For savvy local eco-shoppers, one of this season’sspecial delights is Indigenous Designs’ holiday warehouse sale.During just a few days each year, the public can get significantdiscounts on Indigenous’ beautiful, handcrafted, fair trade,organic and natural-fiber clothing, items usually available onlythrough health food stores, high-end boutiques and mail order.
I’ve long admired Indigenous’ committed idealism, so I waspleased to sit down with the company’s cofounder and CEO, ScottLeonard. It turns out that his eco-actions started early. In sixthgrade, he saw heavy-duty aluminum lunch trays being thrown in thetrash, prompting him to start a school recycling program and spend”lunch after lunch diving into dumpsters” with other students. Heremarks, “You just do it, you stand up for what you believe in andyou keep moving forward with it, and before you know it, you’vetaken 10 steps on a 1,000 step journey. Next time you turn around,you might find that you’re 999 steps towards where you wanted tobe.”
In adulthood, he continued his support of environmental causes,such as the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaryand the donation of mountain bikes to help indigenous Braziliansprotect their forests. These topics echo his own vital connectionwith nature through surfing, skiing and mountain-biking.
The 1994 birth of Indigenous Designs was sparked when Leonard’sfriend Joe Flood mentioned a recent gift of a handmade Ecuadoriansweater and the craft people’s low wages. With a backgroundproducing clothes, Leonard appreciated the sweater’s handmadecharacter but thought they could improve on its rough, bulkyfibers, misshapen design and “gorilla arms.” The two realized that,with Flood’s Ecuadorian connections, they could work directly withartisans to create better products and increase worker wages. Withtrips to Ecuador and the business taking shape, Leonard reconnectedwith old friend and environmentalist Matt Reynolds, who joined thecompany as president.
Indigenous now collaborates with over 300 cooperatives,combining their traditional artisan skills with new materials andtechniques to create unique pieces that appeal to modern customers.The workers are organized around community rather than factoryassembly lines, preserving their agrarian cultural traditions whileearning notably more than they otherwise would. “This is notcharity,” Leonard explains, “but paying a fair wage for theirmasterful work.”
Leonard and Reynolds steer their organization toward a”quadruple bottom line” that benefits people, planet, profit andcommunity. They use only natural and organic fibers plus naturalcolors and low-impact dyes, thus avoiding the toxics and syntheticsin most mainstream clothing. Their alpaca wool is even harvestedfrom free-ranging animals raised without chemicals. They also offerinnovative financing to the artisan groups, provide employeeincentives for using alternative transportation, buy solar power,support local nonprofits and encourage greening of the outdoorindustry. “We’re clearly going well beyond the normalfair-trade-organic type of business,” Leonard says.
Interest in Indigenous has increased with green’s recentpopularity, making it easier for them to highlight theireco-features while continuing to offer high-quality fashion that’sboth timeless and “on trend.” Leonard says, “We’re proving you cando the right thing and still be successful.”
Certainly, they’ve faced challenges on their journey, includingfinding investors to nurture their vision even during difficulttimes, having to refuse products and revenue not aligned with theirmission, and incorporating their values into the company’sstructure as it has grown. “I mean,” Leonard asks rhetorically,”why would we ever start a company and make such strides increating this model only to have it break down if someone buys usthat doesn’t have the same value match?”
When others praise the company’s accomplishments, he shrugs,saying, “To me, it’s just a drop in the bucket. What we’re proud ofis that we’ve set a course, been steadfast in our values, been acatalyst and a beacon to other people interested in sustainability,and continued to effectuate change in every community that we’rein, so that our impacts are much larger than the company weare.”
As we say goodbye, I appreciate even more the bottom line that Isee—eco-gorgeous clothing that encourages meaningfulinnovation for a better world.
Indigenous Designs’ Holiday Warehouse Sale isWednesday–Saturday, Dec. 3–6.Wednesday–Friday,11am–6pm; Saturday, 10am–5pm. 2250 Apollo Way, Ste.400, Santa Rosa. 707.571.7811.
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