Local Focus: Branded Collective

February 29, 2016

Human trafficking is real. It's here, and it's growing. Today's slaves are forced into labor, service or sex slavery to make money for their exploiters. Nashville's own BRANDED Collective is making a difference and providing the opportunity for locals to help in the fight to end slavery in Tennessee. BRANDED Collective employs survivors of human trafficking from Nashville-based non-profit End Slavery Tennessee. These women work with local artisans to design and handcraft the jewelry collection. 25% of the profits go to the rescue and restoration of survivors. Many victims of human trafficking are branded; their captors physically mark them with a number or symbol. The process is often violent: a forced tattoo, a burn or knife cut. When you receive your item from the BRANDED Collective, you are BRANDED. Each piece contains a unique number that represents one of the millions trapped in the nightmare of trafficking. Push yourself to support local and shop small, but also, realize you can make a difference. Enjoy a short Q&A with one of the founders of BRANDED Collective, Lauren Carpenter, below. Click here to shop BRANDED Collective.

CA: Tell me a little bit more about the history of BRANDED Collective.

LC: I met BRANDED Collective co-founder Emily Landham Mahoney in 2011. We started meeting together regularly for coffee and hikes, and we quickly realized that we actually had similar dreams about starting a company with a purpose. Our company was officially founded under the name "t-615" in 2012 with the goal of selling beautiful products to raise awareness about human trafficking in Middle Tennessee. We raised our start-up capital by selling the first 100 recycled aluminum BRANDED cuffs for $100 each. This was enough to create a website and buy our first batch of t-shirts. For the t-shirt designs, we worked with local artists who created artwork inspired by the issue of human trafficking. We began selling the shirts at events and in local boutiques.

During this time, we also learned about how the apparel industry is actually quite a large contributor to the problem of human trafficking across the world. We realized that if we wanted to truly work to stop human trafficking, we needed to do something different in our product line. In 2014, we decided to try our hand at creating a line of handmade organic cotton tops that we could absolutely guarantee were made in a clean supply chain. The tops were designed and sewn by two local designers, Juliana Horner and Macy Smith. They were gorgeous, and we sold quite a few of them! However, as we began to talk to people, we realized that with the new product line, we were trying to tell two different stories - one, about the problem of human trafficking, and two, about the importance of ethical fashion. The two stories were very entertwined, but hard to communicate together effectively. We were focusing on the ethical fashion piece because of our new line of handmade tops - but at the same time, we were selling BRANDED cuffs without even trying. Emily remembers me telling her one day, "Let's do one thing really well and make it soar." For us, the way we could make the most impact was to refocus on the BRANDED product line.

So, in the spring of 2015, we shifted and focused our efforts on expanding the BRANDED product line. We renamed our company "BRANDED Collective" - a name that encompasses who we are, as we now work with survivors of human trafficking who create all of our products. We now sell a collection of aluminum, brass and copper cuffs that are hand-stamped with a unique number and the initial of a survivor of trafficking.

CA: Can you elaborate on the extent of your partnership with End Slavery Tennessee?

LC: We are so excited about our partnership with End Slavery Tennessee (ESTN). We have always donated 25% of our profits annually to ESTN to help provide services for the survivors the organization helps through the rehabilitation process that follows being rescued from trafficking. In 2015, we strengthened our partnership with ESTN by creating a job-training program for survivors. We have worked with 11 survivors so far, teaching each of them how to make our BRANDED products. We have been able to offer two hours of paid work for two survivors every week and are thrilled to be the stepping stone for them from a life of trafficking into a life with a meaningful full-time job. This job-training and direct aid to survivors has become the heart of our company.

CA: What is one of the most important experiences you’ve had throughout your career in the fashion industry?

LC: There have been so many great experiences so far, but I think the most important thing I've learned through them is to be open to the need to re-evaluate and pivot. As a social enterprise, we have to constantly balance our mission with our product line, and sometimes what we think is a great idea can turn out to be a terrible one, and vice versa. Our brand has been fortunate enough over the last year to grow pretty significantly, but we started very small! Three short years ago, I could never have imagined that we would be selling a line of jewelry that is handmade by survivors of trafficking and that provides direct aid and support to these beautiful souls we now call friends. It is more meaningful than I could have imagined, and I am so grateful.

CA: What is your hope for the success of BRANDED Collective?

LC: My hope is that BRANDED Collective will continue to grow in a really big way! We want to expand our footprint and sell enough cuffs that we will be able to employ survivors to work in all aspects of our company, from jewelry-making to administrative work to shipping and packaging. We also want to get as many free people BRANDED as possible. In short, the more cuffs we sell, the bigger the impact we are able to make in the lives of our survivors.

CA: Any exciting upcoming plans for BRANDED Collective?

We are working hard to place BRANDED products in more stores across the U.S. this year. Right now we have store placements in Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, but our goal is to be in all 50 states. We will also continue to show up at events and craft fairs. We love educating people about the issue of human trafficking and getting them excited about wearing a cuff that is handmade by a survivor of trafficking.

Finally, we are so excited about shooting a new video this summer which will allow an opportunity for those 3,500+ people who have been BRANDED to participate. We're in early planning stages right now, but can't wait to reveal more soon. Follow us on Instagram @brandedcollective or subscribe to our mailing list to be in the know about this and other opportunities to get involved. 

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