The story starts in a small slum in Guatemala that has a sweet name but is facing a bleak future. La Limonada (Lemonade in English), inspired Bethany Tran to start The Root Collective after she visited this sprawling community that “even Santa Claus doesn’t go to.” By working directly with artisans, she is providing jobs to a community that urgently needs a way to break the long-desperate cycle of oppression, and begin creating a better future.
Currently, The Root Collective designs and makes shoes and accessories, but rumor has it the line will be expanding sometime in the (hopefully near) future. Their handmade boots and shoes feature real leather and handwoven cotton, and exude a classic Latin American aesthetic, with a focus on line and detail. If my lust for the Espe Bootie is anything to go by (have you seen the Sage?!?), then you need to keep an eye on this brand as it grows.
The Root Collective’s Eco Cred
Bethany believes the goal of sustainable symmetry can be broken down into three broad categories:
The People: Empowered
It was the people’s plight that touched Bethany the most, and inspired the brand, so that is where she has started. There are many communities and slums around the world, and most of the residents there are trapped in a cycle of oppression with little opportunity for improvement, but when she looked around, she noticed something that many have missed:
I began to notice how complicated poverty was, and how nonprofits working in these types of communities were focused on education, but no one was addressing the fact that those kids would need jobs after they graduated.
This lead to an interesting approach to manufacturing, one that is demonstrably able to produce real, immediate results.
[We] partner directly with small-batch producers. These are people who own their own businesses, and we come alongside them to provide an outlet for the sale of their goods, which turns into additional jobs for their community. We do the design work here the in US and work with them on manufacturing. This model can definitely be adopted, and is actually used by many other likeminded brands who are looking at turning the fashion industry on it’s head and doing things differently…We started by working with a single shoemaker in his workshop…That same shoe workshop now employs 10 shoemakers…
The typical process in fashion is for a design house to work directly with a manufacturer: a person or company owns a building full of machinery where people are employed for a wage. These people often have to travel a long distance, or relocate to a city, to find this kind of work. Anonymity abounds and the faceless employees remain powerless. By working with artisans directly, Bethany empowers the people of the community to keep things locally contained so that they can grow fairly, and as one.
Those Other Two Things: Animals and the Environment
They may be focused on the people, but that doesn’t mean The Root Collective isn’t actively trying to make other areas better as well. As Bethany points out, “working in a resource poor country like Guatemala makes production a challenge when you’re looking to really clean up your supply chain…[but] we are in conversations with some materials suppliers in Guatemala right now hoping to be able to better address those issues in the future. These things take a lot of time, but we are working on that side of things actively.” There can be a lot of roadblocks on this path: sometimes the product just doesn’t exist, or it exists, but the manufacturer can not meet client demands, or they can meet demands, but for any of a myriad of reasons, they don’t deliver. Probably every designer experiences manufacturing complications, but with the added strain of eco-standards, those complications can increase many times over.
Free Shoes, You Say?
Like most sustainable brands, it is about the constant improvement; striving for the highest possible ideals. As technology changes and producers adopt more responsible techniques, we will meet them there, then demand even more. It feels like we will never obtain perfection, therefore perfection is simply the art of always trying. I’ll leave it to Bethany to express what is arguably the most important lesson in sustainability:
You are so powerful! Every time you pull out your wallet, you are making a decision about the kind of world that you live in. Your dollars matter so much in changing the trajectory of our world. Don’t ever forget that. You can be such a part of creating a culture of kindness in the fashion industry (and others as well!).
The Root Collective definitely has some amazing shoes, but it’s by wearing them that you and your feet can feel good in so many extra ways. Plus, any company that lets you earn free shoes is worth a look.