Meet INDIGENOUS. A fashion brand that honors both people and the planet.
INDIGENOUS is a California-based company working with a network of fair trade artisans in Peru. Together they create beautiful, eco-friendly woven clothing that helps elevate the poorest of Peruvian artisans to world-renowned status in the handicraft textile market, all while paying fair living wages.
Indeed, striving to transform the fashion industry for the better takes vision, passion and perseverance; and for INDIGENOUS, this means having Co-founders Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds as the driving force behind its team.
As The Global Commute continues its survey of Peru, we caught up with President Matt Reynolds, who shares what it takes to grow a brand, while also changing lives. He explains how it all started, the importance of partnering with others, advice for other social enterprises, and their personal must-see destinations within Peru.
Let’s hear from Matt…
What was the defining moment in your lives when you decided to embark on this journey together to start a social and eco-responsible fashion brand?
1994. My co-founder Scott Leonard and I believe in the simple idea that when people go to work, they should not have to leave their hearts at home. We believe in that idea for ourselves, our artisans, our retail partners and everyone else who walks with us on our chosen path. For us, that path was clear decades ago. In our early years, 20 years ago, INDIGENOUS was a very small company built on a very big idea: to create clothing that truly honored both people and planet. That idea became a promise – a promise to use only eco-friendly materials; to pay fair wages and create opportunity for artisans in the developing world; and, to help change the way the world looks at fashion. As a result, INDIGENOUS has become recognized as a pioneering leader of fair trade and organic fashion.
The defining moment for Scott Leonard began on a street corner, where a chance meeting with an Ecuadorian social activist and social entrepreneur opened his eyes to a world of possibility, working with indigenous artisans. Already a successful surf shop owner who used business for social action, Scott’s heart quickly opened to the possibility of a socially responsible knitwear business. INDIGENOUS became Scott’s way to live his commitment to social good, and his path was chosen.
As for myself, my path began while I was living in South America as a child with my family. I learned that we share this world with many diverse people and that our true worth was not defined by what we take from it, but rather what we give back to it. My Dad was a developmental economist at Stanford, working to create opportunity for those who needed it most in the America’s. The special people I grew up with in Central and South America and their culture were part of my daily life. After a prosperous early career in retail, I realized my heart was searching for more. The marriage of my retail acumen with compassion for the world’s diverse peoples and cultures was a natural personal growth step, and my path was chosen.
Describe the feeling the first time you ever visited the rural highland villages of Peru. Describe the feeling when you visit your artisans in those villages now.
There are so many great stories and contributions that have been part of this journey – all evoking tremendous feelings of gratitude, humility and pride. As I mentioned earlier, from day one Scott and I made a promise to use only eco-friendly materials; to pay fair wages and create opportunity for artisans in the developing world; and, to help change the way the world looks at fashion. For two decades, we’ve been driven by that promise and we’ve done everything we can to live it in everything we do.
Today, we have over 1,500 artisans working with INDIGENOUS, some grassroots knitting cooperatives, some small scale Artisan workshops – all are being given opportunities to flourish and grow. For some, it has truly been their path out of poverty, a chance to eat, a chance to give their children an education. There is an incredible feeling of partnership, teamwork and mutual respect. And we still have a long ways to go. This has not been the easiest path to travel, and it’s one we’ve traveled slowly, mindfully and intentionally.
Our ongoing goal is to create economic and social opportunity for thousands more artisans and their families in the decades ahead. It will take continued support from our customers and our partners to help make the dream of elevating thousands more artisans’ lives a reality.
Since 2012, your garments all come with a QR code that links to your app the Fair Trace Tool™, which builds bridges between the consumer, the artisans and origins of product. Share a little bit about how that tool has the effected your brand since its launch. Have any other companies started using your tool?
Although Scott and I still remain incredibly proud of the work behind the Fair Trace Tool, I can’t say it has effected our brand externally. Scott and I hoped more consumers would have been interested in scanning the QR code to meet the artisans while shopping. We also hoped more apparel companies would have expressed interest in taking us up on our offer to share the Trace Tool. With that said, we have had interplay and interest from a few companies in the natural food industry, such as Alter Eco.
You said in a recent interview with Trep Life that one of the great things about being a social entrepreneur is that you meet interesting people in the world of social business. Is INDIGENOUS a part of any social enterprise or socially-responsible business associations? If so, what do you find is most helpful about these groups?
INDIGENOUS has been a founding member and/or a deeply active participant in the following socially responsible organizations. All have played an important role in our success:
Social Venture Network – Scott and I have been attending SVN since the late 90’s. This socially responsible business network has been an invaluable family member of INDIGENOUS. I highly recommend any social enterprise take the time to experience an SVN gathering. I cannot express in words how grateful I am to the SVN community for advising and supporting INDIGENOUS along in our journey.
Organic Fiber Council – INDIGENOUS collaborated with the USDA to help set the standards for organic cotton in the USA.
Root Capital – INDIGENOUS is responsible for spearheading and actualizing a breakthrough production financing model for expanding small to mid sized social/fair trade enterprises into new markets through Root Capital Finance for Communities and Conservation, Cambridge, MA.
OIA Eco Working – INDIGENOUS was a catalyst in the OIA (Outdoor Industry Association) forming the Eco Working Group responsible for The Eco Index – a tool providing guidelines and metrics for how companies can be more conscious and sustainable in their supply chain.
WOG Development Organization – INDIGENOUS partnered with WOG Development Organization for SMS technology launch to improve communication between brands, vendors and workers for a stronger understanding of fair trade standards.
Green Steps Sustainability Program – In 2005, INDIGENOUS founded the Green Steps program to raise business awareness of sustainability issues in the industry, bringing together dozens of companies to raise the bar on the environment and social justice.
B Corporation – INDIGENOUS is one of the 10 founding B-corporations, signing the B-Corporation Declaration of Interdependence on June 1, 2007! The B-Corporation network is strong and aligned. We actively seek to do business with other B-Corporations whenever possible, as it is the only business network I know of that openly shares their business practices transparently online through their web-site: http://www.bcorporation.net/community/indigenous-designs-corporation
RSF Finance – INDIGENOUS has been working and collaborating with RSF finance for well over a decade. For example, RSF Finance helped us launch our Fair Trace Tool through a PRI loan (Project Related Investment). In addition, our Fair Value Fund is managed by RSF Social Finance. This non-profit invests in skills, technical assistance and equipment to benefit artisans, schools and organic farms.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for social entrepreneurs who are faced with the hurdles of entrepreneurship while also working to fix major social and economic issues at the same time?
When you are working to build a brand, as well as fix major social and economic issues, it often feels like you are working with one arm tied behind your back. We deal with consumer acceptance constraints (fair trade and organic is “hippy”), capital constraints, production constraints, fiber quality constraints, marketing constraints and production timeline constraints. Yet, we learned to not let any obstacle get in the way of our “mission”. If there is a will, there is a way.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self 20 years ago, what would you say?
Don’t underestimate the power of a good financial forecast model and a bottom up budgeting process. And make sure to check in on a regular basis, comparing your actual performance against your budget. This is fundamental to creating a profitable and thriving business.
For travelers who want to have a culturally rich experience while also making a positive impact on the local society, where would you suggest that they travel to in Peru?
There are so many incredible places to visit in Peru. However, I am bias to the high desert regions. The Salinas Aguada National Reserve is stunning with amazing small towns, such as Huayllachuco and Imata. This is where you can meet some of the most remarkable artisans and alpaca herders. For those that may not be able to travel so remotely, the cities of Puno, Juliaca and Arequipa are beautiful as well.
Matt Reynolds is Co-founder and President of INDIGENOUS, where he spearheaded a revolutionary production financing model for fair trade knitting cooperatives through Root Capital, Finance for Communities and Conservation, Cambridge, MA. Today, he oversees the company’s sales strategy, as well as maintaining industry leader margins.
INDIGENOUS designs are available through Viva Terra, Copper Penney, Whole Earth Provision, NYFO, Cool Sweats, Overland Sheepskin & Co, Rodale, BackCountry.com, MAST GENERAL, Alabama Outfitters, Mountain High Outfitters, and hundreds of better women’s specialty retailers throughout North America, as well as for purchase on their website indigenous.com. You can also follow their journey on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.