Making Money by Doing Right

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Marty Stevens-Heebner is riding a new wave of interest in eco-friendly merchandising. She created Rebagz, vibrantly colored handbags made of mostly recycled materials and are fabricated by workers paid a living wage—part of an enterprise that takes care of everybody, including the end customer. How the recession forced Stevens-Heebner into heavy Internet marketing is part of how her line of handbags, introduced in the teeth of the recession last summer, is now distributed in 400 stores in five countries.

Inspired to Make a Difference

Years ago, Marty Stevens-Heebner was a young human rights worker, paying her dues in the state of Chiapas in Mexico. The bloody Zapatista rebellion had just been quelled and she saw the violent results, encountering “a couple close calls” along the way.

The fear and excitement she felt as a human rights worker were similar to what she encountered when she started a new business in the face of the gathering recession, Stevens-Heebner said.

“It was scary and exhilarating at the same,” she said of her startup handbag business. The bags are manufactured under fair labor standards using recyclable material, and sales of the bags support the organization Greenpeace, a women’s breast cancer prevention charity, and other green initiatives, Stevens-Heebner said.

“You don’t have to shout and scream to change the world,” Stevens-Heebner recounted the lessons she has learned. “You can rock it with style instead.”

Struggling to Survive

So far, that creative approach has helped Stevens-Heebner stay afloat. She moved from a small-scale jewelry design operation to handbags last summer, “just before the recession hit,” as she tells it. Her bags are now in 400 stores in five countries, she said. 

“I didn’t realize,” Stevens-Heebner said, “that a year later we would be in the worst recession in history.”   

A Credit Research Foundation survey in August 2010 showed that 90% of businesses report that the economy has had a direct negative effect on their business (up from 77% a year earlier); 44% report that they have shifted their focus on revenue and market share to cash flow and profitability (up from 30% the year before), and 65% report that they are experiencing a slowdown in customer payments.

“We’ve struggled, but we’ve adapted,” Stevens-Heebner said. “In eco-fashion, a lot of people had extremely high growth margins. I wanted to generate volume, because that generates jobs. So I kept my gross margins reasonable, and that made a difference.”

Social Media: Doing a Lot with a Little

Like many other startups, Stevens-Heebner started taking advantage of the Internet. Potential customers can sign up on the website for a newsletter. “It’s a great way to stay in touch with people. I Twitter, Facebook… I used LinkedIn and email. It’s the most inexpensive way to stay in front of your customers.”

The target audience turned out to be “very Internet-savvy”, Stevens-Heebner said.

“We highlight our handbags, but we also hand out an eco tip each day. (To combat insects in your garden without pesticides, try vinegar.) We try to give our customers something that’s helpful to them. We’re all in this together,” Stevens-Heebner said. “People want to get a feel for the personality behind the product, and we provide that.”

She found ways to save, such as cutting back on expensive trade shows. She also found that sales representatives were amenable to reducing fees because they wanted to keep her bags in their showrooms.

Eco-Friendly = Human-Friendly

Labor remains a big part of costs, but Stevens-Heebner said she won’t compromise on her company’s pledge to pay fair wages. 

The bags are made in the Philippines. Stevens-Heebner uses a fair wage calculator to figure the correct pay scale to yield a living wage. She has visited the area many times, looking for producers and inspecting those who she has contracted with to fabricate the vibrantly colored handbags. She also checks other conditions—to make sure that there’s no child labor being used, for instance.

“You can advertise that you don’t use sweat shops, but it goes so far beyond that,” Stevens-Heebner said, “Especially in a tropical environment. For instance, you have to make sure there’s clean drinking water. Some places I chose not to work with: there were sewers and weavers in the dark, a basement room, a dank, dark dungeon with no moving air. The water was yellow when it came out of the only sink there.”

She selects workshops with plenty of light and air, fans, plentiful drinking water, and machines that function well. “We are eco-friendly and that means human-friendly, taking care of all humans along the spectrum, from workers, to recyclers, weavers, sewers, my office staff, the stores, and our end consumer,” Stevens-Heebner said. “We’re taking care of all of them and listening to all of them.”

Compared to the bloodshed of Chiapas, Rebagz is “kind of a new adventure,” Stevens-Heebner said.

“Nobody’s going to kill me doing this. I’m not going to get arrested. No blood will be shed.”