I'm not usually long winded. I like to keep my sentences short, sweet, and to the point. But get me started on something I'm especially passionate about and I could go on all day — especially when it's with someone who is equally as passionate about it as I am.
That's kind of how chatting with Michelle from The Tote Project was. We both had a limited time frame (ie. our "work from home lunch breaks"), but once we started talking about their incredible company and the stories of lives they've impacted, it seemed like we couldn't stop. And I was disappointed when we had to.
Like most brands that make a difference, the Tote Project was born out of a sense of discontent. Although Michelle and Fay — best friends with a shared passion for justice, women's rights, and advocacy — both had jobs that they loved, they couldn't help feeling like their vocations lacked something. With a shared desire to work towards something that actually helped people, they birthed the idea to mass produce tote bags, using the funds to help victims of sex trafficking.
After lots of trial and error (Fay, the artist of the duo, used vintage materials at first, making each tote bag by hand), they knew they needed to find an ethical way to mass produce their totes if they were ever going to make a business out of their idea.
Through a connection from college, the pair eventually decided to have their totes produced by FreeSet, a fair trade company based in Kolkata employing women who've been trapped in the city's massive sex trade. They set up an IndieGogo campaign, hoping to raise enough support to create their first shipment. At this point, the Tote Project was a big experiment to gauge people's interest. And although they didn't meet their fundraising goal, they raised just enough for the first shipment (one of many "coincidences" that have fallen exactly into place for the brand). They've been self-sustaining ever since.
That was just over two years ago and since then, Michelle and Fay have aligned their business with Two Wings, an LA based organization that works with rescued victims of sexual exploitation, providing them with holistic care. Two Wings is a unique program that not only gives the women physical aftercare, but provides them with career counseling, resume building, mental help and more, pushing the women to believe in their future after trafficking. Many of the women suffer from PTSD and triggers that normally wouldn't upset you or I, Michelle noted during our talk, and so it's imperative that they receive care that gives them hope for a normal life.
The Tote Project is currently undergoing a redesign of their totes. With a switch to thicker, more durable organic cotton, the totes and pouches will be even higher quality. The "sweater weather" tote I'm holding is one of their limited edition designs and, let me tell you, it feels like it's made to last. Fay creates all of their designs by hand, as well, adding to the beauty of their products.
When I asked Michelle what the one thing she would want someone to know about human trafficking, after a little pause, she replied emphatically that "there REALLY is hope for these people because I've witnessed it. I've seen so many women who are filled with joy. You CAN make a difference and with the right tools and companies like Two Wings and safe houses, they can have a normal life again." The Tote Project's mottos "Hold onto Hope" is especially poignant, acting as a constant reminder that there truly is life for women trapped in hopeless situations — but only when we use our voice and resources to help.