore the same dress every day in December last year and she would only wash her dress on the days she got a donation. So, she would tell her community, “I really need to wash my dress, it’s been three days. Will you donate to my campaign?” And she ended up raising several thousand dollars. I can’t remember exactly how much but it worked.

Sandie [00:07:07] Oh my gosh, that’s so amazing. OK, so tell us what the rules are for the style challenge.

Marissa [00:07:17] There’s not really too many rules, it’s just wearing a dress. You don’t need to wear a dress when you’re at home, but when you go out. And we really encourage, we have this tagline “you can do anything in a dress”. So, last year I tried to wear a dress in almost everything, including yoga and palates. So, that was quite the experience. And we have all of these pins that say “ask me about my dress” so I would wear those to like workout classes and everyone asked like what you are doing in a dress in a workout class.

Sandie [00:07:48] OK so let’s pretend we’re at the gym and it’s December and I see you and I was like, “Why are you wearing a dress to the gym?” What would you say?

Marissa [00:08:00] Yeah. That’s the best conversation starter and that’s kind of the whole point is using the dress as like we say the dress is our flag, it’s our symbol of like a talking point. So, I would tell people that I’m wearing a dress to end human trafficking and then that kind of reels them in and they’re like What do you mean and what does that have to do with human trafficking. And I tell them what it does and how the money that I’m raising is benefiting programs around the world that are fighting human trafficking.

Sandie [00:08:27] So, tell me a little bit about the countries where you said 45 countries. What does it look like outside of the U.S.? Because I think of it here in Southern California this doesn’t really seem too hard, but it might be really different in some other places.

Marissa [00:08:49] Yeah, we have our second largest country is Canada, which is freezing in December. But like I said it requires a lot of creativity and layers and I think that it just adds to the importance of taking on this challenge and it makes it more of a challenge in these colder climates. So, it looks similar, people wearing dresses and pins that they ask me about my dress. But I think it’s either making more of a statement outside of California and particularly outside of the US. We have advocates in six continents, we need someone in Antarctica. So, if anyone knows anyone in Antarctica, please send them our way.

Sandie [00:09:25] OK. And then how does fashion impact human trafficking? And can we talk a little bit about the supply chain aspect of that?

Marissa [00:09:36] Sure. Yeah. So, when Dressember was aligned with anti-trafficking it was kind of a natural fit. We talk about fast fashion so much at Dressember, we use our blog and our platform to really shed a light on the link between human trafficking and forced labor in the garment industry. We partner with a lot of the ethical fair trade sustainable brands to try to just promote conscious consumerism because as people are becoming more aware that if there is a fast fashion item you know a two dollar tank top there’s probably a reason that that costs two dollars and if you really break it down in the supply chain, there’s just absolutely no way that that makes sense from like fabrics to paying someone that’s importing it if it is produced internationally. So, I think it’s really just trying to shed a light and make people think about where the stuff they’re purchasing is coming from.

Sandie [00:10:34] And for me when you tell me about a two-dollar tank top, I think about someone who’s working and not getting paid. And so, I start translating that to my own personal definition of good stewardship because I want to be careful how I spend my money and make sure it goes further. And that means that I do look for the bargains and I had to really begin to flip my thinking about that and question what good stewardship is. Is it spending less money or is it spending money in a more meaningful way? And if it means buying fewer tops or pants or dresses but knowing that someone is getting paid a fair wage, that’s a better stewardship model than getting the least expensive item. And I think that’s a hard thing for us to get our heads around in a consumer culture. So, what Dressember does really helps modify and challenge our thinking.

Marissa [00:11:54] Yeah, it’s much easier to walk into a store and grab the cheapest thing on the rack, but really like you said be more mindful, we’re all consumers we’re all going to make purchases. But being more mindful of where there is coming from and I also think there’s so much opportunity now for your purchases to change lives. I mean you can buy something now that’s made by artisan women and be employing women and that’s what we try to do with our dress collection that I can also talk a little bit about.

Sandie [00:12:24] Let’s hear about your dress collection. Yeah.

Marissa [00:12:27] Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things that we do. So, a few years ago we started a partnership with a brand called Elegant Tees. They have a sewing center in Nepal that employees’ survivors of sex trafficking. So, we started a partnership with them to produce an annual Dressember dress collection, and we launch it every September. We have a range of women that help us design them that are we have a group of survivors, we have a couple of actresses, and just some really amazing women that are using their voice to help promote the Dressember dress collection. So, every year, like I said, we produce a new collection they launched September 1st. They’re on sale now. I think they get better every year, we had nine styles this year. And like I said they’re produced in the fall. There’s a massive issue in India and Nepal at the border. They say that there’s about 12000 women trafficked from India and Nepal every year. This is our way of trying to provide job placement for these women and there’s currently about 18 women that work at this specific sewing center and there’s a wait list of about 500 women that want to work there.

Sandie [00:13:40] Wow.

Marissa [00:13:41] S o, when we came on board with Elegant Tees and we’re really trying to scale this Dressember dress collection to get women off that waitlist. And this year actually is the first year we decided that, well we’ve been thinking for a couple of years that we need to get more men involved in Dressember. This isn’t a women’s issue it’s an everyone’s issue and we had about 75 hundred women do Dressember last year and about 500 men. So, they are starting to participate.

Sandie [00:14:10] Wait a minute wait a minute. Men do Dressember? I’m seeing a picture of a man at the gym in a dress. Ok so explain that.

Marissa [00:14:22] No, they wear a tie.

Sandie [00:14:23] OK.

Marissa [00:14:24] Yes. So, we encourage men to take on the challenge, not wearing a dress but wearing a tie. Actually, there was an advocate that started doing Dressember by wearing a tie. We didn’t even talk about it and then we’re like oh my gosh yeah, we should absolutely encourage men to take this on and wear a tie. So, this year is our first year that we decided to develop a tie collection for men also.

Sandie [00:14:47] Oh I love it. I love it. So, how do we order a dress or a tie?

Marissa [00:14:52] So, all of our merchandise dresses, ties, some cool Dressember SWAG is that at (NOTE: Dressember has since updated their website to

Sandie [00:14:59] Okay. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes for this podcast. So, the impact on human trafficking then is sourcing. So, even like the thread in the materials you make sure that the supply chain is checked. You don’t just get the cheapest cotton to make the dress and then you’re also employing people. And when I listened to you, you employ 18 now and you want to scale up because there’s 500 on the waitlist. That makes me want more people to buy these dresses because there’s 500 women waiting to have a job. And with that job comes dignity and self-empowerment. And one of the things that bothers me sometimes is that in our very well-meaning intentions to help people, we sometimes don’t consider their personal dignity and empowerment. And people don’t just want a handout. They want an opportunity to be part of something to have dignity and pride in the job that they’re doing.

Marissa [00:16:24] Ya sometimes programs just stop at providing after care which is equally important to survivors. But I think also a key and kind of reintegrating into a normal life is being able to have economic opportunities and job placement. So, like you said, this is providing them like a fair pay, a dignified job which is actually at the core of them not getting back into the life or becoming re trafficked.

Sandie [00:16:54] So, tell me a little bit more about the creativity side of this because it doesn’t sound very creative to work in a textile factory and make the same dress over and over again. But I think from our conversations, there is a lot more to it than that.

Marissa [00:17:14] Yeah. So, we, a few members from our Dressember team actually last year got to go visit the sewing center in Nepal. So, I’d love to pass that video along to you guys so that you guys can see a little bit more about the women’s journeys in the sewing center and how it’s just creating this sense of community, it’s so much more than a job, but they’re surrounded by positivity and it’s a great environment for them to be in.

Sandie [00:17:44] And the Dressember campaign for this year is going to launch in October and for our Live2Free team, that’s going to happen at the Fair-Trade Fashion show. I am going to sign up, so all of my listeners, you just need to know I’ve been trying to figure out, I counted how many dresses I have in my wardrobe last week in preparation for this and I have five dresses and so I’m really encouraged by the idea of wearing the same dress every day because only three of them fit right now. So, I may need to purchase another dress or too. But the idea that you can act and raise awareness and be an advocate by what you wear is very creative. And I think it will capture a lot of attention in our community. Do you have any tips for people who are going to enter this commitment to wear a dress as part of a fundraising and awareness strategy for an entire month? Pretend like you’re talking just to me and I’m not going to make it because I just don’t want to wear the same dress again.

Marissa [00:18:58] I always say to make it your own, to be creative, and everyone is so unique. Like I personally am really into yoga, so that for me was my power and saying that if I hit my campaign goal, I’m going to do yoga in a dress. Or like really going to my studio and they did a donation-based yoga class. Like really making it your own. Everyone’s so unique and like integrating it with your own hobbies is a great idea. And then something else I did want to note about the dresses, which is really exciting, is they’re primarily sold online throughout the campaign, but we will have some in stock and be selling them at the October event with you guys.

Sandie [00:19:39] Oh that’s really great. OK so you just mentioned doing a donation-based class, so the campaign how actually do people give during Dressember?

Marissa [00:19:52] It’s all online, but people get very creative like we did a couple of donation-based classes and then I would just deposit that onto my fundraising page. People do bake sales, or they’ll do some brands and store fronts will do like a percentage back to Dressember. Some people primarily fundraise on social media, which we’ve seen so much success with like Instagram. They use Venmo and then you can just deposit it onto your page. There’s so many ways to get the donations actually to your website. The easiest way is to just share your link on social media and email and just send that to your community and a little bit of why you’re doing Dressember. Your December page is like a profile, it’s like a social media profile. So, we’ll have a picture, your name, your campaign title, and then a little bit about why you’re doing the campaign. You can also create a team, so you can fundraise individually and then be part of a team. You can set a team goal and then your individual fundraising funnels into that. So, it’s really fun to do that with your colleagues, or your family, or some Universities have a giant team page that they’re trying to reach a much bigger goal and they can reach individually.

Sandie [00:21:06] Oh my goodness, you’re inspiring me. So, first of all you know you’ve convinced me that I can do Dressember. It’s 31 days, that means I have to wear a dress on Christmas.

Marissa [00:21:19] Perfect. Outfit is done!

Sandie [00:21:21] I’m used to spending Christmas in my pajamas.

Marissa [00:21:25] You can wear a dress over your pajamas.

Sandie [00:21:27] Oh my gosh. So, now you’re talking about a team. And so now I’m like OK I got to figure out my team and maybe have two or three teams out of our whole Global Center for Women and Justice and Live2Free. We’re going to be some of your biggest supporters, I just want you to know that we’re excited about what we can do to raise awareness and help people see how they can do something that will make a difference. And the idea that we’re promoting jobs in Nepal is amazing. I know that the very first event I ever did on human trafficking, I still lived in Athens Greece. I had Dr. Beth Grant come and speak to us about trafficking in India. And she began to tell us stories about little girls being trafficked from Nepal because of poverty and they had no options and were just low hanging fruit for the traffickers. And that was 20 years ago, now I’m giving away my age online, but 20 years ago is when we hosted our first human trafficking conference in Athens Greece. And it was about these kids, these girls, these women in Nepal. And so, 20 years later, to have a way to concretely make a difference for those women is a gift to me. It’s a great Christmas gift, and I just want to thank you for that. I am very excited to launch this at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice. We’re going to put all the links for this episode in our show notes. We’re going to use social media to promote this and we want to invite you to join us at the Fair-Trade Fashion Show at Vanguard University, October 17th at 7 p.m. I think you’re going to need to come early to get a seat and there’ll be exhibits and opportunities for engagement and they’ll be able to sign up to do the style challenge, right?

Marissa [00:23:48] Ya, absolutely.

Sandie [00:23:48] This is going to be great am so grateful that you were available to do this with me today, Marissa, and I just want to thank you for being on the show.

Marissa [00:24:00] Yeah, thank you so much. We’re so excited to have Vanguard participating and we’re so excited for the event next month. Can’t wait to meet you all there.

Sandie [00:24:09] And who will be coming with you?

Marissa [00:24:11] Yeah. Blake Hill, who is our CEO and founder, will be there and telling a little bit about her story and her journey with Dressember. It’s always great to hear it from the founder herself.

Sandie [00:24:22] And I’m excited about that so I really want people to engage. Well thank you so much for being on the show Marissa. We appreciate you.

Marissa [00:24:30] Thanks for having me.

Dave [00:24:32] Thank you so much, Sandie. And thanks, Marissa, for your wisdom. We’re inviting you to take the next step if you hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, a quick start guide to ending human trafficking. It will give you the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to the guide right now by going over the And in addition, while you’re there you might find some additional information on the anti-human trafficking certificate program. is where to go and that’s housed here at Vanguard University. And we will be back in two weeks for our next conversation. Sandie, take care.

Sandie [00:25:22] Thank you, Dave.

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