Ethical and sustainable fashion has been a hot topic in the industry for a few years now, with TOMS pioneering the One-for-One business model. Every time TOMS sold a shoe, they gave out one pair for free, to people in need. Other ethical brands use recycled materials and improve working conditions for workers in developing countries. In Latin America, most ethical fashion brands source materials locally, employ artisans from disadvantaged areas, and provide fair wages so that they can make ends meet with their handcraft skills and support their family.
At first look, this ethical approach might seem really effective, because people are either receiving free goods directly or getting employed with a stable income. But there is one key ingredient missing – sustainability.
What happens when TOMS leave? For example when that free pair of shoes are worn out… Where does the next pair come from?
What happens when the eco brands leave? Will the artisans once again return to poverty, or their previous life of being underemployed and undervalued?
We all know the old saying: “Give a man a fish; you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; you feed him for a lifetime”
It was with this in mind that Mamahuhu was created. Most eco brands help people in need by giving them the ‘fish’; Mamahuhu takes it a step further and has created a sustainable solution.
Teach a man, don’t feed a man.
Thirty years ago, Colombia was one of the main leather producers in the world. As fashion companies flocked to Vietnam, India, and China, many high-skilled leather artisans in Colombia were left without a job. Having no other choice, they turned to low-skilled jobs in factories, or as cobblers in shoe repairing shops.
In 2011, social entrepreneurs Carolina and Luis (founders of Mamahuhu) studied the footwear manufacturing industry in Asia, and saw the poor work conditions and worker welfare that is prevalent in so many places. Seeing these terrible conditions made them want to do exactly the opposite.
Upon returning to Carolina’s home, Bogota in Colombia, they brought together those neglected leather artisans, and started a brand that’s changing the whole leather industry in Colombia.
Carolina and Luis started by walking around the poor areas of Bogota to find leather artisans who worked as cobblers in small shoe repair stores, most often barely making a living. But it is what they did next that is changing the ethical fashion.
Instead of offering them a job in Mamahuhu, Carolina and Luis chose to help the artisans set up their own businesses, and create their own jobs.
Here’s how they do it:
Firstly, Mamahuhu offers a capital seed investment to the artisans, in form of a microloan. This initial investment helps them set up their own workshop, purchase machines and the required tools.
Secondly, Mamahuhu give these workshops purchasing orders, helping them to grow through foreseeable and stable revenue. As the artisans know their products will be bought, they are able to scale up their production and grow their workshop.
This is the second innovation: As the workshop grows, the previously unemployed or underemployed artisans now employ new workers, who in turn are trained in the craft of luxury shoemaking.
Thirdly, as the workshops grow, usually to a size of 15-20 people, Mamahuhu helps them become a registered company. The company also ensures that they pay taxes, and get social security and insurance for their workers.
In this way artisans are given the opportunity to transform themselves from unemployed or low-skilled labour, to business owners, running a luxury quality footwear manufacturing company, creating jobs in their local communities, paying taxes, and contributing to their society.
Mamahuhu’s approach is working so well that it has come full circle. Workers hired by the artisans have been trained in the art of leather footwear manufacturing, and then set up their own new workshop to produce luxury quality products for Mamahuhu. This creates healthy competition, and most importantly, more jobs for their own teams.
Some of you might have picked up the similarities to Silicon Valley incubators for start-ups. Giving entrepreneurs seed capital and a place to work, helping them grow, teaching them the processes required for high-quality products, and having them spin out as registered companies who create jobs and value.
There is now a network of fashion manufacturing companies in Colombia that share knowledge, techniques, and drives innovation. And just like this, a continuously growing entrepreneurial network around Mamahuhu has come into being and is changing the Colombian leather industry. Till today, 11 workshops and companies have been established, and 112 jobs have been created within the community.
”We don’t just give them the fish (a job) to survive the day, we give them the fishing rod (their own company) and teach them fishing skills (luxury shoemaking) to provide for the future.” – Carolina Rodriguez, co-founder of Mamahuhu
Mamahuhu sees this model as an innovation in how socially good companies empower people to improve their lives, while at the same time infusing new blood into a very old and traditional industry.
But what if Mamahuhu disappears? What makes this approach an innovation to sustainable social entrepreneurship?
It turns out that the artisans’ legitimate businesses and valuable experience of making luxury quality shoes are highly sought after internationally. And many workshops and companies are now working with other brands as well, winning valuable international orders, independently of Mamahuhu.
Mamahuhu has seven retail stores in Colombia and one in Spain, and is present on the global market through the DoneGood website. It will be interesting to see how their innovative and sustainable business model will influence the fashion industry and other ethical brands. And most importantly, what will you do as a customer?