When Laine and I began Five | Six Textiles, we had every intention of creating a not-for-profit. We researched sustainable businesses with a focus on connecting artists and consumers. We spoke to as many founders of such companies as we could to understand how their brands began. It soon became clear that the nonprofit model (at least in our situation) wasn’t the perfect fit and that the best way to work with an already functional collective was to create a for-profit partnership.
Once we started working with a for-profit platform the next task was to figure out how to structure the company. Again, we researched other models from companies with a sustainable focus. There was no end to the different ways companies promised social good in exchange of commercial purchases. However, many of these still had an underlying “we know best” attitude. This way of thinking doesn’t allow for communities to achieve the goals they see for themselves. For example, the buy-one-give-one model is one of the most famous for for-good business, but has increasingly come under scrutiny for doing more harm than good. Does giving people something they don’t need while unintentionally reducing work for local producers really help people? Money doesn’t empower people, purpose does. We think the best way to achieve long-term sustainability is to work with the producers.
Another issue with many sustainable business models is that there is no room for working with a commercial entity that already exists. Waraniéné incorporated in the 1970’s and their model allows for their entire community to be involved within the collective. Their economic struggles are the direct result of a 10 year Civil War that only ended in 2012. Their business still functions, but it needs to catch up and rebuild connections with consumers.
In the end it became clear that creating jobs and making them profitable was preferable. We wanted to spend time developing a business model with Waraniéné rather than for Waraniéné. We also wanted to consider what Waraniéné wants out of this partnership beyond consistent wages.
This past summer Laine and I dedicated a portion of our time working with Waraniéné to figure out what the best way forward was. Their needs change depending on the time of year and the well-being of the community. In the year since we started working with them UNICEF has built a new school (for local children up to the age of 12) and now they need money for supplies and support for families whose children above 12 attend school 7 km away in Korhogo. There is also a small health center which predominantly serves as a maternity clinic, in need of updated supplies.
How do we achieve this? Waraniéné sets the price for their textiles and that is what we pay them. Then once we sell a product, we invest a percentage of it into a fund in order to pay for supplies and any initiatives we work with the community to develop in the future.
At the end of the day, there is no one way to create a sustainable business model. All we can suggest is do your research and try to think about the impact your business will not only have on your community, but also on a global scale. Waraniéné functions as a social, artistic, and economic space with traditions being passed from generation to generation. The styles are continuously evolving. By focusing on where these art forms originated we hope to help preserve these traditions so they can endure, continue to evolve, and become a reliable source of income to anyone who wants to make this their livelihood.