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A bold design for conservation

Materials used for the Andean Collection’s jewelry.

Carlos and his wife Nancy come from a line of artisans, and like their parents, they began working in handicrafts at a young age in their native Ecuador. This husband-wife duo spent most of their lives traveling long distances to and from Otavalo, an Andean crossroads about an hour outside of the capital Quito, to sell their jewelry at the daily market.

Despite this travel, their customer base at the Otavalo market was limited and sales often unpredictable. As a result, it was getting increasingly difficult for Nancy and Carlos to make ends meet as they were earning an average of USD 4 per day. Living in a small one-story home that doubled as their workspace, they worried for a secure future for their three children.

Nancy and Carlos were not alone. Stories like theirs were among the many that Amanda Judge witnessed firsthand when she was conducting her field research for a Masters’ thesis on poverty reduction strategies in rural South America. While interviewing the local artisans to understand their perception of poverty, Amanda heard time and again that all they truly wanted was a long-term financial solution to help ensure their families’ future.

Though her background is in finance, Amanda’s hobby has always been designing and creating jewelry. So after meeting with the local Ecuadorian artisans and seeing their jewelry designs, she knew there was an opportunity to improve their incomes while marketing high-quality eco-friendly products.

The jewelry is created using natural materials sustainably harvested from the Ecuadorian rainforest and lowlands, like Tagua nuts, Acai seeds, Pambil and Jaboncillo. Importantly, the seeds used in the are either picked up from the floor of the rainforest or required a skilled farmer to climb high into the tropical canopy and harvest ripe pods thereby preventing unnecessary degradation. They are then transformed into beads in a manual, low-energy process making every piece unique.

Commercialization of these sustainably harvested seeds provides an alternative source of income for the local communities, helping to replace the need to engage in logging or selling land to tropical forest-destructive industries.
So recognizing a unique opportunity, instead of writing her academic paper Judget started writing a business plan for Andean Collection.

To get started Judge invested her savings and student loan funds, and convinced clients to pay in advance or on credit. Her finance background and eye for jewelry design served her well because within two months, Andean Collection had its first client.
Today, Andean Collection works with over 60 artisan partners across eight fair trade workshops in Ecuador, with 15 employees across headquarters in Quito and New York City. Impressively, Andean Collection accessories can be found in over 2000 boutiques and major retail stores around the world.

“We have seen that rainforests can be protected and poverty can be eradicated through a holistic approach that nurtures the development of productive skills, promotes family health and education, and increases income levels,” Amanda says. “Lead artisans with Andean Collection earn up to 50% above Ecuadorian GDP. As we partner with new artisans, we work to ensure that they are on the same path to prosperity.”

After four years of working with Andean Collection, Nancy and Carlos have added a second floor to their home, which now serves as their workshop. Earning around $28 a day, they now even own a car, have hired seven additional employees and are planning their children’s future. Their work with Judge and Andean Collection has, in the simplest of terms, improved their lives.
With a proven model that generates both financial returns and a sustainable impact on tropical forests, Judge is now exploring new avenues through which to have a positive impact on her suppliers and beyond through Andean Collection.

And where she’s started is through the provision of support services to the company’s artisans. Andean Collection now provides artisans with customized business training in subjects like finance, accounting, computers and management. It also provides zero-interest loans to the artisans that can enhance their income from workshop improvement or start a new business and also offers their families with academic scholarships to high schools, universities and vocational training programs.

“I want all of my children to study and attend University. I wasn’t able to study because my parents weren’t able to afford it, but now my children can go to school,” says Luzmila, another artisan working with Andean Collection.

But beyond the livelihoods of their suppliers, Andean Collection is, at the root of their business model, committed to the preservation of Ecuador’s tropical forests. In addition to their continued sustainable harvesting practices, in 2012 they partnered with GIZ, the German
Agency for International Cooperation, to launch the Amazonia Project. This project allows Andean Collection to collaborate with local farmers and track the supply chain of seed production from cultivation to harvest.

It is with their commitment to tropical forest preservation in mind that Judge and the Andean Collection team recently applied to the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge. The Challenge is looking for the best for-profit solutions from around the world in 3 categories (Idea, Startup and Full company) having a positive impact on tropical forest biodiversity. Winners will receive global visibility, capacity building opportunities and networking.

“The Challenge can open a world opportunities to replicate the model at a global level. Isn’t this a great way to protect tropical forests?” Amanda asks.

Andean Collection is a great example on how opportunities from seemingly isolated situations can contribute to uplift local communities, create a profitable venture and also scale to address the a global issue like deforestation. Ideas like these need to be discovered and recognized for the important role they can play in tropical forest conservation – something that is so timely being addressed by the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge.

Through September 30, 2012, anyone can nominate an idea for the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge.