Eve Blossom, a former architect and a business school dropout, is using her design skills to reinvent the supply chain, starting with the textiles industry. Her company, Lulan Artisans, is generating profits for itself and for some 650 weavers, dyers, spinners and finishers around the world—including in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Here's what drove and drives Blossom to make that material change...
Roots: Before starting her own business, Blossom worked as a trained architect and designer in Vietnam. Her primary charge there was to renovate French villas. Then, she witnessed something atrocious.
In a hotel bar in Hanoi, a European man spoke explicitly about his plans later that night to be "with a Vitenamese girl," and about "wanting a virgin." Unaware that Blossom could understand the language he was speaking, the man practically boasted that the girl's father had arranged everything, and the girl was just six years old. Sickened by this, Blossom tried with great urgency to intervene, but she could not change the outcome for the girl, she laments.
Research: After her chilling encounter, Blossom began to research human trafficking. According to Free The Slaves, a nonprofit advocacy group, some 27 million people are being held as slaves for sex or forced labor at any one time in the world. Global profits from this illegal trade are unknown, but estimated by the International Labor Organization to reach around $39 billion a year.
Blossom says her research confirmed something she already knew, at heart:
"Artisans were at risk, not being paid fair trade or for what they are worth. This has profound repercussions on their lives and ours. Prevention is key.
When there's job creation and an economic choice in a community, there's less risk of them falling into human trafficking. When people can achieve a good quality of life, and find stable jobs, they don't tend to sell their children, for example, or to take jobs in the city or in another country with somebody that they don't know well.
To prevent people from making these devastating decisions is a matter of respecting the work of others…"
Redesign: Dedicated to solving the problems at the center of human trafficking, in 2004 Blossom started Lulan Artisans as a for-profit, social venture that connects buyers, producers, and designers. Today, the company helps artisans sell their expertise, textiles, and other goods to interior designers and general consumers online and in showrooms. Some of Lulan's product is sold at the famed New York City store ABC Carpet & Home.
Weavers, dyers, spinners, and finishers around the world, especially in Southeast Asia, benefit from Lulan's business approach. The company teaches their artisan partners how negotiate fair trade prices for their work; what kind of design trends are driving buyers' decisions now; and why and how they should form cooperatives to stay successful in business long-term.
Lulan also implements tailored benefits programs for each community where it partners with artisans. (Blossom rejects phrases like "where we source product.") If the artisans need, say, education in their communities, or if they need eye care, Lulan finds a way to connect them to local schools or optometrists, and will pay for educational fees, or buy them glasses. The benefits Lulan sets up will vary community to community.
Blossom says Lulan invests in "whatever it takes to strengthen the community, near- and short-term, at the community's request." This is all part of her mission to celebrate crafts people, and to use "design thinking" to reinvent the supply chain.
By The Book: Blossom has written extensively about her work as a designer of beautiful things, but more so of sustainable business and systems in a new book, Material Change (October 8, 2011, Metropolis). The book contains stunning photography and art highlighting the ideas and people who inspired the bright-eyed, soft-spoken CEO and Aspen Fellow.
In a foreword to Material Change, design guru Yves Behar writes: "What does the future of design look like? It looks like this," and lauds Blossom and Lulan as a "new model for an exchange of service that goes far beyond a purely economic exchange."
High (Minded) Tech: In Material Change Blossom briefly touches upon the impact of technology—from traditional looms to design software like AutoCAD—on the world's supply chains. So far, technology hasn't made the impact she hopes it eventually will, she tells FastCompany.com:
"Technology is failing to address some of the most dramatic human problems because of a lack of design thinking. It has started to impact the transparency of supply chains related to businesses that provide us with any goods, from our food and electronics to anything else. But it can and must do more.
Ultimately when you talk about a supply chain, you have to talk about actual workers somewhere. What does their building look like, what does the work look like, how many hours are they working each day, how do their bosses treat these people, what are their wages, what does their future look like…?
When people— and I mean CEOs, people in government and consumers alike— begin asking all those questions, that's when technology can be used to make its strongest impact. Technology alone, that can't change things. Ideas alone can't either. It always comes down to how humans treat and value humans."
Next Big Thing: Blossom's next big plan for Lulan is to launch a website in 2012 called We've that provides "a novel way to buy and sell artisanal goods, and is driven by story." It's not a simple catalog or ecommerce site, she says. It will differ from sites like Etsy, where some millions of products are up for sale at any one time from designers in all walks of life.
"People will be at the center of We've," Blossom says. "We will have deep relationships with artisans that sell on We've. It will be highly curated. We've, like Lulan, will also give the artisans skills, especially in terms of design and business savvy, to help them market and connect with buyers."
We've represents a digital extension of what Lulan Artisans is already doing for the design industry with just four full-time employees. Blossom is currently in the process of raising funds to develop We've and expand her team in San Francisco.
[Image: Flickr user Paul Gruber]