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When Scott Leonard launched Indigenous Designs 14 years ago and told people he was importing fair trade, organic clothing, he was met with blank stares. "At that point, people barely understood what organic food meant, let alone organic clothing," he says.
Today, with $4 million in revenue and distributors like Whole Foods and the Sundance catalog, the Santa Rosa, California-based company is working in a different market. "People want to put consumer dollars where it counts--for their own [well-being] and a better planet," Leonard says.
Leonard's inspiration for the company came from a trip he took to Ecuador in the early '90s, during which a friend introduced him to a women's fair trade knitting cooperative. Because of their outdated tools and inability to access quality fabrics or high-end designs, the women were being paid a fraction of what their talent was worth. As a result, many of them couldn't break free of the poverty cycle. Leonard, 40, who owned a surf shop at the time, changed gears, determined to create a company that could both earn a profit and help women like those he met in Ecuador.
Since then, Leonard and partner Matt Reynolds, 40, have teamed up with nongovernmental organizations in Ecuador, Guatemala, India and Peru. Through the NGOs, Indigenous Designs works with more than 300 knitting cooperatives of women who sew, crochet and knit sweaters, casualwear and accessories. Part of Leonard's job is to determine the groups' skills and match them with designs created by his team in California: "Our design mantra is 'Never let a customer feel like they're sacrificing quality or fashion sense to be a good global citizen.'"
Fabrics are sourced within 400 miles of each cooperative and are created using sustainable, natural materials. The knitting groups are given training and proper needles. While Leonard says shipping and quality control increase the costs of running his company, it's still competitive because he sells to high-end retailers. "At the heart of Indigenous is a truly symbiotic relationship," says Leonard, "one that mutually benefits all three parties: the consumer, the employee and the planet."JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch