On the outskirts of Manila in Payatas, residents live alongside a landfill site. In one of the biggest areas for urban poverty in the country, people have typically earned money from selling and recycling the junk left at the waste site. But local people, especially mothers who wanted to work from home in order to care for their children, began weaving materials and rugs for sale.
Their burgeoning industry was exploited by middlemen who controlled their access to the market and drove down their earnings - then Rags2Riches (R2R) stepped in. Founded by a group of young professionals, including now president Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, it has trained more than 1,000 artisans across the Philippines since it started in 2007 to help them bring their products to market and get a fair price for their work. Reese has been recognised as a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur.
How did you start Rags2Riches?
When we started in Payatas, we got to know artisans, mostly mothers, who were making foot rugs out of fabric and only being paid about 20 cents a day. In the Philippines that equates to less than a bottle of water.
When my co-founders and I saw the situation, we said we could either do nothing because the situation is so big or we could try do something, even if it’s small. We formed Rags2Riches named after the rags and foot rugs made by the artisans we met.
We took our idea to one of the top fashion designers in the Philippines and were surprised because he really liked it and wanted to help out. He started to design fashion bags and accessories, not just better-looking rugs, based on the artisans' work.
We had evolved into a fashion company and were very happy about this because the reputation of artisanal products usually fits a very niche market. People go to fair trade shops to find them and often don’t expect them to be well-designed or in line with mainstream fashion. We wanted to prove them wrong. Artisans can make beautiful and meaningful products, products that aren’t manufactured in bulk without the stories behind them or, even worse, made in sweatshops.
How did you get involved in social entrepreneurship and the fashion industry?
I was a management student at one of the top universities in the Philippines and also a scholar. My scholarship came from people who basically decided they’d support someone that they didn’t know, outside of themselves and their family. That made a lot of difference in my life and gave me the desire to give back or pay it forward.
But fashion? Not at all! Before I thought fashion was so frivolous and superficial, and a lot of waste. To a certain extent that’s still true of the fashion industry at large, but as it is one of the biggest industries in the world and it’s thriving, why not try to have little pockets of hope and change in an industry that affects so many? Fashion has the power to change lives and perceptions. If fashion is one of the biggest problems, it can also be one of the biggest solutions.
How is Rags2Riches tackling fast fashion?
Fast fashion is there for a reason: people want beautiful products in their price range. But we have to understand that cheap fashion is where other people end up paying for your stuff – the people who make the products and are paid less than what’s right.
We feel that awareness of what’s happening is necessary but that alternatives are even more important. If you don’t have alternatives that are viable and beautiful then it’s very difficult to complete that education.
There’s a way to design products that is fair to people and that doesn’t make the products go so high [in terms of price or appeal] that you kick yourself out of the market leaving people with no alternative but to buy fast fashion. Not everyone has the resources to buy super high-end, super ethical products. They do care but what choice do they have?
Not a lot of effort is spent on designing with intention, so we are very mindful in our designs. We want to design products that allow artisans to fairly participate in the supply chain while ensuring that consumers aren’t turned off by ethical products being too “handicrafty” or too expensive.
You work with both male and female artisans, but in particular working mothers. Why is this so important in the Philippines?
A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have been as open about being a feminist, but from my work with women I’ve realised that it’s so much harder for women to work, become a professional, get anywhere, and get the skills that they deserve and can totally own, because the systems and culture around us isn’t as supportive as it is for men.
When women are equipped and have opportunities, their income goes to their family, domestic violence goes down, their dependence on husbands is lessened. For those women in abusive relationships, they become less afraid to stand up for themselves and leave or take care of their families on their own. It helps lots of women break away from abuse and avoid other pitfalls they might encounter because of a lack of political and economic security and empowerment. We also have a lot of male artisans who are empowering the women in their lives. We can’t do women’s empowerment on our own as just women – everyone has to do their part.
What’s been one of our proudest achievements?
More than 80% of Filipinos do not have bank accounts. We are an unbanked nation. If you don’t have access to bank accounts it’s hard to get access to anything else, like social services, and it’s hard to think of the long-term.
We thought we should give our artisans access to bank accounts and financial literacy education, so they know why having savings is so important. Education will lead people to make better decisions and decide for themselves based on the information they’ve received. We’ve always tried not to impose on people what they might not understand.
In the beginning, a lot of the artisans were apprehensive. Most people here are used to keeping money under their bed or in their closet. After a few months of training and conversations, the saving passbooks arrived. For a lot of our artisans that was the first thing they had ever had with their name on it, something that they actually owned. Most of them don’t have bank accounts or land titles or even birth certificates. Imagine having something that tells you that you own something and that you can plan for the future.
Every time we encounter ups and downs, I look back to that time and think we are doing so much more than just what’s happening now. We’re planning for the long-term future of our artisans and of our country and that starts now with more empowered people thinking about the future with us.
What’s next for R2R?
Transparent supply chains are part of the future. Right now we don’t know how much it costs H&M to make a blouse or a piece of clothing. If we make sure we do, how will that change the face our business and make our companies more accountable? People are going to do this eventually – we want to find a way to do it right.
We’re looking at blockchain technology for inclusive supply chains, for example. It has the potential to track impact and activity in a way that can’t be manipulated or played around with and we’re looking for partners to help us implement that.
Our recently launched platform, Things That Matter, is a way to scale our impact by connecting and supporting other artisan communities and social entrepreneurs and sharing what we’ve learned about business and customer behaviour from the past 10 years. We also want to expand our artisan academy, which is home to all of our modules, including financial literacy training, to more communities in the Philippines.
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What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?
We really work within broken systems, that’s the reason we’re here and that means that it’s not going to look pretty all the time. It’s going to be complicated, it’s going to be heartbreaking, so do something that you truly believe in and have the right motivations because it’s not going to be an easy road ahead. Things that are broken can take a lot of time to mend, but in the end you have to believe that it’s going to be worth it.
What one thing can we all do to help create a shared future for a fractured world?
Our decisions are really powerful, so for every single decision we make can we think through to consequence number 10 rather than just thinking about consequence number 1? I think that will have a lot of impact. If we just decide with intention every day and think about all the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions, our decisions can carry more impact, especially in a fractured world.
We’re all from different backgrounds, ethnicities and have different histories so it’s hard to understand each other. We really have to try and it starts with us, with the little decisions we make.