Handmade to help: Homeless World Cup lanyards

Accreditation is a functional fixture of any big event, and the Homeless World Cup is no exception. But rarely is the innocuous-looking accreditation lanyard both a feature element and one that helps people beyond the event itself. The 2017 Homeless World Cup lanyards are just that.

Produced by Salvation Army-owned social enterprise Others, the sustainably produced lanyards are made from factory offcuts and are hand sewn by people in Lahore, Pakistan.

They are part of a range of kitchenware and cards Others produces to provide ongoing, stable employment for people in rural or urban areas who would otherwise struggle to find work. “It’s mostly women who work for us, but not only women. It’s about women and men,” says Bo Christoffer Brekke, who looks after international development and whose parents actually founded the company.

We sat down with Bo and his mother, Birgitte Brekke-Clifton, to find out a little more about their and the Others story.

The Others concept started with a shop in Bangladesh in 1997.

“My husband and I were appointed to Bangladesh in 1995,” Birgitte says. “We had worked in Sri Lanka before, for seven years. But when we arrived in Bangladesh, we saw poverty on a scale we hadn’t seen before…We were 12 officers altogether in this country with 120 or 130 million people—one of the most densely populated in the world.”

They wondered: Where to start? How to help?

“One day we were visiting one of the slums in Dhaka. We were in one of their homes. It was just a two-by-two-metre shed. She was a widow, with five or six kids, and she didn’t know where to get her next meal from, the clothing, or how she could even cope with her family. So we talked about different solutions, but we never really came up with anything. I said to her at the end: ‘I feel a bit, sort of, hopeless. Can I say a prayer for you?’ Because that’s what we do. So she said: ‘Yes, you can do that. But please do more than that.’ And that sort of stuck with me. That we had to have a practical solution.”

The Salvation Army had some sewing projects that taught people how to sew. “But the market was overflowing with the stuff that they produced, and nobody really wanted to buy it, and the quality wasn’t really good,” Birgitte says. “But then the idea came that we should try and do something that the expat communities would like, because there was a big expat community with quite a bit of money and not a lot to spend it on.”

So they decided to make something that would appeal to Westerners. That was really the beginning. They couldn’t imagine how big it would become.

Others expanded to the international market in 2003 with a shop in Norway, with a view to increasing both order volumes and the number of people Others helps.

“So the way we’re doing that is we’re partnering with chains of shops to get one or two products into their shop, especially seasonal campaigns where we produce big volumes of products. And another element is supplying to big events and conferences and materials and organisations,” Bo says.

“Instead of producing hundreds of each item, you can produce thousands,” Birgitte says. “And that keeps the job going. You need to be able to sustain the job. You can’t just say: ‘You can work for us two weeks a year’. That won’t change their lives, will it? But if you can say: ‘We need you to produce 100 of these every week’, then they have a sustainable income.”

Which is where the Homeless World Cup lanyards come in.

“When the Homeless World Cup was in the planning stages, we had a meeting about things [the Others employees] could do and found out they could make a lanyard,” Bo says. The outcome was a comfortable, handmade lanyard made from materials that would otherwise go to waste. “The original idea behind it was to use recycled materials and offcuts,” he explains. “And people notice them, which you hardly ever do with a lanyard.”

Others provides flexible working conditions that allow people to work at times and on terms that suit their needs.

“The beauty of this kind of work is that it’s very accessible, so all you need is a sewing machine and a space to set up,” Bo says. “So if you’re a mother who needs to be at home with children, you can still get work and get an income if you’re not able to go and work in a factory for 12 hours and come back. That’s the kind of thing we want to be offering is to give a work opportunity to people who would otherwise not have that chance. So these lanyards are made at people’s homes. They’re made at villages. They’re made in groups where people come together in centres to work in all different contexts.”

And Others’ impact is concrete. In addition to often enabling and empowering women to bring in an income, it enables families to pay for medication, food, and education.

“The number one key thing that everyone talks about is education for children,” Bo says. “What everyone spends money on is making sure their children get an opportunity for the future, so things like school uniforms, school books, school fees, money to help children stay in school longer.”

It also enables them to build up some savings, which they were rarely able to do previously as their income was consumed by everyday needs.

One lady, who used to be a sex worker in Dhaka, was given the job of producing a bulk order Others had for bags for a conference, Birgitte explains: “And she earned so much money she and her husband could buy a plot of land where they can retire. And the little boy is in school. It’s one of those stories that wants you to keep going — lives changed.”

Others was named in honour of, of all things, a telegram that Salvation Army founder William Booth once sent to all his followers. It was in the early 1900s and telegrams were charged by the word. So the telegram he sent contained just one word that crystallised his message: Others.

“I think there was a message about where you want to keep your focus and sort of the reason for the Salvation Army’s existence is to serve others and meet the needs of others,” Bo says. “So the others word is something you see around the world and it just keeps us focused, so we’re not just focusing on ourselves, but being open to meet others.”

The others concept, the business, and the time spent abroad have also proved life-changing for Bo, who is essentially continuing the work his parents started.

“I loved Bangladesh,” Bo says. “Before Bangladesh we lived in Sri Lanka for six years and then Bangladesh for seven years, so most of my childhood was out of the country. So I think for me, I look back on it as a great experience, which I think has shaped my priorities and my outlook. I mean, it’s a direct reason why I do the work I do now.

“I see these huge differences in the world. The opportunities that you have are decided basically on where you are born, which has so much impact on what you are able to do in life. Then on the other hand I think we’re surrounded by so many opportunities to try to change the world a little bit. Like even with a potentially meaningless lanyard at a big event can make a difference for people who haven’t been as fortunate in life. So harnessing some of that is really something that inspires me.”

Birgitte isn’t sure if the woman who originally prompted the Others concept was able to get involved, but she does know that the area from which she came, Dhaka, has benefited. “We also have what you call microcredit schemes, so people can set up their own cottage industries. And when I went back, five, six years after we had left, every house had a cottage industry. So even if they lived in a poor environment, they had a steady income. There was a whole different atmosphere.”

There are about 1,500 people producing items for Others now, and the organisation, truly keeping others in mind, is working to increase that number. In the meantime, Homeless World Cup participants are benefiting from the lanyards, which will no doubt be kept as keepsakes long after the tournament is over.

Words: Fiona Crawford
Images: Daniel Lipinski