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This Startup Is Changing The Lives Of The World’s Poorest Shoemakers

There’s a backlash against fashion made in countries where workers toil in deplorable conditions. Nisolo wants to keep these workers safe and employed.

This Startup Is Changing The Lives Of The World’s Poorest Shoemakers
[Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]

It’s been five years since Rana Plaza, a clothing factory in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring another 2,500.

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The tragedy still haunts Patrick Woodyard. Two years before the disaster, he founded Nisolo, a fashion brand with a mission to improve the lives of workers in the developing world. What happened in Bangladesh raised the stakes: “The world was suddenly paying attention to how the things in their closet were being made,” Woodyard says.

The stories about how Rana Plaza workers perished are almost too awful to fathom. One man, Mahamudul Hridoy, recalls being pinned to a concrete pillar and watching his coworker’s skull shattered. And although Hridoy survived, he walks with a crutch, has headaches, and struggles with nightmares. Several other survivors have committed suicide.

While Rana Plaza is a high-profile tragedy, Woodyard was acutely aware that it is just one of many shameful practices in fashion. Over the last few decades, fast fashion companies have chosen to make their products in countries where the minimum wage is low, like Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Cambodia, and Mexico. But cheap clothes come at a human cost—workers work long hours, often in unsafe environments.

“There’s now exposure to what’s going on globally within the fashion supply chain,” Woodyard says. “But I worry that it is so overwhelming that consumers and brands don’t know what to do to make things better. We realized that what the industry needs is success stories of brands that have been able to create products responsibly, so that customers know how their products are made, and who makes them.”

[Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]

The Peruvian Shoemaker

Over the last seven years, Woodyard has found it is not exactly easy building an ethical fashion business.  In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, many brands simply pulled out of Bangladesh altogether— not a particularly compassionate response, Woodyard says, because it took away work from folks with no other options.

And while other brands tout their “responsible” supply chains, many can’t guarantee how their products are made, because they don’t own their factories and rarely visit them. There have been stories over the years of brands like Nike and Adidas claiming to work with ethical factories that turn out not to be.

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Woodyard had never imagined becoming a fashion entrepreneur. He had trained for a career in microfinance and development economics. Throughout college and grad school, he spent time in Uganda, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay working with small-scale entrepreneurs. This is how in 2011, he found himself in Trujillo, Peru, speaking to a shoemaker’s wife.

Woodyard was helping her balance the books at the small bodega her family owned, since she was struggling to make ends meet. Her husband, Willan, spent his days crafting beautiful, luxury-quality loafers and oxfords. The problem was that the economy in Peru was so weak that locals could not afford what he made. “I walked through their house, and her husband was sitting there making what looked like a pair of Italian dress shoes by hand,” he recalls. “I listened to his story about how he struggled to provide for their four children, but I also saw so much talent and potential. What they lacked was an ability to get their product to a more established market, and suddenly all I wanted to do was find a way to help him scale.”

That’s when Woodyard came up with the idea of Nisolo, an e-commerce site that would allow shoemakers like Willan to bring their shoes to a global market.  Since Woodyard had no fashion experience, he brought on a cofounder, Zoe Cleary, a fashion veteran who had previously worked at Bergdorf Goodman and Aeropostale.

While Woodyard would focus on the supply chain and helping the workers escape poverty, Cleary would be tasked with helping to design beautiful leather products for the U.S. market, ensuring they were well-made, and creating an e-commerce experience that would be palatable to consumers used to shopping at Everlane and Warby Parker.

Zoe Cleary (center) and Patrick Woodyard (right) [Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]

Safer Factories

To get Nisolo up and running, Woodyard set up a large-scale operation in Trujillo, the country’s third largest city. Through Willan, Woodyard found a group of 20 other artisans who were all working independently, selling their products at local markets. They were all eager to join Nisolo. “The local market was so bad, and there was such a huge need for consistent work that everybody was willing to leave everything they had going on to come work with us,” he says.

Master shoemaker Willan Ulloa [Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]
Woodyard decided he had no choice but to build his own factory in Trujillo. “It wasn’t necessarily our intention from the start,” he says. “But we realized that the only way that we could feel confident about our ability to ensure not only the quality of the shoes, but also how the workers were treated, what they were paid, and what their work environment was like, was to start our own factory.”

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Nisolo’s factory now consists of 100 shoemakers who make the brand’s shoes and other leather goods, and do other administrative tasks from cleaning to warehousing. Woodyard ensures that the average salary at the factory is 33% higher than fair trade wage requirements. Women have felt the impact of this higher wage: Most report an annual income increase of 125% since joining Nisolo, compared to previous employment.

All workers sign a contract, guaranteeing their stable salary and benefits, like 15 days of paid time off a year, and access to company-paid healthcare. This is rare in Trujillo, where 75% of employment takes place in the informal economic sector, where people sell products in public squares or work on a project-by-project basis. All Nisolo workers receive a fixed salary, which is something few have ever had.

Trujillo, Peru [Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]
This kind of stability can be life changing. Fernando, for instance, who operates machinery at Nisolo, used to work up to 16 hours a day making shoes in Trujillo, selling them in markets. But he was unable to consistently provide for his wife and 2-year-old son, so he moved to Argentina for four years to seek better opportunities. He couldn’t afford to visit his family during this time. When he came back to Trujillo, he heard about Nisolo and applied. He now lives with his family without worrying about not having healthcare or his son’s schooling costs.

With Woodyard’s microfinance background, he’s been sure to equip workers with financial literacy training, helping them each set up bank accounts. With access to banking services, they can secure loans safely, rather than through exploitative loan sharks. They can also start to save money.

[Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]

Factories Around The World

Woodyard’s plan for Nisolo has worked. The company now has B Corp certification that guarantees a positive social and environmental impact. Nisolo has also been growing by 150% every year since it launched. This has produced new challenges. “We have had to double the factory every single year,” he says. “We got to a point where our production dropped below what we had forecasted. This put us in a vulnerable financial situation where we had all this demand, and we might not be able to deliver on our product.”

But to Woodyard, this presented a new opportunity: He could expand Nisolo’s work to other factories around the globe. The Nisolo team has scoured developing countries for the most ethical factories they could find. After creating a shortlist of 15, they’ve ended up partnering with five: four ethical factories in Leon, Mexico, to make shoe and leather accessories, and another 11-person artisan workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, which makes shoes and jewelry. Both have a 2% turnover rate, which indicates that the workers are well-treated and have a stable livelihood.

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“These factories have most of the same benefits that we have within our own factory, and some even do things better than we’re doing,” he says. “We’re working with their HR teams to swap success stories and pitfalls, but also to verify the work they’re doing.”

[Photo: courtesy of Nisolo]
Now Woodyard’s challenge has gone beyond simply establishing ethical working conditions in his own factory to making sure that all the factories within the Nisolo network are up to the same standard. He spends 40% of his time focused on the supply chain, visiting factories four times a year. And the company has hired a full-time staff member who has moved to Nairobi to supervise production there.

But while this new global supply chain is more complicated to manage, Woodyard is excited about how he can bring Nisolo’s mission to a global stage and support factories around the world that are on the same page.

He notes that there are talented artisans around the world, just like in Trujillo, who needed the ability to bring their products to more lucrative markets. With Nisolo’s help, they can learn about international quality standards and design trends, and have access to better quality materials and equipment, so they can sell their products in the U.S. market.

“Our business is all about recognizing that there is a better way to do fashion,” he says. “Consumers have become so disconnected from where their products are made, who makes them, and under what conditions. We want consumers to feel really confident about where their goods are made, and feel like they are making a big impact with their purchase.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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