How adaptability during a pandemic transformed this YLAI Fellow’s Honduran sustainability company

face masks

By Angie Garozzo

2018 YLAI Fellow Cinthya Andino is most passionate about design and about protecting the environment. In 2015, she was able to merge these two passions together to create her company, Beleaf. The YLAI Network team spoke with her to discuss the success of her business, the challenges she has faced, and what she has in store for the future.

What is Beleaf?

Beleaf is a sustainable fashion company that uses scraps to “upcycle” and create new clothing and accessories. After five years, the business has grown to four partners and six employees, as well as an entirely new business model.

Beleaf was born out of an idea after Cinthya and her cousin volunteered at a holiday clothing drive. When sorting through the clothes, they found that some were so damaged or old that they could not be given away. This revealed a much larger problem in Cinthya’s community and country: “clothing is the second-most environmentally-harmful industry, right after oil,” says Cinthya. In Honduras, maquilas, or factories, are extremely important to the economy, from factory workers to private seamstresses. But they too can contribute to the problems of pollution and environmental degradation in the country.

The goal to eliminate clothing waste in the community drove the launch of Beleaf. The name itself is a ‘green’ play on the word ‘belief,’ i.e. describing the belief that with effective business practices and ethical products, Cinthya and her community can live sustainably and leave a better planet for future generations.

Beleaf uses the scraps from sewing projects and clothing manufactures and gives them a new life through “upcycling.” Through years of production and education, the community has begun to reflect sustainable values by creating their own clothes through upcycling old materials. Not only has Cinthya created a successful and sustainable business, but she has also inspired people in her community to integrate sustainability into their everyday lives.

Tackling challenges: COVID-19 and beyond

People usually think about pollution in a singular way regarding plastics and basic recycling. “Nobody thinks of their clothes as pollution,” says Cinthya. A lot of clothes don’t make it through the entire process of finding a new owner and then end up in the trash, creating waste. Reducing waste in fashion requires “upcycling” materials in new, innovative ways. Cinthya says that incorporating education about sustainability and upcycling materials into their sales and social media has been a challenge, in that they’re marketing sustainable fashion to a community that does not fully understand the damaging ramifications of fashion industry waste. However, the community has engaged positively with the company, with many clients also making sustainable changes in their lives.

No one product from Beleaf is the same. Each is unique, made from what scraps can be salvaged and designed into a one-of-a-kind piece of clothing. When Beleaf first started as just a clothing company, their limited supply could not compare to the mass-produced, “fast fashion” of large corporations. However, the business has expanded into new products such as hoodies, bags, and lunch boxes, created sustainably and priced affordably. Beleaf has set itself apart from industry competitors as fashionable and environmentally-friendly alternatives to household brand names.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented unprecedented obstacles for Cinthya’s company. Many new projects and changes had to be postponed in order to follow public health guidelines. Cinthya emphasizes that Beleaf’s adaptability has been the main factor in their continued production during this unprecedented time of economic and public health uncertainty. “We are evolving. Change is the only constant,” she says, remarking on their new production of facial masks. For Cinthya, keeping Beleaf’s doors open and employees working was a key priority. By reorienting the team to focus on masks production and by putting a hold on other projects, they have been able to continue working.

What’s in the future for Beleaf?

Since completing her YLAI Fellowship, Cinthya says that her business has transformed into the growing company it is today. Part of this came with the education and hands-on experience she gained, and this translated into returning to Beleaf and changing the entire business model. By moving to a Business-Business model, Cinthya expanded the business to work with larger organizations and industries, such as local schools and restaurants.

Cinthya and the Beleaf team will always hold the vision of a better planet for their future endeavors. The expansion of the company into new areas such as baby and maternity wear will keep the same eco-conscious message and production. Cinthya also says that her team is capable of achieving many goals thanks to their ability to change. Staying open to change in the face of adversity is key to expansion, growth, and opportunity.

Advice for Network members

Cinthya had three key pieces of advice to other YLAI Network members or anyone looking to make a difference in the community:

  • Go for it! Whatever idea you have, go for it. It’s better to try and make a difference than none at all.
  • Identify the needs facing your community, what do they need help with the most? Do everything you can to help approach that particular subject.
  • Always give back! While profits help grow your business, it is super important to give back to your community.

 

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government.

Este artículo está disponible en español.