- Nancy Flores American-Statesman Staff
While doing humanitarian work throughout Africa, Austinite Dani Lachowicz collected vibrant handmade jewelry, each piece a reminder of her experiences, from Senegal to Kenya.
During a yearlong post in South Sudan with the International Rescue Committee, Lachowicz met artisans who collected old bullet casings — remnants from war times — and melted them down, transforming them into beautiful bangles. Lachowicz purchased many for friends back in the U.S. and noticed that even though the artisans were thousands of miles away, their stories of struggle and survival resonated.
Lachowicz, who received a master’s degree in human rights and humanitarian aid from New York University, realized that through jewelry she could continue to make a difference in the lives of children in developing countries even after she returned to the U.S. In April, she launched an online boutique for Bloom and Grace, a socially conscious jewelry brand. Each jewelry purchase supports artisans and designers in developing countries and also provides childhood vaccinations through the United Nation’s Shot@Life campaign.
Bloom and Grace joins a growing national movement of fashion-centric social enterprises, such as Toms shoes, that are driven by social causes and have double or triple bottom lines. In recent years, Austin’s community of social entrepreneurs has also grown, creating new ways for shoppers to access unique products while pushing awareness of a variety of international issues.
“It was important to me to do something quantifiable,” Lachowicz says. A $45 purchase equals three vaccines for a child in need, and a tag attached to each jewelry piece indicates the number of children helped through that sale. So far, Bloom and Grace has provided vaccines for more than 6,000 children with products ranging from turquoise bib necklaces to mixed metallic necklaces made out of lightweight rope.
“The profit is great, but doing good is better,” she says.
Having a desire to be a part of something bigger helps Esperos founder Oliver Shuttlesworth feel like part of a movement instead of a brand, he says. Esperos, a local lifestyle company that sells stylish backpacks and totes, launched in 2012 and focuses on educating children in developing countries. Each bag sold helps fund one year of education for a child in Haiti or Guatemala.
Shuttlesworth has a background in corporate communication and worked in advertising for over two years when he realized he needed to pursue something more fulfilling. Having traveled throughout Latin America, he had seen the effects of poverty on children and “felt there was something more I could be doing,” he says.
The rise of fashion-centric social enterprises, Shuttlesworth says, reflects today’s culture, especially millennial culture.
“People are starting to ask more questions about where and how their products are made,” Shuttlesworth, 27, says. “We want quality, but also want to give back in ways that make sense. We care about the global impact because the Internet has played a big role in creating our global awareness.”
Jen Lewis, founder of Austin-based accessories company Purse & Clutch, says that millennials are accustomed to identifying international social issues through technology and asking, “What can I do to help?”
“I hear about the needs of the world so much that it’s hard to escape,” Lewis, 30, says. “With all the information available, people are starting to realize they have a choice (about helping). My job is to make that choice easier.”
Purse & Clutch partners with artisans from Madagascar to India to provide sustainable jobs at living wages. Lewis, who studied business leadership and ethics, traveled and worked in Latin America doing everything from teaching chemistry in Honduras to building orphanages in Bolivia. As part of her graduate program, she studied Guatemalan artisan markets and the challenges women there face to become viable businesses.
Although these social entrepreneurs didn’t have an immediate passion for fashion, they have committed to making unique, quality products. Lewis says not sacrificing style while shopping for good is key.
“People in Austin want to express themselves,” Lewis says. “They aren’t necessarily looking for a label, but something that’s one of a kind and interesting.”
Austin’s strong socially conscious consumer base has helped these companies thrive, Lewis says. Earlier this year, companies Teysha and Raven + Lily expanded from online shops to brick-and-mortar stores. Teysha, now on South First Street, works with artisans throughout Latin America and creates vibrant shoes and accessories incorporating indigenous artwork. Raven + Lily, a lifestyle brand now on Manor Road, empowers marginalized women from Ethiopia to Los Angeles.
Other local fashion companies like Noonday Collection not only partner with artisans in the developing world but also encourage customers to spread awareness by hosting in-home trunk shows featuring the jewelry and accessories. Noonday offers scholarship programs, emergency assistance and donates a portion of sales to place orphans in forever families.
The social entrepreneurs say that like-minded companies tend to support one another in Austin, often brainstorming together or teaming up for shopping events. Local resources for social enterprises are also plentiful, Lewis says, and help fashion-centric companies network and grow. “We all have the same heart,” she says. “And we’re all manifesting it in different ways.”