Cynthia Salim: Former Rotary Scholar makes clothing with a conscience

Photo Credit: Rotary International / Monika Lozinska

From the July 2016 issue of The Rotarian

The way Cynthia Salim sees it, the fashion industry doesn't have much to offer a young, socially conscious woman like her when it comes to work clothes.

"The fashion industry often does 'sexy' or 'fun' or 'hip,' and things that encourage frequent purchases," the 29-year-old says. "It's very rare that the design community will design something that will make a young woman look credible and influential as well as timeless."

Add "and is ethically made" to that list, and it becomes a tall order that Salim became increasingly frustrated trying to fill when she needed clothes for her job in international affairs in Geneva and later as a management consultant. So she decided to do something about it.

Salim started a company to produce high-quality, classic women's wear constructed of socially responsible materials and made by fairly paid workers in environmentally friendly factories. It took more than two years to source the right suppliers and track down partners who met her high standards, but in April 2015, Salim launched Citizen's Mark, an online retailer that bills itself as "the lifestyle brand of the socially conscious, empowered woman."

When Salim talks about how she did it, it's clear that starting her own company was more than just a way to make money. "I've always been really interested in social change," she says, "and this was such an interesting and unique way to create change from a sector and industry that doesn't have as much social change work going on."

It's an interest she nurtured during her undergraduate years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a Jesuit school with a strong tradition of social responsibility. It became a central focus of her life when she won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to pursue a master's degree in human values and contemporary global ethics at King's College London.

"I was so grateful to have had that opportunity, to have Rotary put their trust in me and in that program, which doesn't have a clear career path," Salim says. "But the time I had was really valuable in helping me see that there are so many ways to make change, everyone has a role whether it's in policy or advocacy or business."

At Loyola, Salim met Fred Kiesner, a 52-year veteran of Rotary and the school's chair of entrepreneurship (now retired). Kiesner, who became Salim's mentor, remembers her as "probably the most ethical and socially responsible young person I've ever met."

"A lot of Ambassadorial Scholars do it for the learning and the fun of living in a foreign country, which are not bad reasons," Kiesner says. "Cynthia did it because she knew it was giving her the foundation and knowledge upon which she would build a powerful and impactful life of giving and contributing."

Salim realized there was a market for high-end, ethically made work clothes after meeting "all these incredibly committed, smart women who were socially conscious about all areas of their lives, whether it was the impact they had at work or through their purchases."

Tragedies at poorly built, shoddily maintained factories – such as the Rana Plaza facility in Bangladesh, which collapsed in 2013, killing 1,137 people – have raised consumer awareness of the garment industry's ugly side. Workers at the factory made as little as 12 cents an hour and worked 90 to 100 hours a week, with just two days off a month.

Citizen's Mark will eventually carry a full line of clothes, but for now it has just one item: a blazer available in four styles and three colors that Salim designed herself and calls the quintessential "go to" piece that every professional woman needs.

Salim's search for the highest quality fabric took her to the historic wool mill city of Biella, Italy, where she toured mills and interviewed owners about "their track record in social and environmental responsibility." When she found a mill that purified the water it uses in the dyeing process before returning it to the stream, she signed up. Then it was on to Portugal, home of some of the world's best pattern makers and suit manufacturers, where she found a factory that runs on 30 percent solar power and provides living wages and full health care coverage for its employees.

That all sounds great, but expensive. So it's surprising to hear Salim say that Citizen's Mark's prices, which range from $425 to $475, are "incredibly competitive" with similar brands. "The cost to produce something well and responsibly does not necessarily mean a luxury markup," she says. "In fact, [we're] underpriced compared to the competition, because the competition that's using this [same] level of fabric and construction tends to be in the luxury space, where markups are 8, 10, 12 times" the cost of production. (In fact, a check of women's wool blazers at luxury brand Hugo Boss shows they start upwards of $535.)

Sales are growing steadily, Salim says, and customer feedback has been positive. She says an industry insider told her a few months after launch that the brand "really resonates with a message that's clear and sharp and strong and timely."

But not everyone has been so encouraging. "I've already heard pressure from the industry to market Citizen's Mark as something more fun and hip," Salim says. Her response is that she's catering to a new type of customer – a socially responsible working woman "who loves what she does, does it well, and gets to wear cool, chic clothes."

Kiesner says Salim knows exactly what she's doing. "For Cynthia, her company is just a continuation of her values, ethics, and social responsibility," he says. "I taught entrepreneurship for 45 years, and we talk about social responsibility a lot in my field – an entrepreneur who creates a business that also does good in the world. She is the epitome of that."

The Rotarian