ROWDY: Ethically and Locally Produced Hand-made Leather Bags

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Buying new clothes every season to stay in fashion is generally-speaking what we expect. We expect new fashions, we expect the shops to be stocked with new seasonal colours. Cheaper clothes don't last long, "But that's ok," we think, "it only has to last until the end of the season or year". Even though we expect to need to shop when our clothes wear out, we also shop because we enjoy it, because we can, and because it's expected.

What I personally didn't expect was for clothes to be made to purposefully only to last a certain length of time. The concept of fast fashion has been criticised for this and is designed to feed a consumerist mind-set. And this leads to questions of ethics: Who made these clothes and where? How much were they paid? And this is just the start of the thought process. Who made the fabric used to make the garment? Who made the dye? What are the effects on the environment?

This avenue of thought is very depressing because most of the time we just don't have access to the answers. This really is a problem with traditional shops (just try asking the salesperson were the cotton is sourced from). Big chains don't want us to think about the processes behind the scenes, and they don't divulge the details either. This is exactly why it's a good idea to start asking questions.

What if companies took responsibility and stopped exploiting invisible workers and improved the working conditions of their staff to above the average? What would happen if they offered great quality products with a lifetime guarantee which means that your clothes and accessories don't need to go straight to a landfill? What is they could do all of this and sell you something at a fair price?

As the author, Anna Lappé, pointed out, “Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

With this in mind, I decided to go and take a look, first-hand, at the process and the space where ROWDY backpacks are made locally in Cape Town and sold at local markets. ROWDY backpacks are hand-made with such a faith in their product that they offer a lifetime guarantee on their goods. I also interviewed the owner, Nicholas Meinert, to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes. And, I must say, I was impressed.

1. What inspired you to make the first bag four years ago?

My parents bought an old leather backpack in Madagascar on their honeymoon more than 20 years ago. I found this bag and decided to use it for Varsity. After an inundation of inquiries during my use of it, I thought that such bags should be made here in CT.

(Hover over the photos to find out more and read the captions.)

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2. How did the idea of making great quality, affordable leather bags turn into the business it is today?

We have been very lucky in being able to find customers, and employees who share our belief that great things should not have to come at a premium or to any thing or one(s) detriment. Finding such people has provided for the demand of, and ability to supply such products. As such, people form the core to who we are and what we do; hence, we are the people's leather brand.

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3. Could you share any details about the journey of the leather before you bring it to the factory (especially in light of environmental factors and ethics)?

80% of our leathers are sourced from South Africa, with the other 20% deriving from Namibia. On certain products game hides are used. Pig suedes are also used for finishing. A point to note is the fact that all our leathers are as natural as possible (the least chemically altered leather available), and all our leathers are ethical and waste products of the meat industry: No animals were killed for the leather.

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4. Does it have anything other characteristics that you'd like us to be aware of?

Given the above, we mainly use two types of leather: Buffed and Aniline. Buffed leathers are dyed and buffed to provide soft, raw finish. The top grain of the leather is not corrected which means the leather is left as natural. Aniline dyes are oil based and does not include harsh paints or pigments of some of the corrected grains might.

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5. By cutting out the middle man you're able to sell the bags for a much more competitive price as well as offer the opportunity for sellers, for example, at markets, to start their own businesses. As this adds value to the consumer and salesperson, what about the actual workers behind the scenes, in which ways would you say they benefit from the process other than job creation?

We provide 2x Average wages. We have a school where our employees are taught basic skills relating to computer literacy and personal finance. We also donate 15% of our profits to the creation of a fund to further the education of our staff members.

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6. Do you have any go-to advice for small business owners?

If your customers' and employee's happiness and satisfaction does not put a smile on your face, close your doors. Money will not be able to get you through the hard times.

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7. Which markets are your bags sold at nationwide?

Old Biscuit Mill and Bay Harbour Markets in Cape Town.

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