Hey Change Maker! My guest this week is Jen Lewis with Purse & Clutch!
We begin the episode by talking about Jen’s background and how Purse & Clutch got started. Jen currently lives in Austin with her two young daughters. She started Purse & Clutch about 11 years ago – by accident! Her best friend from graduate school had moved to India and was working with artisan groups there to make and sell purses, and Jen wanted to help with what they were doing. She felt very passionately about the transformational power of jobs on people living in low-income countries. With the modern customer and a sustainable business model in mind, Jen spent a year researching and putting up an ecommerce site – an online boutique – to sell the purses made by this group in India. She eventually added a second artisan group that focused on both ethical and fashionable purses. As the industry grew, Jen knew she wasn’t going to be competitive unless she had something unique to offer – that’s when she launched her own brand, Purse & Clutch. According to Jen, “The larger I grow Purse & Clutch, the more artisans I can employ, and the more people we can partner with and continue on with this mission of transforming people out of generational poverty.”
We then shift into discussing slow fashion and how it plays out practically at Purse & Clutch. Jen explains that the slow fashion movement was born from the slow food movement. She discusses how it took her a long time to realize that she, the consumer, is directly connected with the maker of the products she buys, regardless of whether she likes the story of how these products are made. She remarks, “How things are made matters, and how we consume them matters. I think the only way that they can matter is when we slow down enough to take notice.” Jen now uses this philosophy as the foundation for production at Purse & Clutch. The business produces just what is needed in small batches, rather than thousands of products at a time. While margins of scale are one of the best ways for businesses like Purse & Clutch to cut their costs, Jen strongly believes that their small batch approach is the best way to ensure they’re not producing waste. While this slow fashion approach is more costly, it’s ultimately better for the environment, produces higher-quality items, and creates a better quality of life for the artisans creating the handbags, wallets, and purses. Jen works hard to ensure that the artisans are always earning a living wage with the time that they spend making the bags, regardless of the quota they are producing. She is also careful to increase wages as the skill of the artisans increases; all of the artisans have a local manager that serves to advocate on their behalf.
Jen and I also talk about why fast fashion is so problematic. Jen references Purse & Clutch’s Insider Group on Facebook, where she recently posed this question. She discusses how fast fashion is problematic for three main reasons. First, fast fashion leaves little to no room for ensuring a living wage or good working conditions for the people producing the clothing. Anytime you see a really cheap item of clothing, there’s a hidden cost associated with it that directly impacts the people who made that clothing. Secondly, Jen describes how a lot of clothes are made from petroleum. Typically the cheapest way to make things is synthetically, which involves a large amount of microplastics. These plastics have negative impacts on the worker, the wearer, and the larger environment. Thirdly, fast fashion is exhausting for both the producer and the consumer, and so much clothing goes into landfills every year.
After that, we discuss the artisan groups Jen works with. Jen explains how most of her partnerships are born out of her relationships with others. She talks about the leatherwork shop in Ethiopia that she’s been working with for over six years now. That specific partnership evolved out of a conversation over coffee that she had with an Ethiopian woman that cold-emailed her to let her know she’d be in Austin. Jen also dabbled with a group of artisans in Ethiopia, and is also now partnering with another artisan group out of Mexico. We also talk about Jen’s approaches to design since she’s working with so many different cultures. Jen explains that she has two main approaches to the design of her handbags and purses. The first approach starts with her sketchpad. When she has an idea for a design, she tries to match her ideas with the different skill sets of the artisans from different areas. The second approach starts with the artisans themselves. Jen sees the skills and products made by the artisans and makes slight modifications in shape, size, and style to create marketable products. She describes it as “piece-mealing” the products together based on the artisans’ existing skills.
Jen and I also talk about the resources page on her website, as well as the legacy she foresees for Purse & Clutch. Jen created the resources page on her website to help others understand and learn why shopping ethically is important. She understands how overwhelming it can be to find ethical brands, so she hopes this resources page will help to make the process easier. When it comes to the legacy of Purse & Clutch, Jen thinks about the families and children of the artisans she works with. She is relieved to know that the artisans and their families are able to achieve financial security by working with Purse & Clutch. This financial security translates into more opportunities for the artisans and their families. She also thinks often about her two daughters that are watching her run her business, and how that impacts how they grow up. Finally, Jen is excited about the legacy of Purse & Clutch products on consumers. She is excited about the potential ripple effect that shopping ethically can have on just one person.
As we wrap up the episode, we talk about Jen’s inspirations. Jen talks about Maria, a woman she works with in Mexico. Maria brings invaluable insights about the communities in Mexico that Purse & Clutch works with, and is also very business savvy. She regularly challenges Jen to be more creative, take risks, and push the Purse & Clutch brand to be more noticeable. Jen also talks about the founder of The Flourisher Market, Emily. The Flourisher Market is a wholesale coaching group that Jen belongs to. She credits Emily for her unrelenting energy and passion for empowering small businesses.
We also discuss how our listeners can partner with Jen to change the world. Jen encourages listeners to start small, explaining how interacting with their brand on social media can have a huge impact. She invites the listeners to join Purse & Clutch’s Insiders Group on Facebook. Inside the group, they have conversations about ethical fashion and discuss some of the challenging and fun things going on behind the scenes at Purse & Clutch. Finally, Jen asks the listeners to talk to their friends and spread the word about slow fashion. Listeners are encouraged to visit www.purseandclutch.com or follow them on social media @purseandclutch.