Reese Fernandez-Ruiz

2010 Young Laureate, Environment
The Philippines, Born 1985

Project Goal

Help impoverished women earn a decent wage by upcycling waste, turning it into high-value "eco-ethical, elegant" products

Location: The Philippines

From Landfill to Hopeful

Raised by her mother, a missionary who travelled around the country administering to the poor, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz was, from her earliest years, exposed to poverty and suffering in others. It was during this time she learned that the best way to improve children’s lives was to support their mothers. Inspired to help find solutions to her country’s social problems, she received a scholarship to study management at Ateneo de Manila University. Her commitment to helping others improve their lives led her to the mothers of Payatas, where she was able to harness her sharp business and managerial skills in the pursuit of her passion.

Living off a Landfill
For the more than 117,000 people who live in Payatas, an impoverished neighbourhood of Manila, capital of the Philippines, life is precarious. Their skyline and their lives are dominated by one of the country’s biggest solid-waste dumps, once a landfill and now a mountain of garbage towering up to seven storeys high. Yet, despite the risk to health and safety and the intolerable living conditions, the dump provides many with a livelihood as the people of Payatas, including children as young as four, scavenge daily through newly-dumped rubbish in search of recyclables and scrap metals they can sell.

In recent years, many house-bound women at Payatas have started a cottage industry — weaving discarded fabric and rags into foot rugs — in an effort to bring in some income for their families. But, with the women able to create only eight to 10 rugs per day, and profits on each rug as low as US$0.02, largely because of the intervention of unscrupulous middlemen, the weavers faced a constant battle for survival.

Community of Weavers
In the belief that success owes more to opportunity than capacity, Fernandez-Ruiz, 25, introduced into the lives of these women a creative, innovative and sustainable means of social entrepreneurship. In 2007, with a priest and social entrepreneur, Xavier Alpasa, and a group of young professionals, she co-founded Rags2Riches, a company designed to create links between this community of weavers and the market, as well as with factories that can provide them with additional scrap materials.

Fernandez-Ruiz’s business acumen had a revolutionary impact. By inviting Filipino fashion designers, including leading fashion designer Rajo Laurel and handbag designer Amina Aranaz-Alunan, to participate in the design process, she revolutionized the marketing approach of the cottage industry, vastly expanding the potential market for these products. After examining the weavers’ work, Laurel (the first designer to support Rags2Riches) realized that the colourful rugs could easily be transformed into handbags, wine-bottle holders, eyeglass cases and yoga mat carriers.

"Eco-ethical" Fashion

Today, Rags2Riches offers a collection of stylish, handmade accessories that are sold in upscale stores in the Philippines and, in the near future, via the company’s website. Of the Rags2Riches revamped product line, Fernandez-Ruiz says: “It’s beauty that has more meaning when you pry deeper into what it is. There is humanity woven into the fabric. Products that enrich someone’s fashionable lifestyle are also enriching the lives of those who make them.”

With the new collection comes a higher earning capacity for the weavers: handbag prices, for example, range from US$6 to $60, while a limited edition bag can fetch up to $130, with up to 40 per cent of the retail price being paid to the weavers. Thanks to Rags2Riches, the weavers now earn 2,000 per cent more than they did three years ago. During that time, the company has enabled 350 women to transform their lives (with 54 of them founding a cooperative that owns a share of the company); expanded its reach from one to 21 communities across the Philippines; grown from a single volunteer staff member to 10 paid staff; recycled 800 tonnes of scrap cloth; and earned 4,000,000 Philippine Pesos (US$86,720).

From Poverty to Pride

Equally as important, Rags2Riches has transformed an industry that was once a national stigma into one that is now a source of pride, and has equipped the women of Payatas with business and life skills, including educating them on the need for health insurance and the importance of good nutrition. “Self-esteem is another very important realization of our programme, but it’s difficult to measure,” explains Fernandez-Ruiz. “For example, one of the mothers does not say she’s from Payatas because she’s ashamed of it. But when we had a launch in a five-star hotel in Manila, she said she could not believe that something she had made was being worn by a top Filipino model. They have become very proud of their handicraft.”

Rags2Riches is not only helping to sustain a way of life for the women of Payatas, but, by reusing scrap cloth and other waste materials, it is also improving their environment. Fernandez-Ruiz is further expanding the type of materials that are salvaged, with plans currently under way to make handbags out of hardwood scraps and plant fibre. A weaving style using a traditional handloom, which is at risk of dying out, will be used to make the handbags and will involve the women of Payatas, as well as two communities near the Philippines’ Sierra Madre mountain range. Other eco-ethical products in the pipeline include fashion goods made from scrap leather, thread, wood and metal, as well as recycled glass.

Sustainable Design
What makes Fernandez-Ruiz’s programme unique and sustainable is the method she employs, which she explains is based on sustainable design principles. She adds: “Rags2Riches is creating a platform that is scalable and that will enable us to reach out to other communities engaged in handicraft cottage industries.” This platform is the Ecolife Laboratory which will be funded by her Rolex Award and will bring professionals and community-based enterprises together to collaborate and create new products that actively promote the goals of Rags2Riches: making products that empower people and protect the planet, while also being a positive influence on society.

By drawing on the power of style, Fernandez-Ruiz is helping to make the world a better place. This young, entrepreneurial and socially-minded woman has many more ideas to help people in difficulty. Yet, no matter how grand her aspirations, Fernandez-Ruiz always stays true to one simple mission: “I dream to empower a lot of communities, to help their families and the environment. I don’t want to just create livelihoods and income. I want to create sustainable, eco-ethical products. It can be a win-win situation for everybody.”

Bart Boehlert

Other 2010 Young Laureates