“It would be irresponsible for us to say that we are a social enterprise. We don’t want to claim that or have the focus be on that. We aren’t doing enough to be able to claim that,” says Jen Bonifacio, co-founder and Creative Director of Union Crafts, a start up business that sells lifestyle goods made of Inabel, handloom spun fabrics from La Union.
Refreshing words, considering the rise of so many social enterprises and the eagerness of many to claim social entrepreneurship without thorough understanding of the its criterion. Bonifacio and her business partner Ia Lazaro, who have definitely helped sustain the art of creating Inabel, know that just because they don’t haggle the price given to them by the weavers, doesn’t mean they are social entrepreneurs. “It is our mission to be a social enterprise,” Lazaro? says. “Moving forward, when we do more, like accomplish a community-wide effort to help these weavers, like raise their wages and preserve their livelihood, then maybe we can say that we are.”
It all began when both Ia and Jen, best friends since their high school days, found themselves both married, expecting children, and wanting to leave the corporate world (Ia was in marketing and Jen in advertising). “At first we had a lot of random business ideas, but nothing we felt strongly about,” Jen shares. But when she moved to La Union, she was reintroduced to Inabel, fabrics she always thought were associated with titas and lolas.
While Inabel is something many are familiar with, in fact the fabrics are easily found in bazaars, Manila FAME, and in different stores around Manila, most of them are presented the same way, as placemats, blankets, table runners, etc. That was when Jen, who always loved Interior design and had long dreamed of owning a lifestyle and furniture store, got her lightbulb moment. Why not create home goods made from Inabel? Create something new, different, and put to use the course she had taken at Parsons The New School of Design.
As a team, Bonifacio and Lazaro are determined not to be re-sellers, which is very common among those selling Inabel outside of La Union. Instead of stocking up on existing products for resale at bazaars, they carefully choose the fabrics and patterns they prefer and design stylish and functional pieces of furniture. “The idea was to find novelty in it again,” explains Ia?. “And to market it to people our age, the ones in their late twenties and early thirties and are open to new designs, the people starting families.”
Gaining Ground & Learning the Flow
Union Crafts is less than a year old, and they are already seeing the road to success. Their products, particularly the pouf, have all been well received, and they have already gotten inquiries for export as well as for team-ups and collaborations with other businesses. Impressive for a business on a shoestring budget and that chose to launch solely online and to market only through word of mouth.
“We were surprised because maybe 70% of the people who buy from us find us online. The people buying aren’t our moms or our titas!” Ia says laughing.
The success undoubtedly comes from the girls having set ground rules well before the business began, and being able to stick to those ground rules. “Jen is in charge of all the creatives,” Ia explains. “And I do marketing and business.”
“And we agree from the start that we would probably fight and get annoyed at each other, but that’s just the business,” continued Ia, who, along with Jen has been learning that you can’t follow a plan all the time. “I have learned that the real world is still different. It’s different when you’re starting your own. You learn as you go along every day. It’s quite humbling,” Ia? notes. “And I learned that there is no right time to launch a business,” says Ia. “As long as there is passion and that energy in you and that excitement, then just do it.”
The Social Question
“Dapat naisip ko na yan dati,” (I should have thought of that before) say the old ladies who weave Inabel after seeing the Union Crafts products.
A community of old women that are trying to keep a dying tradition, one passed down for generations. All their children are either in Manila or working abroad as OFWs, most uninterested in learning how to weave. Jen and Ia speak of these women fondly, like well-loved friends.
“I gave them a Missoni pattern to try and follow,” recounts Jen. “And at first they were resistant to the new design, they still are, actually, but after seeing the pouf they realised more can be done and are now, hopefully, slowly coming around.”
Such enthusiasm encourages both Jen and the women to continue to create modern items with Inabel. It also encourages them to teach the youth to weave. “It’s a challenge the industry is facing–getting people to stay home,” ?Jen? says. “Weaving is dying with the mothers and grandmothers, which is why down the line we are hoping to be able to work with the local government to do workshops that will encourage the younger generations to take up weaving. We’re hoping it can be a community-wide effort and project.”
To keep the tradition alive and to proliferate it is a goal for Union Crafts, but they know it is one they will have to achieve much later in the game. They too have to first achieve their own sustainability. For now, the best that they can do is choose not to haggle with the price the women give them, knowing–having seen firsthand–how long it takes to weave the fabric.
Perhaps once they have created enough of a following, have made Inabel popular among many, have raised the demand so that the women can afford to also raise their prices, worked with their local government, and filled out the other criteria, then they can achieve their mission and responsibly and proudly call themselves a social enterprise.