Starting From Scratch: The challenge of sticking to a social mission during product development
In reality, there are countless obstacles to climb over between envisioning a business and bringing a product to market – especially if your enterprise has a social mission in addition to needing to make a buck.
Back in early April, when Dowser first spoke with designer Kari Litzmann, who is creating a fair-trade stationary company called Rubina Design, Litzmann was just getting started on designing her product line, which was to be made by rural artisans in India. She had signed a contract with a mass-scale production company called FabIndia and was awaiting fabric samples from them.
But now, as August approaches, Litzmann is suddenly anxious about the product development process, and she wonders if the stationary will reflect the original social values she had in mind when she created the company.
The original inspiration for the company came from a women’s sewing group in Pakistan, and it was this vision of helping women through entrepreneurship that led Litzmann to the Gujarat province of India. There, Litzmann fell in love with the stunning garb worn by women.
That rural setting of India was what Litzmann had in mind when she approached FabIndia to sign a contract. And that’s when things got complicated.
“FabIndia sent me a product sample,” Litzmann told Dowser, back in New York. “And overall I’m happy with it. But I had only ten days to design it – I used already-made fabric from their warehouse – and I felt rushed and overwhelmed.”
To get organized, Litzmann taught herself to create a production calendar for the next 45 days while “thinking backward,” so that she could keep up with deadlines.
The next step was sending “tech packs” (technical specification packages, also called “specs”) that contained details on the size and dimensions of the products. In addition to stationary, Litzmann began designing a line of nomadic-themed products , including tote bags, laptop sleeves, and journals.
The “nomadism” theme was inspired by rural societies in India, which were traditionally, and to some extent still are, nomadic. Litzmann felt that today’s modern woman, who moves around for career opportunities and self-exploration, would identify with such nomadism.
As product development continued, Litzmann was unsure that her original social mission was remaining at the heart of her enterprise.
“I emphasized [to FabIndia] to work with women, and use eco-friendly materials whenever possible,” she explained. “They should be able to provide details about the cost and source of the materials.”
From traveling in India, Litzmann knew how factories were destroying artisans’ livelihoods – so she felt strongly about using handmade materials. But furthermore, she wanted to capture the culture and worldview of the artisans, since that was what had first enchanted her during her time in Gujarat.
It has not, however, been so easy to effectively communicate the experience of nomadism and rural lifestyle through designing products, Litzmann has found.
“I’m now thinking about going back to India for up to six months,” said Litzmann. “There’s a difference between knowing how they live, and really knowing.”