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Conversations with Today's Green Business Leaders

Nat
Anne O'Laughlin
June 2011 —
Fair Trade Fashion and Footwear

Autonomie Fair Trade; Boston, MA and Oakland, CA

 

How deep is the green-business commitment of Autonomie Fair Trade? So deep that a sale of their Fair Trade footwear is just the first step in helping their customers green their lives. For example, last year, Autonomie directed customers toward ways their old clothing or footwear could be put to good, green use.

"Throughout the summer of 2010 we sponsored a shoe drive where we collected our customers’ old shoes that we then donated to a recycling center in Minnesota that turned the shoes into oil spill clean-up kits that were donated to the Gulf oil spill relief effort," says Anne O'Laughlin, Autonomie's founder. "As a thank you to our customers for their generous donations, we gave them a coupon for 50% off a purchase of new footwear from our Web site." .

We asked Anne to tell us more about fair supply chains, vegan shoes, Fair Trade premiums, and the newest products in the Autonomie line.

Green America: What does your business do, and where are you located?

Granola
Hubli is one of Autonomie's cotton growers in India. She is a source of the FTC-certified organic cotton used in the canvas, inners and shoelaces of the Ethletic sneakers.

Anne O'Laughlin: Autonomie Fair Trade is a clothing company offering casual apparel and footwear for children and adults that is 100-percent organic, vegan and Fair Trade. We act as the North American distributor for two UK-based brands, Ethletic (featuring organic, Fair Trade footwear) and Little Green Radicals (featuring organic, Fair Trade children’s clothing). We not only sell and market their products, but we also sell a collection of organic T-shirts for adults that are made in the USA and are offered retail online, wholesale for re-sale, and customized for student groups, church organizations, and non-profits.

Our mission is two-fold: we not only strive to support marginalized workers around the world that may lack access to the global economy, but we also work to make ethical and eco-friendly products more accessible and affordable to conscious consumers in the Western World seeking to make purchases that align with their personal values. Finally, we actively work to educate, advocate and empower our customers to make holistic lifestyle changes and purchasing habits that support our three causes of environmentalism, global labor rights, and cruelty-free practices.

 

What makes your business "green?"

While most rubber these days is man-made in a factory out of chemicals, Autonomie rubber is the old fashioned kind, all-natural that is tapped from a tree like maple syrup. The trees in Sri Lanka are all FSC-certified.

Anne: All of the products we sell are 100-percent organic, all-natural and/or eco-friendly. We also understand that the sourcing of environmentally-friendly materials is only one small step towards sustainability. In order to reduce excess fuel and carbon emissions and to support and empower the local economies of our producers, we ensure that our supply chains are regionally centralized. Rather than flying unfinished products all over the world from one step of the supply chain to the next, we truck the materials regionally ensuring that our suppliers are sourcing materials as local to them as possible. We then ship the finished products direct to our warehouses in the US by lower-impact ocean freight. We also are committed to collaborating with and encouraging all of our suppliers to employ eco-friendly practices and policies at their operational and production levels whenever possible.

Autonomie Project’s environmental practices at home are equally important as those abroad. The office has a strict recycling and re-using policy. We re-use 100-percent of incoming shipping/mailing boxes and other packing materials that we receive. If these materials are not salvageable, they are broken down for recycling or for use as padding/packing for outgoing shipments. When the need arises to purchase new shipping and packing materials, we use only 100-percent post-consumer recycled materials.

After tapping the rubber from trees, fair-wage workers in Sri Lanka- purify, smooth, and roll the latex into sheets of rubber, which are then dyed and cut and used for the soles of Ethletic sneakers.

Company-wide marketing materials must also be produced sustainably. Our banners, coupons, postcards, flyers and other mailings and marketing materials are always sourced locally, printed on 100-percent post-consumer recycled materials, use eco-friendly inks, and are often produced using wind and other alternative sources of energy.

Printing and copying within the office is held to a minimum. We purchase only one ream of paper at a time in order to reduce our use, and this paper is always 100% recycled and FSC-certified. We use electronic billing and filing and also collect reusable scrap paper rather than purchasing new notebooks and pads. We recycle all of our empty printer inks, taking advantage of the generous collection and recycling programs sponsored by companies like Staples and HP. Furthermore, we purchase used furniture rather than buying new whenever possible; only use re-usable dishware and utensils; exclusively offer locally-roasted, organic and Fair Trade coffee and tea; and use only all natural and organic cleaning supplies. The office does not have air conditioning in order to reduce our energy use, and other energy efficient practices are currently in process, including replacing conventional lighting with eco-friendly/low-impact light bulbs and switching to Boston’s wind energy electricity program.

 

What did you do before you started your own green business?

Final assembly for Autonomie sneakers happens at the Talon factory in Pakistan, where a premium is paid for each pair of sneakers which pays for health and welfare facilities for all workers.

Anne: Social entrepreneurship has been a passion of mine since my senior year of college. I received a grant from my university to conduct field research in Taiwan on sweatshops and migrant labor issues. This opportunity of getting to personally meet workers that produce our garments; to hear their stories; to befriend them; and to witness upfront their daily struggles triggered my desire to pursue a career in social justice and do whatever I could that would help bring them better working conditions and a sustainable and healthy lifestyle. As I searched for job opportunities after graduation, I began networking with other social entrepreneurs and labor rights activists and was thus introduced to the world of Fair Trade and small, green business. And it proved to be a natural fit!

 

How did Autonomie Project get started?

The finished product!

Anne: We were inspired to start Autonomie Project because, as socially-conscious consumers ourselves, we were frustrated by the lack of affordable options of stylish, on-trend clothing for younger professionals that met all three value chains. We felt that the options available in the ethical marketplace at that time were limited and forced us to choose one value over another. For example, vegan shoes were typically made with PVC’s and other materials that are harmful to the environment; organic jeans were typically made in sweatshops; and Fair Trade clothes were few and far between, unfashionable, or not eco-friendly. We wanted to fill this gap and bring a collection of affordable clothes that our generation would actually wear that were not only organic, but also Fair Trade and cruelty-free!  

We named our company Autonomie Project because of our mission to help workers gain autonomy in their lives and empowerment in their jobs. We hope to support them as they overcome slave-like and indentured working conditions that are so prevalent in the garment industry.

 

What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?

Anne: We bootstrapped our business on limited, personal funds about a year before the recession hit the global economy. As we watched our bottom line suffer and our small business struggle to grow, it was extremely difficult to maintain and justify our high level of operational expenses due to our environmental commitment. Consumer perceptions changed and even our niche market seemed to be less willing or able to purchase higher-priced goods, even if they were ethically made; but we had very little control over our profit margins and struggled to keep our pricing as competitive as possible without compromising some level of our ethics or supply chain. It was also challenging to decline business opportunities that did not match or support our mission when we were struggling to make any business opportunities at all!

We overcame these obstacles by keeping a bigger picture in mind and holding true to our mission. We knew that as long as we stayed authentic, genuine, and fair to our core market of supporters, they would help us overcome the economic challenges and support our business even in the worst of times. We also exercised creative marketing strategies and deployed non-traditional business techniques in order to keep cash flowing through the door and focused on keeping our suppliers and vendors paid rather than expanding our product collection as quickly as we had originally envisioned.

 

What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?

Anne: There have actually been a number of proud moments!

Over the years, we have hosted a booth at a number of ‘mainstream’ events and music festivals. It feels like we’re really putting ourselves out there as the ‘odd’ or ‘different’ company marketing a mission or a worker’s story just as much as a brand or product. We are under much more intense scrutiny at these events than at a Green Festival or other gathering with like-minded green businesses and visitors. It has been absolutely wonderful to see mainstream consumers stop by our booth, ask questions, read our literature, and think about the issues and how they can make better purchases. Getting to meet and talk with people in a positive way and introducing them to how businesses, like mine, can make a healthy impact on our earth has been a truly rewarding experience and really makes me feel like I’ve helped strengthen the green economy.

It has also been extremely rewarding to see the growth of our suppliers and the ongoing improvements they’ve made to the lives of our workers. Because of the hard work we’ve been doing to sell their products and introduce their stories to the American consumer, our suppliers have grown in number, hired more workers, and offered more benefits. In 2008, our orders helped build a water piping system to bring clean, running water to a rural village of our workers that previously lacked access to water. In 2010, our primary factory reached full capacity for orders and employment, hired more female workers, and introduced life insurance to the workers’ benefit packages.

It is always worth the hard work and sacrifices when we can so easily see how our work is making our planet a better place, strengthening our local economy, and is bettering the lives of people all over the world!

 

What would you tell other green entrepreneurs just starting out?

Anne: Believe in the power of positive thinking! Every business has its challenges and obstacles, so you shouldn’t take it personally. As an entrepreneur, the challenges are tenfold, and as a social or green entrepreneur the challenges are multiplied again. As long as you keep a positive and open mind, you will be able to overcome any obstacle with success. Leap – there will be a net below you even if you can’t see it!

Also never underestimate the importance of mentors and keep your network close. You never know who will be the next helping hand, great connection, lead to investment, or just a shoulder to cry on. If you actively keep in touch with your network, you will harness the power of their support and build a community around you and your business.

The first of its kind, Autonomie's hand-crafted rain boot is made from 100-percent all-natural and Fair Trade rubber.

 

What are your next great green plans for the future?

Anne: We just recently invested in a wind farm in Greensburg, KS as part of our carbon offset program and are looking forward to making more investments like this in the future. This summer we are working on a program where we will plant a tree in a developing or deforested region of the world for every purchase made through our online store. Also, new this spring: Fair Trade rain boots!

 

What green product (besides your own) could you not live without?

Anne: My EcoUsable water bottle! Not only do I think it’s attractive and stylish, but it helps me cut-down on the amount of plastic I consume and stay healthy by drinking water throughout the day. The team at EcoUsable has also been very friendly and supportive of my business and my team further enhancing my experience as a green entrepreneur and strengthening the friendship and unity of the Green Business Network™!

 

 

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