One432 is a bold new fashion brand, the brain child of Parsons Professor Ammar Belal that donates 50% of its profits from selling traditional “jutti” shoes to support education and artisans in Pakistan. Jutti is inspired by footwear popular in Pakistani and North India – with no distinction between the left and right shoe. The shoes adapt to the shape of your feet over time. Belal has put a modern spin on the shoe ensuring comfort and style.
I sat down with Ammar Belal, the founder of One432 and a passionate social entrepreneur, to talk about his holistic approach to sustainability and the complexity of trying to do good things as a fashion company.*
Yimin: In fashion, we see companies donating 5% or 10% of their profit to charity. But with One432 you donate 50% of the profit to Pakistani communities. That is unheard of. Can you share how?
Ammar: Giving half of our profits away is what differentiates us from anything else that is out there. I wanted to show that it is possible to be self sustaining while donating 50% of our profits. I hope we can inspire other companies to do the same.
Why did we do it? It was interesting to see the one for one model catch on, for things like eye wear and shoes. I wanted to push this model toward more transparency. Just because you buy a pair of shoes does not mean somebody else needs the same shoes. What people need is a more equitable share of the profits.
I believe how your business grows, and how your social impact grows, should be the same. It should be done slowly and fairly, every step of the way.
One432 started with this idea of equality, that what you bring in is essentially equal to what you give. The most common argument I get is this, “If you give 50% away, your company can only grow very slowly. Why don’t you give 5% or 10% or something less? Than you can grow faster. 10% of a bigger company would be more money toward education than 50% in a small company.”
To which I always say that’s not the One432 way. We are not trying to rapidly impact 100 schools or 500 schools. It’s about changing one life at a time authentically and deeply. What we have set up is a really transparent structure. When you buy a pair of shoes and interact with One432, you get to know where your money goes in real time. You can follow the lives of the kids that we are changing. It’s not about racking up numbers. It’s quality over quantity every step of the way and maintaining that ethos.
Yimin: Tell us more about who is behind One432?
Ammar: Three of us run the business, myself, my younger brother who runs the atelier in Pakistan and my childhood best friend. We currently have 9 full time employees. I am very proud that half of our workforce are women. Pakistan has a lot of women who work in the fashion industry but shoe making and cobbling tend to be a craft that gets passed onto men. We trained our female cobblers in-house and our studio supervisor is also a woman. An average shoemaker or cobbler artisan can make more money than a seamstress because it’s more of a skill and craft.
Yimin: How do you determine the compensation of these employees?
Ammar: Every artisan in our company makes money in two ways. One is their salary, which is already 15% higher than the livable wage in Pakistan. So they’re paid really well. But on top of the salary, every time a shoe sells, we share our profits with our artisans. We live in a fashion world where designers and brands always highlight their creativity as valuable. Yeah, you designed it. But what about the person who makes it beautifully? Where’s the value in that?
Yimin: One432 is a very inspiring concept for fashion designers that live in developed countries, but come from developing countries. You are showing us how to leverage the financial impact of the profit you make in developed markets to give back to the communities of your origin.
Ammar: An American dollar goes a long way in Pakistan. A lot of times people are surprised that a $145 pair of shoes can keep a child in school for six months.
The right way to understand how far your money goes is to understand the cost of living is in Pakistan. With our artisan profit sharing, the woman making your shoe can make the same amount of money as a bank manager who has an undergraduate degree. That is life changing.
So with our fashion brand you are supporting quality education so the next generation has better opportunities. And at the same time supporting a current generation of artisans to make more money so they can have a better life for their families.
We’re not an American company who’s going into Africa and giving stuff away. That’s a bit different, because a lot of times you do not empower the local community and local system of production with that type of model. We know the communities we are serving.
Yimin: Why did you pick education as your social impact focus?
Ammar: Because of what it did for me, and for you. I was born to privilege, and my privilege gave me access to a better life. I want to pass on that privilege to more of Pakistan’s future generation. Pakistan is a country that needs more investment in education. With Remake you went to Sri Lanka, where the youth literacy rate is 98%. There’s a reason why the Sri Lankan textile industry makes our $70 Ralph Lauren polo shirt whereas the Pakistani textile industry gets orders from Target, H&M, and Zara. Education does wonders for people’s ability to earn more and have a better life for themselves, even within the fashion industry.
Yimin: How did you find the schools you are focused on?
Ammar: One of my really close friends opened three schools in Pakistan and we are currently focused on improving them. Two are in the same area as where Malala is from (the Swāt district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan). An area that was once controlled by Taliban and the focus is to rebuild schools.
One of the schools is in Uch Sharif, an area where Alexander the Great had passed through. It’s a beautiful small town with a really rich history but today there is a lot of poverty. You can see the free school that has been set-up there, Jahania Public School, on our website.
It currently goes up to seventh grade, but we add a grade every year. Children from this school had the best test results in the whole province!
I personally visit Pakistan four times a year and my brother is there full time. So we interact with our schools frequently. This is why our fashion system is so disruptive. You do not just say,“Yeah, I bought shoes and somebody somewhere out in the world, got another pair of shoes or got money and I have no idea how that happened”. Instead we empower you to say, “You know these shoes I’m wearing, they put somebody through seventh grade.” It’s about building an actual interactive journey between you, our artisans and the communities we support. This is a lot harder but has more meaning.
Yimin: So I guess my last question is, what advice do you have for young designers like me, who want to do more good?
Ammar: Well, that’s a big one. Okay. So I think it’s two steps. As a creative person and artist you first have to be satisfied with yourself and where you are in your creative journey. To give back, you have to be satisfied yourself first.
For you to start giving back shouldn’t have to do with you making a billion dollars.
The first step is to really think about what makes me happy? What do I need to do to reach a level where I’m content? I find that most people who are truly happy are content with their journey, the path they have taken and not the end destination. You are content because every day you’re living your life doing something that you love.
Second step is: once you have that, think about what you have, and what so many people in the world don’t have. You do not have to make your first billion to give back. It can start with you being in any income bracket.
So my advice is true happiness and fulfillment comes from a sense of giving. I believe having a sense of purpose is what we all need.
You can buy juttis to support artisans and education in Pakistan. Link here.
* The above interview was condensed and edited. Mr. Ammar Belal is my thesis advisor during my undergraduate study at Parsons School of Design.
Photos: Courtesy of One432