Updated: Apr 14
One of our favorite finds, features two things we love: good-looking bags and ethical design! A chance meeting introduced us to Rachel Kinley, founder of Meridian Lee, a design company creating modern handbags in collaboration with women artisans and entrepreneurs who have escaped human trafficking and other hardship in developing countries. Below Rachel shares the story of her journey to this amazing venture, and the reasons she’s so committed to ethical sourcing and design
Support local designers this holiday season! Shop Ethical Fashion Festival brand Meridian Lee by visiting their website at: www.meridianlee.com
I’ve spent the last twenty years working in design, the last six years focused on ethical sourcing and design. I studied apparel design at the University of Cincinnati. My first experience working with bags was through an internship, where I worked for a small handbag company in New York. I learned about what I didn’t want to make. And I began to form a point of view on ethical design. Fast-fashion, knock-offs, and unfair negotiation practices didn’t sit right with me.
When I began working after graduating, I was negotiating the cost of a good and just thought “wow, the cost of living must be incredibly low there!” But the more I dug into it, the more disheartened I felt by the reality of what factory workers are paid. I asked one of my bosses about this. His answer was “You should see the line around the block when there is a job opening! They are happy to get these jobs.” I decided that wasn’t a good enough answer for me. I knew the pay was subsistence and just felt so frustrated and angry.
One weekend in 2010, I went surfing with some friends. One of my friends, Nicole, told me that an organization she worked with was looking for a product developer. It was a non-profit, which supported women entrepreneurs who escaped human trafficking. I said ‘yep’ sign me up.
“I live to travel. I really wish everyone could try it because it changes you. It breaks you in a good way.”
We live in an exciting time where charities fund the work to rescue humans from all types of problems. But what happens after the rescue? At some point, aid organizations move on. The people who are displaced by war, natural disaster, trafficking, or poverty, need work to rebuild their lives and communities.
Additionally, product sourcing is a challenge for most companies. How do companies ensure their products are ethically made? As I travelled the world, building rapport with our artisans, I realized the business relationships I made became genuine friendships. The artisans we work with don’t want charity, they want to use their skills to support themselves and their families.
Meridian Lee‘s business model addresses both of these challenges. Our solution is to train, develop and work with women entrepreneurs who have escaped human trafficking or extreme hardships. I travel often and work closely with our artisans to ensure our business relationship, working conditions, product quality and negotiations are equitable for all parties. I have seen first hand that when you pay women well, there’s an amazing ripple effect in their community.
I asked Rachel where the name Meridian Lee came from and her reply is this: “Meridian is a line of longitude that connects points along the globe. Lee is a place that is sheltered from the wind. I wanted to express that we are connecting artisans while also providing some shelter (business help and small loans or advance payments which enable them to buy materials or learn new skills)”
“I really love our Overnight Duffle. I went to all the different airline websites and mashed up their carryon measurements to come up with the perfect size. We had the hardware and fabric produced to be especially strong. I use it on all my trips.”
Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your inspiring story and moving mission! We can’t get enough of these ethical, community-building designs! Check out the current collection at: https://meridianlee.com