It’s an interesting time to be a consumer. On one hand, we’re bombarded with the realities of climate change, economic disparity and social injustice with zero filter as the internet gives us 24/7 access to it all, while on the other, we’re never quite able to escape the maelstrom of marketing messages whizzing past our heads at every turn, urging us to buy, buy, buy. So when a company tries to bridge the two, we tend to take notice, whether it’s with a skeptic’s eye or the slight hope that maybe, just maybe, someone out there wants to change something, and that maybe we can help in some small way.
“I came up with a model that would help fund one year of education for a child in need with every bag sold.”
– Oliver Shuttlesworth (Esperos)
To wit: nearly everyone is by now aware of TOMS, the one-for-one shoe company founded in 2006 by Dallas native and UT Austin alumnus Blake Mycoskie. The brand expanded its offerings in 2011 to include sunglasses and recently branched out into the coffee business, too, using a similar buy-one-give-one model and donating a portion of each coffee sale’s proceeds toward clean water projects in developing nations. It also opened the doors to its second store and its first-ever café, both housed in a cozy, open space on South Congress here in Austin.
But even for all its goodhearted Texan roots and the bragging rights it’s earned from delivering more than ten million pairs of shoes and 150,000 sight-saving services to people in need, it’s drawn questions from critics from the start: Where does the marketing strategy stop and the mission begin? Is a one-for-one model the most effective way to render aid? Are you doing more harm than good? For its part, TOMS has begun turning feedback into practice as the brand evolves: after an early outcry over its manufacturing processes, which were once limited to just three countries, Mycoskie pledged to begin producing at least a third of the company’s shoes in the countries where they’re ultimately donated. While detractors argue that the move merely cancels out some of the complexities of product donation as opposed to other forms of assistance, supporters insist that the brand is making an impact that wouldn’t have been possible simply by relying on, for example, monetary donations through a non-profit conduit.
While those conversations rage on, we sought out two social entrepreneurs in Austin who have each put their own individual spin on conscious capitalism. Here’s what the minds behind ESPEROS and Raven + Lily told us about building brands that seek to make their mark on the world in a positive way.
Helping Kids Carry Hope
Tell us how ESPEROS got started – how the concept came about and evolved into a tangible brand.
The idea behind ESPEROS took a few years and a number of different experiences until the concept took hold and really made sense. Long story short: around September 2011, I had a wild idea to create a bag of some type and, around the same time, stumbled upon an article that touched on the overwhelming obstacles families in the developing world face in sending their children to school, despite the relatively low cost to do so.
At that point, everything “clicked.” I decided that ESPEROS should begin by selling backpacks given their direct tie to education and, rather than going with the traditional “one for one” model, which I didn’t really feel would do anything to solve the root cause of poverty, I came up with a model that would help fund one year of education for a child in need with every bag sold.
From there, I got to designing prototypes and finally made a small batch of bags to test demand for the products and receptivity to the mission. From there, it’s just been running to meet demand and develop the product line.
Who exactly does the brand help, and how?
Our brand helps children in Haiti and Guatemala at the moment, although we will be re-focusing our efforts on the country of Haiti in 2014. Right now we are working with two amazing organizations: Pencils of Promise in Guatemala and Fonkoze in Haiti.
100% of all donations made by ESPEROS on behalf of our customers go to fund education for the children that our non-profit partners serve. We believe that the best way to maximize our efficacy as an organization is to leverage the expertise of our non-profit partners who are active on the ground and have well-developed relationships in the communities we exist to serve.
What have been the top three highlights of your journey so far?
There have been a good number of ups and downs. If you were twisting my arm, though, I’d say:
1) My first trip to Haiti. It will stick with me for the rest of my life. The people of Haiti are beautiful, warm, and so very strong-willed. While some of the things one might see in the country are heartbreaking, I also found myself hugely inspired by the individuals I met and their efforts to improve the lives of their children and communities.
2) Providing jobs. In about a year and a half, we have been able to create jobs for more than 15 individuals between our manufacturer and now with the company. I’m still adjusting to the role of “boss,” but I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we have been able to provide living wage jobs for women in Mexico and I look forward to creating a good deal more in the future.
3) Seeing ESPEROS evolve into an international brand. It has been crazy to see the reception not only at home, but abroad. In July, we’ll be moving into around 30-40 stores in Japan with our eyes set on moving into approximately that many in Western Europe by September.
How much of an impact does each individual purchase have?
At present, with every online purchase our customers make, we’re able to fund anywhere between half a year and one full year of education.
What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to balancing your bottom line and your mission? Do you think it’s tougher or easier to grow a brand based on social good as opposed to using a more traditional business model?
To be honest, this hasn’t been a big challenge to date. I think the biggest challenge is that I always want to do more. If I could give everything, I would. But in reality, as a for-profit business, we have to be managing to our goals as a business and building for the future, whether that’s hiring new employees, running a campaign to build awareness, or putting money into product development. In the end, those things will all produce a larger return on investment and allow us to drive an even greater impact, but I can personally lose sight of that because I always want to give more than we already give (which is not an insubstantial amount). I think that’s why I’m no longer in charge of finances.
I can’t completely speak to the difficulties of growing a brand without a social mission, but I will say that growing a brand based on social good certainly isn’t the easiest thing to do. There are so many new brands emerging in this space and there is some criticism from fairly vocal outlets when brands don’t measure up to their standards (whatever those may be). It’s hugely important to be a brand your customers can trust and to offer products that stand alone on their own.
What’s around the corner? Anything new and exciting coming up — new designs, partnerships, distribution channels, etc?
I can’t divulge too much at the moment, but there are some very exciting possibilities on the table that we are exploring. One thing that I can say is that we will be significantly expanding our reach with Whole Foods this year, moving from around 20 stores to approximately 160 by Q3 this year.
Otherwise, I’ll just say to be on the lookout for a few new things in the near future!
RAVEN + LILY
Letting Women Bloom
*Responses given by Cameron Crake, Director of Operations, on Kirsten’s behalf.
Cameron, tell us how Raven + Lily got started — how the concept came about and evolved into a tangible brand with a brick & mortar presence.
Kirsten Dickerson founded R+L out of a desire to combine her passions for style and alleviating poverty among women. She had been working closely with a global non-profit and noticed that women were being trained in design skills, but lacked access to larger markets and modern design input. So she created Raven + Lily as a socially-conscious lifestyle brand to help employ women around the world to create beautiful products. We got our start as an online store and by selling wholesale to other boutiques. We spotted this location on Manor Road, and decided it would be the perfect place to move our studio and open a storefront. We wanted a place where our customers could come and see our entire collection, to put our full product offering on display!
Who exactly does the brand help, and how?
We focus on helping to employ at-risk women around the world. Often these women are HIV+, formerly trafficked, extremely impoverished, or refugees. Our current collections are made by over 800 women in India, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Kenya, and the USA. We are in the process of launching two new partnerships in Pakistan and Guatemala with a new, expanded apparel collection. The artisan groups we work with offer holistic care to the women they employ, assisting with health care, school scholarships, and savings programs. We want all of them to have a healthy working environment and stable source of income so they can support their families.
What have been the highlights of your journey so far?
Opening the store is definitely one of the top three! It is a dream come true to have our own space to showcase our brand. The other biggest highlight is any time we get the opportunity to spend time with the artisans. It is amazing to sit down and hear their stories and to get to see how much their lives have actually changed as a result of employment.
How much of an impact does each individual purchase have?
The more product we sell, the more women we are able to help employ. Our customers are what make it possible for us to do what we do. It is through their purchases that we are able to grow our orders from the artisans to help employ more women, provide more consistent work,
The more product we sell, the more women we are able to help employ… these women having jobs creates a ripple affect – reaching into their families and communities”
– Cameron Crake (Raven + Lily)
and even expand to new groups and reach even more women who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to work. And these women having jobs creates a ripple affect- reaching into their families and communities to have a huge impact!
What’s your favorite part about running this brand from Austin as opposed to any other city?
Our whole team loves Austin. The culture here is incredibly receptive to small businesses and creative minds. People here are socially conscious, so that makes it a great fit for our brand and what we are trying to accomplish. Our style also fits Austin – it has the “modern Bohemian” feel that we try to meet with our aesthetic. We are also thrilled to have our shop located on the east side of town with some great neighbors on Manor Road. Most of our team lives on the east side, so it’s fun to have our shop located in our own neighborhood!
Download a FREE issue of Citygram Austin magazine for our complete events recommendations. Now Available for most smartphones and tablets. Search “Citygram” in your App Store.