Green Scene: Indigenous Designs built on platform of environmental activism

Just over 10 years ago, Scott Leonard and Joe Flood literally ran into each other as they crossed a Palo Alto, Calif., street. The mutually apologetic follow-up phone calls led to a friendship and a year later the launch of Indigenous Designs, a business built on the platform of social justice and environmental activism.
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Just over 10 years ago, Scott Leonard and Joe Flood literally ran into each other as they crossed a Palo Alto, Calif., street. The mutually apologetic follow-up phone calls led to a friendship and a year later the launch of Indigenous Designs, a business built on the platform of social justice and environmental activism.

With Flood funding the venture and Leonard the company's sole employee, Indigenous Designs launched in January 1994. By March 1995, the company landed its first major order -- $450,000 of hand-knit Ecuadorian sweaters for the Nature Company. Matt Reynolds, a former high school classmate of Leonard with a background in business, activism and economics, joined the team then as COO. Leonard and Reynolds sourced the sweater from three cooperatives and delivered them to the Nature Company with zero returns.

"It was a pivotal stepping stone to proving what's possible," Reynolds said.

"We figured if we could control the raw material source, we could control the quality," Leonard added. So Indigenous Designs continued on its path, creating product with natural materials, no dyes or low impact dyes, and soon after, added organic cotton. It sought out knitters that were organized into co-ops under NGOs that fit Indigenous Designs' social responsibility mission of better quality work for a higher wage. Indigenous Designs' knitters often earn as much as three times the average wage and receive professional training. And, they are given a means to make a living from a craft that has cultural and spiritual significance for them.

Indigenous Designs works with artisan cooperatives in Ecuador, Peru and India, as well as a Green Peace-approved, family-owned, negative emissions factory in Ecuador. Instead of using a top down model, it works from the ground up. And the company has never strayed from its initial MO, even when times were tough financially.

"Our path was chosen from the start," Leonard said. "Our environmental and social values remain unwavering. These standards are a kind of sacred line that we won't cross. We don't define our success on a monetary level."

"We operate like a for-profit Peace Corps," said Reynolds. "We give the co-ops guidelines for packaging, help them source and supply raw material, and provide terms and micro-credit (funding to help the cooperatives purchase materials)."

Though Indigenous Designs is in the clothing business, the effort it puts into working on the bigger issues frequently takes up a large portion of its time and resources. Leonard conceptualized Outdoor Retailer's Green Steps program and he was the driving force that brought the program to fruition. He also was the major proponent for powering the Outdoor Retailer winter trade show with renewable energy, and encouraging the trade show producer to direct the profits from Green Steps participants to fund that energy at the show. Indigenous Designs is producing the Green Steps Journal to be distributed at Winter Market, and it has filed for non-profit status for the Green Steps Association.

The next project on its list is bigger than the outdoor market. Indigenous Designs is developing fair trade certification standards for manufactured goods that would set criteria for social justice, a living wage and basic human rights.

"This is a much more challenging project than certifying coffee or tea or handicrafts," said Leonard. "Following a product through a chain of production that involves a multitude of steps from raw material to finished product is a different animal. And it has to be done in a way that makes these standards applicable and useful in the real world." Indigenous Designs is concurrently working to create a source of organic cotton fiber in Guatemala.

"Sometimes our passion is a holy sword that cuts both ways," Leonard said. "We've got a small staff and we put any and all energy we can into communication and collaboration on sustainability issues. We'd like to take the Green Steps model to other industries. Our vision is to keep the momentum going."

"I can't describe the feeling I get seeing Nike and Cutter & Buck using organic cotton," Reynolds said. "We used to only mention that our cotton was organic as an afterthought because people would automatically assume that organic meant inconsistent, bad quality and late delivery. It's still a tiny portion of the larger marketplace, but it is happening. People want to know about organic."

Reynolds reports that Indigenous Designs has less than 3 percent defect rate and the company boasts an impressive 98 percent fill rate on orders placed. The three co-ops that initially fulfilled its Nature Company order have formed one artisan-owned LLC.

"Now with the Green Steps program and the Salt Palace being fuelled by renewable energy," said Reynolds, "we're proving that being environmentally responsible is viable, has integrity and is reliable. It's a win-win situation that doesn't have an exorbitant price tag."

While one arm of Indigenous Designs is tackling international issues, back home the company is working on transforming itself into a larger, more established premium brand of casual clothing. It'll continue with what it does best: blends of organic and natural fibers designed by Britta Reynolds (Matt Reynolds' wife) and Leonard. The company is introducing micro merino base layer, a fashion-driven take on technical long underwear.

Though Reynolds initially took a huge pay cut to work with Indigenous Designs, the past couple of years have been profitable for Indigenous Designs.

"We believe that the natural and organic fiber industry is where organic food was seven to nine years ago," Leonard said. "Larger retailers are starting to seek it out."

Indigenous Designs is projecting it will be a $15 million company by 2009, and according to Leonard, it's on track to meet that goal.

"This is the future," Reynolds said. "We're having steady success with sustainable, ethically and responsibly made products. This movement is not a trend. It's too consistent to be a trend. There is a world of possibility for both manufacturers and retailers who are willing to start small and build from there."

SNEWS® is very committed to further the communication of the green message. Our monthly "Green Scene" column takes a look at what our industry is doing well, what it can do better, and provide inspiration and ideas for establishing our industry position as the leaders in green for both preservation and profit. If you have ideas or issues you would like to see us discuss, send an email to: GreenScene@snewsnet.com.

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