By Shea & Raan Parton
Photos by Luftor Rahman
One of the biggest surprises in the history of Apolis thus far has been the customizable market bag. When Raan first pitched the idea to me (Shea), I thought it wouldn't fly. But instead of giving up, Raan paid out of his own pocket to get samples made, and the resulting market bag looked great. What's more, people loved the bag, especially once we introduced the option of customizing your bag your way.
And now, years later, there are approximately 500,000 happy market bag owners across the globe — and we believe we're just getting started.
What we love most about this bag is not just that it's durable, long-lasting, and endlessly useful — it's that every bag purchased benefits the community of Saidpur, Bangladesh, where the bags are made. And in contrast to so many factories in the developing world whose wages just barely help employees survive, the Saidpur co-op provides an alternative factory model (see our Forbes interview on this very topic) which pays wages above Fair Trade standards, plus annual profit dividends and a retirement fund. This way, employees (mostly moms) are able to invest in their own lives and families, thus benefiting the entire community.
The Challenge We Faced
But the success of the market bag has posed a challenge, as well. The Saidpur co-op has struggled to keep up with demand, and we want to be wise about how we steward this partnership long-term. If we push the co-op (which currently employs 145 mothers) too hard, there's a danger that in their effort to "keep Apolis happy," they might eventually cut corners as far as quality or working conditions — which would make Apolis just another part of the fast-fashion problem.
That's why last year, I (Shea) asked a friend in Bangladesh — award-winning photojournalist Atish Saha — to put out his feelers for any high-quality cooperatives in Bangladesh which focus on craftsmanship and take care of their people. That's how we came in contact with Oporajeo, an employee-owned factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Story Behind Oporajeo
The Oporajeo co-op was founded after the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 — a devasting incident in which a garment factory collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring thousands more. In many ways, Rana Plaza was a worldwide wake-up call to the unsafe and unethical conditions that many factory workers are subjected to.
Oporajeo was founded to provide job opportunities for some of the survivors in order to help them rehabilitate, and as a result, this employee-owned co-op holds itself to remarkably high standards. The Dhaka-based factory currently employs 35 producers — who management refer to not as "employees" but as "co-workers," indicating the radically different mindset of this organization. These workers receive free medical treatment from a staff doctor, plus profit dividends and childcare. Oporajeo also runs two charity schools in a remote area of Bangladesh.
By partnering with Oporajeo, not only are we able to keep up with demand for the market bag, we get to create more jobs which benefit local communities — all in order to break additional cycles of poverty in Bangladesh. This allows us to continue to support our existing partnership with the Saidpur co-op, enabling them to grow in scale at a healthy pace without feeling pressure to start cutting corners, and which doesn't lead to a volatile situation that could result in lay-offs.
We expect to start offering Customizable Lunch Bags from the Oporajeo factory in the coming weeks, featuring the same quality and durability you've come to expect from all our market bags.
We're genuinely honored that we get to partner with every person who owns a market bag in order to provide opportunities which benefit craftspeople across the world. Thank you for choosing to support Apolis and, by extension, the goal of using business to improve people’s lives.