Spurring positive social change on all fronts: economic, environmental, social, & cultural- all from the comfort of a hammock!

Spurring positive social change on all fronts: economic, environmental, social, & cultural- all from the comfort of a hammock!

Thailand
Organization type: 
for profit
Budget: 
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

In Southeast Asia, hill tribes are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society. As a hunter-gatherer society with no concept of land ownership or relationship with the outside world, the Mlabri way of life was devastated when the land around them was claimed and deforested. Impoverished, without citizenship, and enslaved by opportunists, their future appeared bleak.

The issues we are battling are intertwined, but in many ways they can be traced back to systemic poverty, which is based in a depressing lack of regional employment options for these groups. Our main objectives are: 1) provide for economic opportunity & financial stability; 2) prevention of environmental degradation; 3) enhancing quality of life; and 4) supporting cultural preservation & autonomy.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The Mlabri are Asia’s last remaining hunter and gatherer society, previously living a raw life in the jungles of Northern Thailand and Laos. Their peaceful existence was shattered in the 1970s when guerrilla warfare and rapid economic development in Thailand stripped their forests of their natural bounty and eventually stripped away the forests themselves- lost to slash & burn farming and an insatiable demand for teak. Faced with this barrage of plagues, their numbers dwindled until UNESCO placed them on the Endangered Languages List, with only 300 Mlabri left in the world. Bereft of their homes and livelihood, denied civil rights, and with no conception of "land ownership," the Mlabri were especially vulnerable to exploitation. The Hmong tribe was the first to exploit them, forcing them to work their lands in exchange for food and clothing. Sadly they are still exploited by tour companies who earn a profit and the Mlabri people don’t benefit at all. An attempt to keep them together was made by travel agencies who wanted to pay them to go back into the jungle as a tourist attraction, but unlike the Karen (Longneck tribe), this idea didn’t catch on. Attempts to sell traditional woven goods were met with limited success and didn’t bring in enough income to support the village. An unexpected avenue to reach our social and environmental preservation goals presented itself with the introduction of hammock weaving, allowing hill tribe people such as the Mlabri to have an adequate income, remain together as a cohesive group, maintain their family traditions and still make whatever changes in their lives that they choose – financed by themselves!

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Yellow Leaf’s philosophy is one of economic empowerment for a forgotten group. With the secure income from hammock weaving, the Mlabri have finally been able to live on their own terms. As talented, well-compensated artisans, they can no longer be enslaved on toxic farms or be denied Thai citizenship and civil rights. Independent of charity, they can foster self-respect and protect their culture. Further, they can take pride in the fact that their handiwork far surpasses the quality of current hammocks on the market - their creations are not mere trinkets, but offer a true benefit to consumers. As a social enterprise, we are committed to helping change US and global consumer mentality toward fair wage goods. Our hammocks offer sustainable luxury as the most comfortable and highest quality on the market, but more importantly, they appeal to consumers’ best sense of self at a market-driven price. We are positioning ourselves to grow into an influential lifestyle brand and build community and lasting change around our hammockers' "Do Good, Relax" philosophy. We have priced our hammocks at a fair market value, without adding a fair trade premium. We want to demonstrate that consumers can have it all- the peace of mind that comes with supporting fair wages, the quality of an intricately constructed, technically engineered product, and the financial assurance of paying a fair price.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Currently, Yellow Leaf Hammocks employs 75-150 hammock weavers among the Mlabri and Hmong Tribes in Phrae Province, Thailand (a key goal is to eradicate seasonal fluctuations and employ all weavers steadily year round). A positive anomaly for this economically devastated region, weavers have the opportunity to earn as much as a college educated teacher in Thailand. As a social enterprise, we are dedicated to socio-economic improvements and sustainable development. In every decision, we consider all Four Pillars of Sustainability- we seek financial stability for these groups without losing sight of the importance of environmental, social and cultural factors. Instead of being dependent upon aid, the Mlabri have regained control of their destiny. With flexible hours and a secure income from weaving, the Mlabri are finally able to live with self-respect on their own terms, which is key to their cultural preservation. Weaving work has also proven a viable solution to eradicating illegal deforestation and creating a healthy micro-economy within these communities. As our enterprise grows, we employ more adults in the region and offer opportunity to the new generation. In working with weavers from among the Mlabri and Hmong we have accorded priority to women and the elderly. Women and older women in particular had lived on the margins, both socially and economically. With their valuable contributions, their status in society is improved, as is their self-esteem.
About You
Organization:
Yellow Leaf Hammocks
About You
First Name

Joe

Last Name

Demin

About Your Organization
Organization Name

Yellow Leaf Hammocks

Organization Country

, CA

Country where this project is creating social impact

, 41

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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Innovation
What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

While vacationing in Thailand, Joe Demin stumbled upon the most comfortable and beautiful hammocks he had ever seen. After learning about the origins of the Mlabri hammocks, he was compelled to go beyond purchasing a single hammock, and he changed his travel itinerary to visit their remote jungle village.

Seeing firsthand how this amazing, high-quality product is produced in a healthy and family oriented environment (the home village) and that weavers are paid honest wages, justified Joe’s belief that a profitable company could succeed by benefiting the greater good.

He learned that proceeds from hammocks had been set aside for previously out-of-reach healthcare and children’s education and that there was even a steadily growing social fund. One of the most amazing things that struck a chord with Joe was that the Mlabri had begun to employ the tribe that had previously enslaved them.

However, as Joe spent time in the village, he saw slash & burn forest fires raging on the horizon, learned that many families still lacked basic necessities, and began to understand the seasonal nature of weaving- with hammock sales entirely dependent upon the Thai tourism season, there was no guaranteed employment stability. Realizing that these hammocks could command a high value on the global market and that the production and sale of hammocks had begun to have a positive ripple effect on other similar ethnic groups and villages in the region, Joe realized that if he could just create a sustainable international sales channel he could further the positive impact!

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Success is measured in terms of sustainable socio-economic development: income generation through employment creation, improvement of the quality of life through the provision of basic infrastructure, particularly in health and education, and control of deforestation.

In Thailand, hill tribes earn an average income that is 86% below the national average. At the very bottom of the economic pyramid, the Mlabri were previously trapped in servitude to other poor hill tribes. A family of 5 could spend an entire month clearing a field in order to earn less than a weaver can earn in one week. Hammock weaving provides a 651% increase in income over toxic farming.

Increased employment has a regional ripple effect. Employing one weaver removes an average of five people from contributing to deforestation and toxic farming in Phrae Province. The Mlabri have used their increased financial security to invest in future prosperity through infrastructure investments, building a school and water filtration systems. With a weaver able to support her family, children are able to attend school instead of working alongside their parents. The tribe’s increased economic power also enabled them to successfully lobby for Thai citizenship and civil rights, which were first granted in 2007. This year was the first time that the tribe has not lost a child to preventable disease, providing hope for a new generation of this endangered group.

Preservation of the Mlabri language and culture will be another indication of success. Earning a consistent wage through flexible work has afforded the Mlabri to remain together as a cohesive group.

How many people have been impacted by your project?

101-1,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

1,001-10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

As a baseline of Y1 success, sales of 2,000 hammocks will provide a healthy living wage to support all members of Ban Boonyuen village. At this income level, the Mlabri will continue to improve nutrition, medical access, education and community infrastructure.

We will reinvest capital to stimulate demand, with increased sales producing more employment in the Mae Lai Valley. Sales growth and regional jobs expansion will nullify local jealousies among neighbouring tribes and provide local opportunity to a younger generation who might otherwise be forced to seek sweatshop employment far from home.

As hammock sales begin to sustain their own momentum, we will seek new opportunities among similarly marginalized groups to create sustainable, culturally tenable economic redevelopment.

Sustainability
What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

The success of our project is dependent on creating a stable, flourishing demand for Yellow Leaf Hammocks, in order to train and employ more weavers on an ongoing basis.

Exposure:
As we attempt to break into the national hammock market, our shoestring budget eliminates the possibility of a paid national advertising campaign. To overcome this obstacle, we are employing a marketing strategy that is focused on two prongs: creating customer evangelists and pursuing media opportunities. Our short term (6-18 months) goal is to execute our online marketing strategy for virtual sales (85%), using pop-ups to interact with customers directly (15%) and build brand evangelism.

Through every event and opportunity for direct consumer engagement, we have found intense enthusiasm for the brand and the story behind it. Even with our beta site and fledgling brand during the Summer 2010 test period in New England, we found that consumers were not only excited to buy our hammocks for themselves, they wanted to spread the word to their parents, friends and neighbours. We will continue to engage face-to-face and to leverage social influence marketing to build this community into increased sales.

Similarly, the brand story and brand image lend themselves to media opportunities. During Beta, we were featured in several local, national and international articles. Increased effort in media relations will be a focus in the coming months, now that the brand elements are in place.

Production:
A key understanding is that the Mlabri value leisure above material wealth. With respect for their traditional values, we understand that they would often prefer not to weave until they need more money. In order to ensure a stable supply, we will expand outside our original employment pool and begin to offer weaving opportunities to other marginalized ethnic groups. In working with weavers from among the Mlabri Tribe, Hmong Tribe, and the rural Thai community, we have given priority to older women, women in general and poor people. This is a key priority as we scale.

Tell us about your partnerships

The most important partnership we have is our partnership with the Mlabri Tribe. They are our key stakeholders, our production force and our reason for being. The opportunity to spend time living in the Mlabri village this February cemented our relationship and stoked our determination to help them build a brighter future.

Our partners on the ground in Thailand, the members of the NGO who helped establish the Mlabri Village and the shop owner who first began distributing the Mlabri Hammocks, are key figures in building Yellow Leaf as a global brand. They had long dreamed of selling hammocks on a global level, especially in America, and are working with us each step of the way to make sure that our brand and products are of top quality. They are our daily eyes and ears into the progress of our sustainability initiatives.

As we build upon our belief in the Four Pillars, we are working with expert auditing and certifying organizations. We were recently awarded B Corporation status. We are also working with the CarbonFund to quantify and offset our impact.

As part of our efforts to gain national exposure and build the brand based on personal interaction and experiential marketing, complementary brands have signed on to feature Yellow Leaf Hammocks at their events. We are currently partnering with RelaxZen beverages to feature “Relaxation Stations” on the EVP Volleyball Tour, as well as the Sustainable Living Roadshow. We are in talks with national brands to showcase Yellow Leaf as an integral part of their promotional events and to promote our mission every step of the way.

Explain your selections

The foundation of our enterprise is the conviction that U.S. and global customers will sustain our growth through sales based on belief in our mission and love of our products. With their financial support, we will continue to grow and replicate this model.

In order to work with hill tribes and other ethnic groups in a way that supports their cultural autonomy, we will always continue to work with local NGOs to understand cultural sensitivities, local politics and environmental concerns. They are an invaluable resource to us, though we don’t seek financial support from them.

The first test phase of this company was entirely self-funded by our CEO and word was spread by enthusiastic family, friends, and customers. When Joe first returned from Thailand with the far-fetched idea of building a global brand based on his experience, he was astounded by the outpouring of support, connections and advice his personal network provided. These connections and advisers have continued to play a key role in Yellow Leaf’s growth. The ranks of our advisers now include CEOs of multi-million dollar companies and we’re building a network of close colleagues among sustainable enterprises. The Mass. SBA has recognized and promoted Yellow Leaf for its ambitious social mission.

Through our partnerships with other businesses and brands, Yellow Leaf is continuing to establish a national presence and building community through personal interaction and social media. As a collaborative, creative company, we will continue to build mutually beneficial partnerships with major brands.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

Producing the highest quality products enables us to charge market value for sustainable goods, rather than a fair trade premium. Staying mission-focused will allow us to maintain customer loyalty, which is key to gaining market share and scalability both in terms of sales and social impact.

Sales growth is the key to strengthening our social mission and achieving our intended impact. We will capture a slice of the $7B leisure products market, specifically the $200M hammock industry. With sales of sustainable goods at $6.5B, we’re poised at a desirable nexus for a consumer segment far surpassing current capacity of 20k hammocks. In order to spark demand and fuel growth, we will implement creative use of multimedia to facilitate recording and sharing product experiences with community by leveraging technology and social media.

Proprietary hammock weaves will be protected via patents. Brand elements (tag-lines, logos) are (or will be) protected by copyright and trademark laws. Our manufacturing costs are capped at purchasing raw materials (yarn) and employing additional weavers (a key enterprise goal). Inventory management to anticipate demand is a key driver of economic success and is where the majority of our cash can be tied up.

Enforcing a rigorous QC process will negate strain on customer service and free cash for marketing (stimulating demand). An efficient distribution strategy will also free up cash to further build demand and therefore scalability.

Challenges
Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.

PRIMARY

Underemployment

SECONDARY

Restricted access to new markets

TERTIARY

Lack of visibility and investment

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

There are few employment options for hill tribes in modern Thailand. Without regional tourism or manufacturing, toxic agriculture or faux-primitive shows were the sole option before hammock weaving, leaving the Mlabri in perpetual indentured servitude. Hammocks make use of their heritable weaving skills and offer a wage far above the regional average.
Sales growth has been organic to this point, but they’ve reached a ceiling. An expanded distribution channel is necessary to extend sales beyond Thai tourism season. Leveraging business knowledge to create a global brand will sustain growth with consistent momentum.
As tiny minorities, many hill tribes are all but forgotten by government and aid efforts. An independent micro-economy means a chance to thrive and maintain cultural autonomy.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.

PRIMARY

Grown geographic reach: Multi-country

SECONDARY

Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

TERTIARY

Repurposed your model for other sectors/development needs

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

The Mlabri have are not the only marginalized hill tribe in this region. We see natural and compelling opportunity to expand geographically and work with other disadvantaged groups to improve their socio-economic conditions. There is a pent-up demand for this work, and once we have the consistent volume of global sales necessary to expand operations, we will train and hire new weavers among hill tribe groups.

As we grow, we are developing a line of hammock stands and accessories. This is an opportunity to offer a new avenue of employment within hill tribe communities. And as geographic reach expands, we will work with hill tribes to honor their traditional textile skills and try to find ways to transform their customary creations into products for the modern global market.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

One of the most amazing things about building this company has been the universally positive reaction from friends, acquaintances and even strangers. When we share the Mlabri story with people and discuss the Four Pillars, their eyes light up, they start nodding and they are inspired to share their ideas, thoughts, criticisms and stories with us. Some of the most important connections we’ve made have taken place over a chat in the hammocks as people relax and begin to feel empowered to make a change. As we grow, this community will continue to be more than a customer base- they are members of our hammock nation, committed to building this opportunity and supporting Yellow Leaf as an agent of positive change.

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