Thursday September 6, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- The next print hanging on your wall could help a Haitian teenager use her artistic talent to improve her life in Port-au-Prince.

Williams graduates Imran Khoja ‘12 and Katy Gathright ‘12, along with Joe Bergeron ‘01, have just launched Designed Good, a company that sells products that are ethical, fashionable and practical. The line-up of wares available through their sleek online store includes clothing, gear, gadgets, and gardening supplies.

Bergeron came up with the company name.

"We didn't just want products designed well. We wanted them to be designed good," Gathright said.

Since the beginning of his senior year at Williams, Khoja has tried to find a way to give exposure to non-governmental organizations. He also wanted to help his fellow consumers identify goods that have been produced ethically.

Gathright and he won the first Williams College Business Plan competition in April. They have spent the summer around campus, researching prospective pro ducts to sell for their kickoff -- which took place on August 28. Intern and fellow alumna Re becca Eakins ‘12 spent the summer building up their online presence on Twitter and Facebook.

Designed Good follows the flash sale website model, where a selection of items appear for a limited time.

Their first brand partner is the Center for the Arts, Port au Prince. Nadia Todres had been working in a neighborhood called Siloe, teaching photography to adolescent girls who have had to leave their homes after the 2010 earthquake. On the second anniversary of the natural disaster, she was moved to found a center that helps the teenage residents generate income through the arts. Photo graphs taken by and of refuge girls raise awareness along with funds for this sprawling neighborhood of 20,000 people in Haiti.

"We're always revaluating what we stand for, teasing out details and telling a story in a holistic way," Khoja said.

It's up to Gathright, with her journalism background, to craft the full and balanced story behind each product. From conversations with Todres, she painted a picture as striking as the scenes of smiles and graffiti.

As Gathright explains on the Designed Good website, "At first, Nadia was skeptical of an initiative that did not address the pressing needs of shelter/housing, food, water or electricity in Haiti. However, she soon discovered that in very short periods of time the work she was doing with young girls in the arts was giving the girls a stronger sense of self."

Designed Good is all about helping people like Todres generate buzz for their causes. By having their products on site for a week, Designed Good hopes to give each brand exposure that will continue long-term.

According to Gathright, the beauty of Designed Good is that shoppers don't have to sacrifice style for sustainability.

"We have strict criteria. The products are good for fashion and good for the world," she said

The company's trademark 100 percent organic cotton t-shirt comes from Alternative Ap parel in coal and oceans, both picturing a quirky vehicle that looks like a fish.

"People don't just want a t-shirt because it's made of hemp. They're smart enough to know where it comes from," Khoja said.

The Designed Good team exercises diligence in picking products. On a case by case basis, they evaluate whether the item in question is sustainably made, well-designed, and can conduct good feeling between its maker and its buyer.

Upcoming offerings include upcycled bottle openers and glassware, as well as the "bobble," a recycled plastic water bottle with a built-in filter

On their blog, Designed Good highlights ethically conscious entrepreneurs that fit in with this vision. Khoja and Gathright have interviewed designers and artisans, and they regularly post chats with producers and consumers.

Designed Good considers their core customer base to be made up of millennial young professionals, who want to make informed choices about the furnishings that fill their dorm rooms and first apartments.

"Our generation is made up of what I call practical change agents," Khoja said. "We can make the whole marketplace shift."

Consumers can also earn free shipping on orders for referring friends to join Designed Good. The quality and history of the products are meant to foster conversation and improve the marketplace as a whole.

"We want to build a community around these products," Gathright said. "People are engaged and talking. They feel good about it."