Everywhere we do business, we’re giving back.
Guided by LS&Co.’s values of courage, empathy, originality, and integrity, the Levi Strauss Foundation (LSF) partners with innovative non-governmental organizations that advocate and improve the lives of the most marginalized and stigmatized communities.
Mercado Global is one such partner. By creating cooperatives, Mercado Global empowers indigenous women to achieve business and financial success – and, in turn, emerge as change-makers and influencers in their communities.
Unzipped spoke with Kim Almeida, who oversees LSF’s grantmaking in the Americas and Europe, to learn more about one of the many inspiring organizations that the Levi Strauss Foundation supports.
UNZIPPED: Tell me about the origins of Mercado Global.
As they traveled through rural Guatemala, they were struck by the economic disparities in the country and the debilitating poverty of the indigenous people. They asked, “What are the opportunities for us to come in and make a difference?” They realized that indigenous Guatemalan women have incredible talent as artisans —but they didn’t have a market to sell their items on a global scale.
From there, Mercado Global was born. Since then, it has worked to build the capacity of these women’s groups to operate as cooperatives. The organization provides these women’s groups with seed funding to purchase sewing machines and other equipment. They work together on product design. Then, Mercado Global connects these women’s groups to the international market.
That direct link didn’t exist beforehand – goods are otherwise sold through exploitative middlemen who pay artisans far below fair value. What Mercado Global has helped do is eliminate that middleman, and sell their goods at a much higher price.
Alongside the market access, Mercado Global has developed a robust training program that all coops participate in. The issues addressed range from family planning to financial literacy to budgeting, and how to effectively manage a business.
Does LSF support them through funding or carrying the product in Levi’s® stores, or is it a mix?
Both. Mercado Global is one of Levi Strauss Foundation’s grantees – we’ve supported it with grants to expand their work since 2005.
At the company level, Levi’s sells their products in its stores. This space was the organization’s first international market. Now, Mercado Global sells to other large international vendors as well. Also, it produced bags for conferences for us, for example, for the International AIDS Conference two years ago they made 5,000 bags.
Why are the products themselves special?
They really are beautiful and colorful. A lot of craftsmanship goes into them. They build on traditional Guatemalan techniques and materials, but incorporate a modern look: throw pillows that look chic in loft apartments in NYC and bags that look like you would find in any modern boutique. You should check out their website, www.mercadoglobal.com, to see the products firsthand!
Why is it so important to support women in these communities?
The majority of workers in the apparel industry are women—so it makes sense for the Levi Strauss Foundation to focus on women.
Mercado Global works with a highly marginalized population — rural, indigenous women in Guatemala. The indigenous population in Guatemala suffers extreme poverty and discrimination. For example, fifty percent of indigenous people lack access to electricity, and, on average, indigenous children attend school for less than three years. Indigenous women suffer double discrimination, being both indigenous and female.
What is the impact?
These women are now breadwinners in their family. Studies show that when you make women financial decision makers, more money goes to investing in children than if the husband brings the money home. Often, it means that families eat healthier diets, and children stay in school longer. The communities where Mercado Global operates have been transformed – these women are now empowered to play more active roles in their communities – socially, economically and politically.
Why is doing this work so important to you?
I myself am Guatemalan. I lived there for 16 years, so I have a very personal connection to the work of Mercado Global. I have seen the astounding challenges that these communities face first-hand.
At LS&Co., we apply our values not only to our work internally but to how we give back to the community. Today, Mercado Global is a mainstream organization. But when we started funding them, no other corporations were partners. We go out and support programs and initiatives that others won’t fund. LS&Co.’s pioneering spirit is reflected in our work at LSF. That inspires me every day.