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Offering a sustainable future to Filipino craftswomen

In the Philippines, the president of Rags2Riches is taking women out of poverty by creating useful and desirable objects with recycled materials.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in February 2020Time to read: 2min 58s

Since the launch of her social enterprise, Rags2Riches (R2R), in 2007, Reese Fernandez has grown a lot. Her voice is still as soft and her pose as modest as ever, but the driving force behind this adventure that has become her life has matured. Because she has made every step she has taken a reason to go further: “You get the most from challenges not only when you experience them, but when you learn to grow better from them,” she explains.

Nothing predestined her to become this social entrepreneur, who has trained more than 1,000 craftswomen and who heads a team of about 40 staff. Nothing, except for a particular focus on others and the desire to help them to escape from poverty. In the Philippines, more than a quarter of the population is poor – according to the official threshold set by the government – and lives on €0.47 a day. The archipelago’s economic growth has left the poorest behind, especially women. Already made aware by her mother, a missionary, of the harsh realities of her country, Fernandez’s first mission was to complete her studies. Benefiting from a scholarship at the Ateneo de Manila University, she obtained a management degree. Living in Manila, the epicentre of the Filipino maelstrom, Fernandez started out with a firm conviction: “People have no future due to a lack of opportunities.” So she decided to create some for them.

The huge Payatas landfill in the Filipino capital became her first focus for action. 500,000 people live among the waste, trying to find a means of subsistence. Some women with weaving skills had the idea of recovering materials to turn them into carpets, which can be sold for a small amount of money. Enough, at any rate, to attract middlemen who leave the women with only 2 dollar cents per carpet.

You get the most from challenges not only when you experience them, but when you learn to grow better from them.Reese Fernandez

A salary multiplied by 70

Reese Fernandez decided to create a community of craftswomen to allow these women, soon totalling around 30, to sell their products directly to retailers. Under the leadership of a well-known designer in the country, she redirected their work towards creating fashion clothing and accessories, sold online and in high-end shops. With a 70-fold increase in salary, they now have the opportunity to lead a decent life and send their children to school. Their work has also helped to recycle some 800 tonnes of fabric in two years.

In 2010, Reese Fernandez was only 25 years old when she was recognised by the Rolex* Award for Enterprise, in the Young Laureates category. This spotlight and the prize money that she received enabled her to give a new impetus to her ambitions.

Always on the lookout for sustainable materials, Fernandez was approached by brands who offered her their surplus goods. She then developed product lines made of upcycled materials, which were worth significantly more than the products they were made from. Collaborations with leading Filipino designers have come in quick succession, currently totalling six different projects.

Sharing her quest for meaning

Fernandez also founded an academy providing skills workshops for the craftswomen. Depending on their projects, the women can find the machines they need there, or work at home and continue to look after their children. Home work that Fernandez wants for herself as well: married to one of the co-founders of Rags2Riches, also a social entrepreneur, Mrs Fernandez is now the mother of two boys – one three and the other just a few months old. A self-described “entrepreneur, mother and wife,” Fernandez is also an adept blogger who markets her creations and shares her quest for meaning and the ups and downs of her personal experience. Neither an expert nor a guru, Reese Fernandez simply seeks to inspire people.

In 2017, she created a sales platform Things That Matter to unite even more craftswomen – who, throughout the country, will be able to develop their know-how – around her experience, as well as brands with a sustainable impact and social entrepreneurs. The goal? To inspire an “intentional” lifestyle. She explains: “As individuals, we can opt for responsible consumption. Non-consumption is unrealistic, but we must ask the question: can my dollars, or euros, contribute to a better organisation? We can all do something on a small scale. We must not become discouraged. Doing something on a small scale is better than not doing anything at all.”

We can all do something on a small scale. We must not become discouraged. Doing something on a small scale is better than not doing anything at all.Reese Fernandez

To measure the positive effects of her work, Fernandez does not speak in terms of money, but in hours: “42,697 hours, which represents food on the table, an education for children, improvements in the home, savings and even investments.” That is what the partner craftswomen of Rags2Riches and their families have benefited from.

In 2018, Fernandez was invited to Davos by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, created by the Chairman of the World Economic Forum. Fernandez did not gain any particular glory from the experience, but came back with new convictions: “Talking about problems can bring about solutions, but it shouldn’t stop there. You must make sure that the solutions discussed are put into effect on the ground and then flourish on a global scale.”

Away from the experts of Davos, the young woman has a busy 2020 programme: “We are going to explore new artisanal techniques to use even more recycled materials, create education support for our craftswomen’s children, as well as learning programmes, and defend children and women’s rights in partnership with other organisations by joining a shared platform. What seems to be the end is often the beginning,” she likes to repeat.

*Rolex is the exclusive partner of Les Echos Planète

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