I AM., a socially conscious yoga mat bag company, has been following a different model right from the start, both in theory and practice.
Co-founder Will Baxter is inspired by the work of “the father of microfinance,” Muhammad Yunus and while finishing up a yoga teacher training program in Guatamala, he and a fellow trainee wanted to create a company based on Yunus’ social business model. Their goal was to create employment opportunities for the Maya, or indigenous, women of Guatemala who were living in poverty.
“We saw problem with the weavers of Guatemala,” Will tells me via Skype from a rooftop cafe in Guatemala. “The Maya population has a backstrap weaving skill set. We wanted to know how we could create a market for their skill set, and we came up with idea for the yoga mat bag.”
Will is an Australian who took a year off from his 9-5 job in banking to travel the world. After going to India, Europe and Mexico, and discovering meditation and yoga along the way, he was drawn to Guatemala to take a yoga teacher training course. When his instructor loaned him a copy of one of Yunus’ books, he saw a way to merge his business background with what he was learning in his YTT and what he was seeing in Guatemala. Many Maya women were still living in poverty and trying to rebuild their lives, after a 36 year long civil war (which ended in 1996) and the 1982 Guatemala Genocide campaign.
“What we want to do is produce our product in the most environmentally sound way. We’re trying to generate positive social impact through consumption of the product and create employment in unemployable areas. We want to make the product and process as eco-friendly as possible, and push it as far as we can without jeopardizing the goal of model.”
However, the transparency of this model means being transparent about challenges. In a recent update to Kickstarter supporters, Will revealed that the natural dying process isn’t up to standards and they’re going to have to scrap the process for the sake of efficiency. Even after resorting to commercially dyed cotton, I AM. is open about the process, sending out a Kickstarter update loaded with photos of the cotton being distributed to the weavers.
The I AM. motto claims “it’s not a brand. it’s an idea.” When asked just exactly what this means, Will tells me, “The power of choice can be exercised in every aspect of our lives, including what we buy and consume on a day-to-day basis. Each time we buy something, we’re making a choice that can be channeled. Our motto is a way of speaking to the consequences of purchasing power.”
The social enterprise model has been active right from the start, when I AM. ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in the fall. This campaign connected I AM. to the yoga community and allowed them to tap into a community of “investors” who are waiting for the product.
The reception from the yoga community has been positive and amazing, Will says. “We had an ambitious fundraising goal, $45,000 but got lots of support from Elephant Journal, YogaDork and Yoga Journal. The yoga community has helped make this project a reality. People rallied behind the idea and this is why we’re moving forward.”
I AM. is running counter to the dominant yoga products industry. It’s not responding to consumer demand but instead creating demand to employ people with a certain skill set. I ask Will if this is intentional, but he insists he’s not the best person to talk to about observations on yoga culture.
Could this be a new socially conscious model for yoga? Imagine if other yoga studios and clothing companies responded to a bigger picture, rather than perceived consumer demand?
I AM. yoga mat bags and straps will be ready for purchase in late March/early April.