Needs More Cushions | Style with soul inspires ethical business

Three years ago Jill McKenzie started a blog to indulge her cushion obsession. Today her passion for pillows has morphed into a start-up selling ethical interiors with a truly global story.

The Wellington-based company’s cushions are made by former refugees from Syria and Colombia, from cloth woven in Africa, and are now nestled in couches around New Zealand.

Needs More Cushions is a social enterprise – a company that reinvests its profits to maximise its social impact.

Jill and co-founder Farhana Khan were inspired to set up the business by an American social enterprise – Gaia For Empowered Women – which employed women from refugee communities to make their ethical, artisanal products.

“Refugees here in New Zealand can face the same issues as those in America. They don’t know the language well, they can have trouble finding work, and they have childcare responsibilities.

“I spoke to the Red Cross and they were excited by the prospect. One of the first things these women ask for when they get here is a sewing machine. They are experienced seamstresses. It seemed an ideal fit.”

Jill and Farhana began selling cushions through their online store in February. The fabric for the cushions is currently sourced from Mali and the Ivory Coast, and the cushions are made by former refugee women in Wellington through the Red Cross Pathways to Employment programme.

Moore Stephens Markhams Wellington has played a crucial role in getting the social enterprise started on the best footing, Jill says, with director Bruce Stormer ensuring the right systems are in place to help the business grow.

“Having a cause you’re passionate about is important but if you don’t get the business side of it right then you don’t have a business and you can’t make a social impact.

“Bruce has been really great to talk ideas through with and we’re getting validation that we’re doing and thinking the right things. We’ll be turning to him for advice when we’re considering investing in new equipment or new premises in future.”

Jill says there has been a move away from “fast fashion” – mass-produced, trend-driven cheap clothing with a short lifespan – as consumers become aware of the poor working conditions and pay imposed on garment workers.

Jill and Farhana are pushing for a similar revolution in interiors. “People don’t think about where their homewares come from. You can go into The Warehouse or Kmart and get a five dollar cushion cover. These are made in factories in China or Bangladesh or wherever. Someone somewhere has paid the price for that.”

The artisanal fabrics used by Needs More Cushions are made using traditional methods – often on wooden looms and with natural dyes – so have a kinder environmental impact than factory-produced fabrics.  The fabrics take a long time to produce and have idiosyncrasies and imperfections, meaning each cushion is genuinely unique. These are not high-street cushions that everyone else has got.”

At $135 or $155 depending on the size and shape, the cushions are at the higher end of the market, but that reflects the time taken to make the textiles, ship them to New Zealand, and the wages paid to the seamstresses – which are above the minimum rate.

The pair is conscious the cushions must be appealing as well as ethical. “We don’t want people to buy them just because they’re made by former refugees. We’re deliberately trying to choose fabrics that can work in contemporary settings, they’re not all pompoms and tassels and frills.”

The start-up currently employs two women on a casual basis but wants to increase their hours and employ more seamstresses as the business grows.

The women work from home and sew when it suits them. “It is really important to us that we retain that flexibility, but we’d also love, in time, to have a dedicated space where we can come together as a team.”