An initiative making it happen with love, passion, and care.
Mariam Omar, Director of the Booteek Foundation, talks about how the social enterprise uses creative empowerment to uplift special needs communities and women from Sri Lanka’s low-income bracket, works to provide a sustainable income for adults with special needs, incorporates waste management and does everything utilising sustainable practices.
Q/ What’s the story behind Booteek?
MO: My mom started Booteek as an offshoot of her voluntary work at the Chitra Lane School for the Special Child where she began to teach the children simple needlework. As the children were about to graduate, in order to enable them to create complete saleable products, we began to bring their mothers in to learn as well. One thing led to another and before we knew it, we were supplying a small range of crochet products to Odel.
When my cousin heard about this initiative, he thought it was a great idea and branded it with the name, Booteek, intending to create a worldwide market online.
As time passed, we registered as a social enterprise, became a Good Market vendor, and started an active social media presence. This was an important milestone in our journey.
Q/ What does the brand stand for?
MO: Booteek has its eyes set on creating a platform for adults with special needs and women from Sri Lanka’s low-income backgrounds to earn a sustainable living. Meanwhile, we stress on sustainable practices to avoid any additional harm to our environment. For instance, we use our own waste fabric, and waste material from tailors around us to produce a bunch of patchwork-based products like bags, quilts, and bean bags rather sending it to landfil.
We are also training our special needs team to paint and create our packaging from up-cycled waste paper. This marks two goals we’ve had from the very start – to create sustainable lives for adults with special needs, causing no unnecessary harm to the environment.
Q/ What’s the vision for Booteek?
MO: How Booteek currently works is by designing products and teaching our team to make them. The artisans then make the products and Booteek buys it from them and takes the responsibility of selling the products. The idea that we are working towards is to help the artisans employed with us to start their own version of Booteek in the places where they live. Then, we can control the sales as a central hub.
Q/ What are the key measures that are taken to remain sustainable?
MO: Most production causes harm to the environment, so we take measures to minimize any kind of wastage in our production process. As a result we actively up-cycle, and recycle our own waste and outside waste. Recently, Booteek started specializing in custom printing that uses polyurethane print, which involves plastic waste. To combat this we’ve been making Eco-bricks and avoiding throwing the plastic.
Q/ What are the major initiatives by Booteek that you’re proud of?
MO: Our most recent and popular initiative has been rapid customization. At Kiku’s Christmas pop-up we held a “customize your make-up case” station that did really well. Our team kept ready a stock of make-up cases, that we then custom printed in several colors on the spot. Since then our custom print orders have been growing.
A few of the collaborations that we are really thankful for are the ones with the Good Market, The Design Collective, Selyn, Milk and Honey Café, and Barefoot due to the exposure we’ve received as an emerging business.
The batik brand, SALT, and Goodnessme.lk use our paper bags for their packaging and that brings in a huge source of income for our special needs team and validates our cause.
We’ve also worked with J. Walter Thompson Sri Lanka making their printed bags for the “So Sri Lanka” campaign — it was truly a marked move from where we started.
Q/ What’s the future like for the brand and other businesses like yourselves?
MO: Rapid Customization. People want something specially customized for them really quick; that’s what the market trend is. I believe enterprises like us, who thrive to be sustainable, should cater to this trend by improving our timelines and moving into processes that make customization cost-effective and ethical. What’s more, being a small business, we’re agile in the way we approach each order, catering to the exact need of the customer.
Q/ What would you say to other businesses in terms of employing sustainable practices?
MO: Make your products affordable to have your business last. The real problem with sustainable marketing is that it’s more expensive to lead an ethical life than to not. To live up to what we believe in, we are always on the lookout for making the process cost-effective without altering the majority of the share that goes to the artisans.
Q/ What advice would you give to a customer to make sustainable choices?
MO: Textile is the second largest pollutant next to oil. So, as a buyer, wear less, buy what you need and ensure it is ethically sourced. Be conscious — ask yourself questions like, ‘Can I recycle this?’ or ‘Can I give it to someone else instead of sending it to landfil?’
This article was originally published as “Creating Art For Some And A Future for All” in the May 2019 issue of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. For more feature stories, grab a copy of our latest magazine on newsstands or subscribe here.
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