During our travels we were lucky enough to meet a few inspiring people. Because of their charisma, experiences or work they have achieved. Walking through the San Pedros streets in Guatemala we have found Theo and Leslie. Two inspiring guys behind Bolso Bags with a great business model that can equally give back to the local community while producing high quality leather products.
Bolso came about after Theo quit his job in finance in NYC and took some time out to travel through Central America. “I worked in investment banking for a long time after uni, I studied finance and economics, went and did that and it was really great but ultimately I found it to be not entirely fulfilling. It was stimulating, though not fulfilling.
In November 2015 during his travels, he bought a leather bag in Antigua, Guatemala and the idea came from there.
“The idea came about that we could take these bags, import them to the US, create a really premium product and have really ethical labour standards and take care of the community.” Theo returned to New York, met his future business partner Leslie and less then a year later the guys took a trip to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
After a couple of hurdles, they found that San Pedro has a lot of the qualities they were looking for. They came across a leather shop, met two local artisans (now their two full time employees) who agreed to make samples for them and signed the lease on a creative space/shop/office on the waterfront. Theo and Leslie met with a couple of different tanneries to find the leather for their products and decided on one that amazingly fit all of their requirements.
“Our leather is 98% chemical free”.
“The tannery now makes all our leather exactly custom made for us, no-one else has our leather, it’s 98% chemical free, they won an award by the united nations for being the most eco friendly tannery in Central America, 90% of the water they use is in a closed loop system and the addition 10% that is put out is treated beforehand, and it comes from their less chemical invasive processes which is natural tanning, these are tanners that occurs naturally in plants and leaves and bark.”
“Lobbying or complaining, that’s just pissing in the wind, money talks.”
We asked Theo about the ethical side of owning and operating a leather based business, a question that is the first on a lot of peoples lips.
“Many animals are treated very poorly in this region of the world, and basically I don’t like the idea that we’re wearing another animal. Though, the quality of the leather we have is impossible to achieve if an animal is raised in the wrong environment, if they’re not fed properly, if they’re beaten, even how they’re processed, but you know you can’t just eradicate the leather industry, you can’t just snap your fingers and say alright it’s finished. The best thing you can do is to try to increase the quality standards, and so protesting on that side you’re protesting through economics, through commerce. And every time someone buys one of our products or another company similar to us, they’re voting, I mean you’re voting with every dollar you spend. What you think is valuable in this world. That’s the best way to change this problem, it’s not through lobbying or complaining, that’s just pissing in the wind, money talks.”
“I have no background in design, zero. I just wanted a bag.”
What was the inspirations to get this started? Why bags? And why here?
‘’The inspiration to quit my job and than have my eye on making something for myself was to be more fulfilled personally, and that was the most difficult part about starting this business, being willing to take that risk. But anyway, Why Guatemala? Why Leather? It was just the circumstances, local artisans that have loads of experience, Guatemala produces the most leather out of central America. The cattle industry goes north from Nicaragua on up, they come up to Guatemala, they’re processed here, the leather than tanned and used here and the meat goes up to Mexico or the U.S. So, they have the recourses and they have the skill, and I just wanted a bag. That’s where the idea came from, and we learned a lot the whole way, like I have no background in design, zero.”
“All of this is only possible because we wanted to give back.”
Bolso Bags has a string of community focused projects in mind and a couple that have already gained some speed. “All of this is only possible because we wanted to give back. If we were just another group of gringos that came in and just tried to make money off the people a lot of doors would have remained closed”.
Theo goes on to explain their first project, which should be complete shortly (pretty impressive seeing they only started production and sales 3 months earlier.)
“We’re building this yoga platform next door, and you know on the surface it might seem disingenuous of us, that we’re building a yoga platform for the community, and my answer to that would be, we want to create something that is focused on utility, if people don’t use it, it will never be of any value. So if we can build a yoga platform here, it’s free, it’s donation based, people can come practice, we have a facility for the community here. We spoke to the police and some of the other members of the community here, they want to use it for birthday parties, for educating kids on drug use etc. When we do have yoga teachers coming, the only thing we ask, is that they teach one of the classes that we’re designing focused towards the local youth, financial literacy, language skills etc.”
Leslie and Theo took us for a walk outside to show us the beautiful waterfront location for the yoga platform and on the other side of the Bolso shop we saw first hand the reason and motivation for their second project. Every morning from 5am local ladies are washing laundry in the cold waters of lake Atitlan, it might be nice for a quick swim and cool off but hours and hours over many years of this work must have some terrible affects on the body. They’ve come up with a plan to build new washing stations and already signed the lease on the vacant block across the road. Leslie explains the project:
“I came up with the idea that we should build proper washing stations for the ladies and try to remove them out of the lake, which would also allow us to stop the soap going into the water. We want to take this adjacent property here and build a cement rotunda that’s covered so they aren’t also washing in the sun and rain, and with the disposal water we’ll drill a giant hole down into the rock bed which will naturally filter out a lot of those chemicals.”
Besides the great community work the Bolso boys are doing, the products they are making are actually very impressive. Great naturally tanned leather, classic yet tech ready designs, all hand cut and stitched and at a more affordable price than the competition. We asked them if they see the company expanding to become a big commercial brand and still stick to the community projects.
“This isn’t something I want you to throw away in a couple of years, your kids could have this stuff.”
“It’s really important for us to grow sustainably, I don’t want to have a million orders and bring people in to try and do that business and sacrifice quality. And what we really want to accomplish is building product that is minimalist design, I don’t want my name all over it, it’s your bag it’s your product. We design the products to last a life time, the seams on a lot of the bags are double stitched, if it ever breaks we’ll send you a box, send it back to us and we’ll fix it. Like I said it’s meant to last you a life time, this isn’t something I want you to throw away in a couple of years, your kids could have this stuff.”
“It’s really important to pair commercial aspects with social and environment aspects because I just don’t see it to be sustainable otherwise.”
Theo also explain they are a triple bottom line business. What exactly does that mean?
“We take an interest in social, environmental and for profit, so it’s like Profit, Planet, People. If you take all those 3 things into account, you can build a more sustainable model. If I don’t take care of the environmental and the social aspect of the business and I just take all the profit out of it than that’s just shifting costs and I think that’s an irresponsible thing to do. We will always invest our money in the community, social and environmental. Charities a lot of times come in with a lot of really great intentions, I mean, nothing feels better than helping somebody out and the easier you can do that the better. But, if you go in and you start displacing people that have a role, lets say you go and dump a truck load of shoes in a community because you feel bad for the children, the one guy that makes shoes sees this truck coming in and says, that’s the end of my career. I don’t think we ever see a country goes from a developing status to 1st world status through aid alone. I think it’s really important to pair commercial aspects with social and environment aspects because I just don’t see it to be sustainable otherwise, I find it to have a destructive impact.”
More about Bolso Bags and their great products at Bolsobags.com