Harnessing luxury spending power to uplift some of the world’s most impoverished children, sustainably


(Published in ‘Centerpoint Now’, a publication from the World Council of Peoples from the United Nations)

Almost everyone who travels internationally comes into contact with the many desperately poor children who beg, sell, and spend their lives on the streets. As one moves between airport and hotel, tightly clutching bags, giving money seems like the only way to help, even though experts will tell you this actually only perpetuates the cycle. But what if the branded possessions we hold in our hands, and the stylish places in which we stay, could tangibly improve the lives of the 100 million children that UNICEF estimates are currently struggling to survive on the world’s streets?

In quickly-developing Brazil, demand for luxury goods and services is accelerating. At the same time, an ever-increasing number of children struggle to survive the squalor of their daily lives. One fashion label continues to fight this shocking paradox by linking the two extremes in a mutually beneficial way.

Salvadorian Luciano Dos Santos has partnered with Bottletop since 2009, the label created by Cameron Saul (son of the luxury brand Mulberry’s founder). In their favela-based atelier, a team of previously unemployed women handcrafts belts and bags that regularly grace the pages of glossy fashion magazines and the arms of style icons such as Kate Moss. It is difficult to believe objects of such high quality craftsmanship have been crocheted from recycled materials such as aluminium ring-pulls. However, the most incredible aspect of this venture is the social impact.

The label’s sales raise funds and awareness for the work of the Bottletop Foundation. The organization empowers over 35,000 young people each year in Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Brazil, and the UK through creative health and education projects.

Another emerging ‘sustainably luxe’ brand, Angel Jackson, also believes in combining design-led craftsmanship with a social mission. Sold in prestigious department stores such as Harrods, their handbags and accessories are handmade, using ethically sourced materials from their fairtrade standard workshop in Bali. The team is collaborating with the Sacred Childhoods Foundation on a new collection to raise awareness and funds for work with children born into abject poverty.

Meanwhile, the ‘Mums in the Slums’ training scheme is teaching women how to handcraft accesso- ries to international market standards using leather offcuts and spares from the Angel Jackson factory, enabling local women to support their families and send their children to school. The Sacred Childhoods Foundation founder Natalia Perry explains that when it comes to poverty, “charity is just a band-aid, a small, short term solution to a difficult problem. Sustainable businesses that support the true needs of disadvantaged communities have a far greater potential to change lives for the better, forever.”

This heartfelt belief in sustainable development is shared in Laos, where Laotian scientist and award- winning community leader, Sombath Somphone, established the indigenous PADETC (Participatory De- velopment Training Centre) organization based on the Principles of Education for Sustainable Develop- ment and ‘a balance between social development, economic development and environmental harmony.’ Having worked his entire life to help local youngsters break free from the poverty he was born into, he saw great potential in an enterprise partnership that elevates traditional craftsmanship and empow- ers villagers economically. Orijyn’s handmade jewelry and silk scarves are created using centuries old techniques once reserved for the royal family. Profits go to PADETC’s work, providing vocational training and hope to young students in a country ravaged by decades of war.

In equally economically unstable countries, some of the most inspiring and impactful partnerships enable tourists to stay in places that directly help the children living in hardship outside the hotel walls. Saddened by the street children she encountered in the Incan capital of Cusco, Peru, Jolanda Van de Berg decided to devote her life to helping at least one. Over 15 years later, profits from her three elegant hotels go to the Niños Foundation, providing comprehensive care and education for 600 street children a day. Van de Berg works towards alleviating the poverty that led to the youngsters being on the streets in the first place. The hotels engage local suppliers and workers, many of whom are relatives of the rescued children.

The holistic Niños educational program includes vocational training when the students become teenagers so they learn the hospitality trade themselves.

In Mozambique, a country rich in natural resources, one in three children die before their fifth birthday. Guludo lodge was created there to change this statistic and show how sustainable luxury tourism can be used to reduce poverty and empower local communities in a sustainable way. Guludo’s ‘Nema’ Foundation partners with 16 local communities to implement a range of health, water, education and enterprise projects. Together they work with 150 local suppliers and craft businesses, employ more than 70 staff and provide school meals for 800 malnourished children, sponsor secondary school scholarships for 129 scholars,

and build schools from scratch.

In nearby South Africa, at the Kuzuko Lodge, payment for one’s stay contributes to the funds needed to keep all local children in school, as well as supports the surrounding game reserve that was brought back to life. Kuzuko has also adopted orphans like Freddie (pictured), who has grown up to become a resident gamekeeper and now teaches younger members of the Kuzuko ‘family’ how to preserve the environment.

This triple bottom line business ethos underpins the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Programme and their partnerships with the likes of Vivienne Westwood. Previously unemployed women, many of whom are mothers, have become dignified artisans and thousands of slum-dwelling families have benefitted from the production of ‘upcycled’ fashion goods which have a unique appeal for conscious consumers.

As CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) rises higher on the agendas of global luxury brands, and more charities employ business principles to end dependency on donations, it seems both groups could learn from these lesser known sustainably lux ventures whose raison d’être is high end for high impact. As the gap between rich and poor widens, ‘it is likely that the numbers (of street children) are increasing’ (UNICEF).

The urgency is clear. Tapping into the exponential growth of luxury spending, with sustainable products and services, could be key to channelling money from the most privileged to where it is needed most: in the lives of the children who have fallen through the cracks in society.

Published February 2014 in ‘Centerpoint Now’ by the World Council of Peoples for the United Nations: Centerpoint Now – ‘Sustainability’

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