Bolivia: a South American country drenched with culture and resplendent with natural beauty. Bolivia is a landlocked state, situated between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, with a population of over 10.5 million people. The country is graced with great rivers, and vast, impenetrable, remote jungles. However, alongside all this natural beauty, Bolivia suffers, on a sociological level, from great disparity in educational and financial equality.
Almost everyone wears clothes, but almost everyone also forgets to think about, or at least has little real knowledge about where their clothes come from; about who makes our garments or the impact that clothes have on their makers and the communities they live in.
beyondBeanie is a socially conscious clothing company that produces beanies and accessories, their mission to empower and help women and children in Bolivia every time a purchase is made. By supporting the company, consumers are also supporting the work of artisans in Bolivia as well as helping to provide meals, school uniforms and dental care to children in need.
The enterprise was founded by Chilean-born Hector Alvarez and partner Patricia Lucero. Alvarez was born and bred in Santiago, Chile, and later went on to study in California, where he met Patricia Lucero. His love for entrepreneurship led him to start various ventures; however, it was a journey to Bolivia to visit Lucero that inspired them to cultivate beyondBeanie about a year ago, a company with a social aim.
As Alvarez described his first trip to Bolivia, he recalled that “everything was amazing…it was a beautiful country, I was fascinated with the people, the landscape, with the food, everything was fabulous. However, there was one detail that bothered me and this was that I saw children working on the street. There were children selling candy, some were selling fruit, and their mothers were making knitted items that they were trying to sell to tourists.” Alvarez described this as a culture shock because, even though he grew up in Latin America, he had been out of the region for a while so he was no longer desensitised to this type of poverty.
When asked why it was like this, Lucero stated, “It is kind of normal here…it is unfortunate but hopefully things will change over the future.” Alvarez showed a great interest in the work the artisans were doing and decided to purchase beanies and other items to take back home with him to Switzerland. He soon noticed that once he started to share his experiences back home and show the different products, his friends began to ask “Can I get one?…How can I get one?” An aspect of the product that he felt really piqued the interest of those around him was the fact that the clothes had a story behind them.
Through his innate entrepreneurial spirit, Alvarez quickly sensed, and communicated to Lucero, that there was a market in Europe for the artisans’ products. He asked Lucero to get together some artisans so that they could make prototypes according to what was popular and he would then try to sell them in Europe. This was the first stage of the business coming into being. The profits from the products sold allowed Lucero and Alvarez to create a functional business, and offered the opportunity to these artisans living in Bolivia in challenging situations to make extra income.
Bolivia’s income inequality is the highest in South America and one of the highest in the world. Public education is poor and educational opportunities are unevenly distributed, with girls and indigenous and rural children more likely to be illiterate or not to complete primary school.
The lack of access to education and family planning services helps to sustain Bolivia’s high fertility rate — approximately three children per woman. The lack of clean water and basic sanitation, meanwhile, especially in rural areas, contributes to health problems. Almost 7 percent of Bolivia’s population lives abroad, leaving primarily in order to work in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, and the United States. 60 percent of the population are “campesinos”: peasants, or people dwelling in rural areas. Due to their circumstances and low socio-economic standing, many are not educated, or only to an elementary level.
Many women have been abandoned by their husbands or are immigrants from the country to the city. However, due to their lack of education, they are left to pick up menial jobs in order to support themselves and their children, such as selling candy or clothing. When engaging with the artisans, Alvarez noted that the women were very timid. beyondBeanie sought to motivate the women and increase self-esteem, which is mostly seen through the personal work Lucero does with them. The company shares each artisan woman’s story on their website, to illustrate the very personal relationship they share.
Bolivia has ranked near the bottom of all South American countries in areas such as development, health, poverty, education, fertility, malnutrition, mortality and life expectancy. However, there has been an active effort by the government and organisations like beyondBeanie to combat this problem. Now, more children are being vaccinated and more pregnant women are being provided with prenatal care, as well as having professional health practitioners on hand during the births.
beyondBeanie looks not only to help the women that they work with but also aim to care for the children affected by poverty. There are about 5,000 to 8,000 orphans in the country and beyondBeanie seeks to help them through the power of the consumer. Every product that is produced is “attached to a specific need.” For example, the purchase of one beanie equates to five meals; one bag provides one set of school supplies; one poncho gives one school uniform; and one bracelet supplies a child with dental care.
Hector emphasises the importance of the consumers being involved in what happens on the production end: “it is up to the consumer to really understand the importance of what we are doing,” he says.
beyondBeanie is not only trying to better society, they also aim to have a strong fashion aspect. They understand that their consumers and they themselves are fashion conscious, thus making it a good combination of charities and fashion – for the “fashion conscientious”, if you will. Every product made is 100 percent Bolivian, made with Bolivian wool. The company has encouraged their artisans to make their pieces as colourful and vibrant as possible in order to fully encapsulate Bolivian culture, aiming to introduce Bolivian culture into Europe and eventually the whole world.
To learn more about beyondBeanie, visit these links!