Being Ethical and Fashionable, the Moto of two Young Indonesian Entrepreneurs
In the early 2000s, Vania and Agnes Santoso witnessed their family house in Surabaya, Indonesia, being flooded. That event ignited the environmental activism journey of the two sisters. Some 18 years later, they are heading a social enterprise manufacturing fashion accessories out of upcycled materials, promoting the idea that you can be fashionable while saving the planet.
The two sisters started by founding AV Peduli in 2005, a youth-led environmental NGO vowing to raise people’s awareness about environmental issues. However, said Vania, back then, the recognition of issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss were not as prominent as today. Without any experience, portfolio, or structure proposal, they faced strong rejection while trying to raise funds or get support from the private sector or the government.
In 2007, Vania competed in “Volvo Adventure”, a joint project between the Volvo Group, and the United Nations Environment Program, an internet-based global environmental competition for young people aged 10 to 16. She won first prize in the competition and was awarded US$10,000 of funding support.
“It was our wake-up call moment,” Vania recalls, “realizing that we could not rely on the hope of regularly winning competitions to be financially sustainable.”
While pursuing her studies, Vania started researching social entrepreneurship, social innovations, and sustainable development. She majored in management and marketing at Universitas Airlangga, while Agnes turned to law. With no background in entrepreneurship in their family, both expertise proved very useful in their next endeavor.
As soon as Vania graduated in 2014, they started thinking of HeySTARTIC, which is the abbreviation of “Start ethical” preceded by “Hey” as a call for action. Their tagline is “artistic outside, ethical inside.”
For the four following years, the two sisters “learned the hard way,” about customers’ behaviors, and the kind of products that would attract them said Vania. In 2018, they registered the company.
HeySTARTIC Sustainable Fashion, a Work of Art in a Circular Economy
HeySTARTIC is built on three major pillars: the first one is to promote sustainable fashion “so people can be fashionable while wearing environmentally friendly products, and proud to be wearing upcycled fashion accessories.” “We want to promote sustainable fashion as a way of life,” Vania explained.
The second pillar is promoting Arts in Education, and the third is supporting the circular economy.
HeySTARTIC collaborates with corporations to collect their waste, whether it is packaging waste coming from post-consumer waste or discarded packaging that did not make it to the fabrication process due to quality control issues.
For example, HeySTARTIC collects unused sacks of cement from cement and construction companies and turns them into leather look-alike products. This vegan leather is used to craft upcycled fashion items like bags, purses, and shoes. The collaboration with other corporations, such as FMCG resulted in producing the inner material of those items from milk cardboard, and other accessories from aluminum tins.
Collaborating with Local Fashion Designers and Empowering Women in Asia
At the start of HeySTARTIC, Vania and Agnes built upon existing designs to create ethical fashion accessories. Now, the company collaborates with local designers, artists, and creative industry actors to produce innovative eco-friendly fashion products. The head office of the company and its workshop are in Surabaya.
One of the aims of HeySTARTIC is to empower the local community, in particular in East Java. People crafting the company’s products are mostly women (70%) as HeySTARTIC supports gender equality. Small groups of 2 to 5 people work around 11 “pioneers”, who supervise production. Those people are not employed but are paid based on production, although they receive a basic monthly allowance. In 2020, Vania won a youth leadership award for exemplary practice in embracing the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) from UN Women Asia-Pacific.
HeySTARTIC started its empowerment program, which includes extensive training and mentoring, in West Java but the pandemic forced the company to stop in its tracks.
Marketing Strategy Shift towards online sales due to Covid-19
The business model of HeySTARTIC was built mostly on B2B. The company would pitch products to merchandise companies, governments, and event organizers. The products are also sold in galleries in Jakarta, benefitting from a large expatriate community hungrier for alternative, more sustainable products, as well as in airports and souvenir stores.
The pandemic having curtailed onsite retail, HeySTARTIC adapted its strategy and started to develop the B2C side of the business, establishing online sales through its marketplace, such as Tokopedia and Shopee and Instagram account, @heySTARTIC.
A Social Enterprise with Strong Ethical Branding
Now 30 and 37 respectively, Vania and Agnes are proud to be at the helm of a social enterprise. Being financially sustainable is crucial, Vania said, adding that ambitions to achieve social missions cannot overshadow the realistic needs of a business. At the start of their environmental activism journey, the two sisters’ main goal was to educate people to lead an environmentally friendly lifestyle but the fact is that consumers need explanation rather than hard-selling ways. “It was a lesson learned for me, as well as learning to communicate with empathy, understand markets, and have a combination of idealism and pragmatism.”
With a registered brand, Intellectual property has been very important for HeySTARTIC, according to Vania. “It gives us the power to introduce not only who we are but also the products.” “It gives us credibility.” “Trust from consumers is very important, and IP is one of the tools that we can use to show that our products are original, and HeySTARTIC represents who we are, and what we stand for.”
Discussions are ongoing with the Ministry of the Creative Economy to see how the company can register the designs of its ethical fashion products.
Connecting fashion creators and producers of sustainable products
For the future Vania and Agnes are planning on becoming a mobilizing force in conscious consumption, connecting local creators and producers of sustainable products and services, to create a platform where consumers can easily find environmentally friendly products. Limited access to those products is a constraint that the two sisters are intending to lift.
Online sales are for the moment limited to Indonesia to focus on climate action education. But Vania and Agnes are considering adding their products on an international retail platform such as Etsy. “A global recognition would galvanize the Indonesian market, although the urgency around environmental issues is bringing more allies than in the early 2000s” Vania noted, smiling.
Societal Gender Issues Hurdle in Indonesia
Vania has experienced a lot of pushback since she started trying to raise awareness when she was 12. “People would tell me – you are just a kid, go back to school and study, what do you know?” she remembered, “while some others just give a complimentary ‘lip-service’ of ‘you are inspiring!’ without really taking meaningful actions “. When she grew up to be an entrepreneur, she faced another kind of pushback, people around her saying she should get a “normal” life and get married. “It feels like it is never enough,” she said, adding, “in the personal setting, there are always people who belittle what we are doing.” It is much more of a challenge than it is in the professional setting, she said, adding that she is grateful for corporates’ programs and initiatives that give a spotlight or priority for youth and women empowerment and is hopeful to see more coming.