By Shea & Raan Parton
Photos by Chantal Anderson, Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP, Jonas Jungblut, Kim Reierson, Anthropologie, Becky Trejo, Sophia Bush, Zachary Glassmith, Sanyo, Lawton Cook, Sid Beck
The end of the year is an ideal moment to pause and reflect. The last twelve months have been incredibly pivotal for Apolis, filled with a lot of significant changes, ranging from my (Shea) ongoing experience working remotely from Southern Oregon (which I'm happy to report has continued to feel fun and productive) to Apolis' new partnership with Sanyo in Japan. As we did last year, we’ve distilled this year's big takeaways into three central questions we want to continually ask ourselves in order to learn and improve in 2019.
1. How do we use business to break a poverty cycle?
Back when we started Apolis, we wouldn't have guessed that our hottest-selling item would turn out to be the market bag. But our collection of customizable market bags continues to exceed our hopes and expectations, and we're happy to say that at the end of 2018, there are 500,000 happy market bag owners across the globe — and we believe that we're just getting started. But what gets us most excited about this growing community of market bag owners is that every bag purchased benefits the community of Saidpur, Bangladesh, where the bags are made.
The fact that this bag helps break a poverty cycle particularly stood out to us when Forbes said of Apolis: "...An Alternative Factory Model: Could This Be Bangladesh's Future?" To understand this reality better, you must realize that the average wage for a family of three in Saidpur, Bangladesh, is 6,000 taka ($90 USD). In contrast, the mothers who handcraft the Apolis market bag receive above Fair-Trade-certified wages, which are on average 20% higher than the standard local wage. This is great, but the real opportunity to change lives comes from the Saidpur co-op's annual profit dividends and retirement fund. Last year, each mom received around 15,000 taka (over $200 USD) as their portion of profit, and mothers who work in the cooperative for over 5 years have an average of $5,000 USD in their retirement fund. This is the real benefit, because most third-world artisans in the garment and textile industry become homeless once they are unable to work since their wages only allow them to survive, but never get ahead.
The tremendous success of the bag has actually been a bit of a challenge as well, forcing us to holistically focus on the big picture in order to elevate communities out of poverty in a long-term way to really make a generational impact. Let me unpack this a little bit: if a vendor (Apolis) takes up all the capacity of a producer (the market bag cooperative), there quickly becomes a level of vulnerability for the vendor and the producer. The producer is vulnerable because if Apolis orders slow down, then the co-op needs to lay employees off, sending people right back into poverty. The vendor is vulnerable because if the co-op is not able to keep up with demand, then Apolis is not able to fulfill orders (particularly wholesale) and becomes undependable, which will eventually cause orders to slow down, which in turn leads to lay-offs for the co-op. The traditional bigger picture business goal is that it's helpful to have predictable and stable growth to scale and build capacity for both sides of this vendor and producer equation. But this gets tough when growth comes quickly and regularly outpaces annual growth predictions, which is what we've experienced.
This situation really intensified in 2018 and pushed us to think about long-term stewardship in regards to the first cooperative we started with, Saidpur Enterprises (which currently employs 145 mothers). If we push them too hard, in their effort to "keep Apolis happy," the co-op might eventually cut corners as far as quality or working conditions — which would make Apolis just another part of the fast-fashion problem. So in July of 2018, we began working closely with the award-winning photojournalist, Atish Saha, who I (Shea) had spent 10 days in Bangladesh with in 2017. We asked Atish to put out his feelers for any high-quality cooperatives that focus on craftsmanship and really take care of their people. As a result, we're excited to say that we're starting an additional partnership with a separate co-op in Bangladesh, with the first bags shipping in the coming weeks. Not only does this enable us to keep up with demand, it means we can patiently allow our first cooperative to scale at a healthy pace. This also enables us to create more jobs which benefit local communities, with the goal of breaking additional cycles of poverty in Bangladesh. We're excited to share more details about this new cooperative early next year, and we're continuing to look for high-quality, ethically run artisan manufacturers in Bangladesh — please do not hesitate to submit any leads here.
2. A simple question: what is our goal?
The simple answer is that we want to get smarter at serving our community and creating long-lasting everyday items that improve people's lives. Sure, that sounds altruistic, but frankly it's just the future of good business — and it truly benefits everyone: a win-win philosophy.
Furthermore, we think it's really vital for a company to think about the future rather than simply rest on its laurels. Taking the market bag as an example, it was not something that I (Shea) had on my radar as a product our brand would put out, but my brother Raan really pushed for it (in fact, he secretly ordered the first test run and paid for it with his own money, all because he believed this bag could go places). And now, that bag is the most successful product we have. That's why we're excited to continue to push forward and explore future opportunities for Apolis. Design often acts like a language barrier for rural craft communities around the world, preventing them from accessing a greater market, and so we're honored to see how the combining craftsmanship with appealing design brings a global market to these communities in a way that simply didn't exist before.
On a different note, another highlight from 2018 that we will revisit in some form in 2019 was the incredible response we had to our fundraising effort to help victims of the 2018 Montecito mudslides. This was a beautiful picture of the passionate way we've seen our community immediately activate and use business for good, raising over $30k in 48-hours which went directly to the Santa Barbara non-profit Direct Relief to provide emergency assistance to mudslide victims.
This year we were also excited to announce a forward-thinking partnership in Japan, which was previewed in October with a pop-up store featuring on-site market bag customization. In addition to offering an e-commerce site (which is now live) and pumping out one-of-a-kind customized bags every day, Apolis in Japan will have a flagship store in Tokyo by late April 2019. Our first international store will feature an expanded men’s line and the debut of the first Apolis women’s collection. We’re excited that this ongoing partnership will continue Apolis’ commitment to making long-lasting products that benefit the communities which make them.
3. How do we ensure people feel good about the things they buy?
We continue to look up to our friends at Patagonia as a company which has focused on offering sustainable value year-round. That's part of why we set prices on our products that are sustainable, rather than artificially marking products up so that we can mark them down for sales in order to make people think they're getting a bargain. At Apolis, if there is a item on sale, it is due to an internal purchasing mistake, and that item will never be produced again (side-note: if you're looking for a discontinued product, we recommend following these links: Apolis on eBay and Apolis on Reddit). Not only are we grateful to learn from brands like Patagonia (see our recent tour here), we're also thankful to continue our commitment to certification with B Corporation, an independent organization which audits companies for social and environmental impact. In 2018, we proudly completed our second B Corporation audit since we were first certified in 2012, and we continue to appreciate how this refining process keeps our feet to the fire when it comes to using business for good — learn more about our score here.
As we head into 2019, we’re thankful for people like YOU, who have chosen to support Apolis and, by extension, the goal of using business to improve people’s lives. We look forward to seeing what the next 12 months hold.
Happy new year!
Below are some pictures from Apolis' whirlwind year.