Why (and How!) This Design Company Operates as a Nonprofit
It’s hard to beat the feeling of snagging the perfect new bag that actually holds your lunch and your gym gear without looking weird and lumpy, but if you’ve scored one of Mercado Global’s gorgeous women ones, it comes with the added buzz of supporting the work of Guatemalan women and their families. Founded by Ruth DeGolia while still a Yale undergrad in 2004 (talk about a senior project!), the company is now an international powerhouse that not only provides a living wage to the people behind their products but also creates new infrastructure and support systems along the way. Since there are lots of models for do-good businesses these days—the one-for-one, 501(c)(3), B Corp, etc.—we asked Ruth’s partners-in-crime, creative director Meg Koglin and sales director Susana Aguirre, to break down Mercado’s for us.
Q: Okay, the basics: How does Mercado Global’s biz model work?
Susana: “We’re a nonprofit with a mission to transform the lives of women. We create beautiful accessories that can transform an outfit but also empower an entire community of indigenous women. We say that a single thread is stronger when woven with many others, and, through our not-for-profit model, we strengthen communities of women, helping them build up savings through weaving income and providing access to equipment like sewing machines and looms through microloans. We also run educational programs on financial literacy, business development, self-esteem, family health, and nutrition. There’s also market access, which is a program focused on financial independence to overcome poverty. Market access is huge. These women are highly skilled in ancient Mayan weaving techniques face very limited sales opportunities. We connect women to international sales opportunities and provide technical trainings for women to improve their weaving and sewing skills.
Santiaga Xinico Yos is just one of Mercado's many female weavers.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face that other designers might not have to tackle?
Susana: “Scaling our impact—that means finding new ways to help our current partners and incorporating more communities into our model.”
Q: When you’re looking to gauge whether something is made in a people-friendly and ethical way, are there certifications or markers to look for?
Meg: “That is one of the trickiest questions to answer succinctly because ethical environmental and social fashion takes many forms; there is no one-size, catch-all certification that works for everything from artisan to family-owned to corporate. Understanding—and even questioning—certifications is very big topic that I could passionately talk about for hours, so I'll stick to ways that it's easier to know something is made ethically. In my 11 years working in responsible fashion design—from luxury runway to a large ethical corporation (it IS possible) to Mercado Global's artisan cooperatives—I've learned that getting to know the people in every part of supply chain is the best way for a designer to know things are being made with their values. Always ask more questions. Visits to where things are being made are essential.”
Q: What are the best ways for shoppers to tell if the piece they’re in love with is made in a way they can feel good about?
Meg: “For consumers, that's trickier, but you can choose to seek out brands that share their story. Look for lines that talk about real experiences, materials, process, people, and details beyond sustainability marketing jargon. If you're curious about a product you like but aren't sure it's ethical, reach out to the company! It's easier than ever with social media and email. Find out more before you buy. Ask about the fiber content, where they got their materials, who did the handwork, why they produce where they do, why they choose the materials they do. A transparent company that stands behind their mission will share their story across all platforms and will be happy to engage with their community to grow ethical fashion and to educate consumers. Just remember to give a little reply time to the small companies where people wear many hats!”
Q: What’s your best advice for a company just starting out that’s looking to incorporate a give-back ethos like you do?
Susana: “No matter the hurdles, never lose sight of the fundamental mission. It can actually help you make the hard decisions down the road.”