The Story Behind Indigenous and Its Organic, Fair-Trade Fashion

article image

This press release is presented without editing for your information. The Utne Reader editorial staff does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

For INDIGENOUS’ founders, Scott Leonard and Matthew Reynolds, creating socially and environmentally conscious fashion has been a journey toward ever greater transparency and accountability. 17 years ago, they began their mission with the goal of bringing fair wages to economically marginalized communities in South America. Today, the goals of INDIGENOUS have expanded to include assistance with training, investment in knitting equipment, and community outreach.

From humble beginnings–with co-founders Scott and Matt picking burs out of sweaters before delivering them to the Nature Company–INDIGENOUS organic + fair trade fashion has come into its own. As a pioneer in the eco fashion industry, INDIGENOUS helped to create the first Fair Trade apparel certification. And, though sweaters made by INDIGENOUS’ fair trade supply chain may now hang next to high end apparel in stores like Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus, INDIGENOUS has not only remained true to its founding principals, it has pursued ever greater transparency and accountability. By engaging with important agents of social change such as the Grameen Foundation and RSF Social Finance, and by inventing the Fair Trace Tool–an innovative way for customers to see through the manufacturing veil–INDIGENOUS continues to raise the bar, creating new standards in Fair Trade.

The spark that led to INDIGENOUS began with Leonard’s travels in Ecuador. “I had seen firsthand that women were not necessarily being honored for their weaving and knitting skills,” says the Indigenous CEO. “They weren’t being paid the wages that they could have been, or they didn’t have the opportunity to apply those skills to the marketplace.

“We really wanted to make a difference in the world with women in economically marginalized communities,” Leonard says. “We thought that bringing in fair wages and technical assistance, and marrying environmentally friendly fibers with more sophisticated designs, was a way to do that.”

With over 1,500 artisans hand-making their garments, the task of measuring the social and financial impact of fair wages and ethical business practices is daunting. That’s why, in the Summer of 2011, INDIGENOUS employed the Grameen Foundation’s Progress Out of Poverty Index (PPOI) to measure the financial status of its artisans.

Conducting the survey anonymously over cell phone, it turned out that the vast majority of INDIGENOUS’ workers fell above Peru’s (fairly high) national poverty line. 89% of those surveyed stated that their lives had improved since beginning employment with INDIGENOUS, yet still 8% of those surveyed had a high likelihood of poverty.  While these statistics were useful and encouraging, they showed only a narrow picture of INDIGENOUS’ social impact.

Wanting to measure the real, on-the-ground impact of fair trade, CEO Scott Leonard and INDIGENOUS’ production manager, James Roberts, embarked on a journey that led through the expanse of urban settlements surrounding Lima, to Peru’s remote Southern highlands. By enlisting the help of social documentarians Human Pictures, the team captured the real lives of INDIGENOUS’ artisans through photography, video and moving interviews. 

One interview in particular–that of Ava Arivilca, a strong, stoic and charismatic woman from the Peruvian Highlands now living in Arequipa–reminded everyone why they made the journey and why they strive to promote fair trade. Having long ago taught herself to knit using straws of hay as knitting needles, Ava now runs an artisan-knitting group consisting of 15 other women. Interviewed as they sat together expertly crafting sweaters, Ava was asked what she would tell people in the states buying these fair trade clothes. Radiating pride for her work and accomplishments, Ava stated that she wanted everyone to know that each piece of clothing was made with people’s hands, with the utmost love and care.

By telling the real stories of artisans, INDIGENOUS hopes to reveal the true worth of fair trade practices. This material account of INDIGENOUS’ supply chain will funnel into a larger project: the Fair Trace Tool. On the surface a simple QR Code, the Fair Trace Tool will give consumers access to unprecedented knowledge and transparency, educating them about where their garments were made, the artisans who made them, and the skills and techniques used to expertly make each piece of organic clothing.

With a larger goal of incorporating many fair trade producers into the project, the Fair Trace Tool may lead to a new standard in fair trade practices. “We hope that by educating people to actually look into things, they’ll see how clothing can be made responsibly,” says Matthew Reynolds. With recent exposes about the toxic nature and exploitive practices of the fast fashion industry, this education can’t come too quickly.

With all this doing good, it’s impressive that INDIGNEOUS has managed to gain such a large portion of the market. Besides their branded label, INDIGENOUS is now producing for high end brands like Eileen Fisher, who recently featured a sweater made by INDIGENOUS fair trade + organic supply chain in their now famous Ampersand campaign. Carried in over 500 boutiques, INDIGENOUS has attained a level of quality and style equal to any traditionally produced apparel, proving that we do not have to sacrifice our morals or our planet to look good.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.