Made with Meaning: Why People Want More from Their Products

by Karen LeBlanc

The Atlanta Market Reveals a New Mindset about Consumerism

In our new normal, trade shows are starting back up with products and people reframing  why, where and what we buy. I recently attended the Atlanta Market, which staged its first trade show since the pandemic started.  For many attendees, the Atlanta Market is the first trade show they’ve attended in more than a year. The sense of relief and hope was palpable as people returned with a renewed sense of what’s important. 

For many of us, the pandemic has shaken up core beliefs we have about ourselves and the world— our health, safety and how much control we have over our lives have pushed us to a deeper level of introspection and a new set of values. 

Many of us want to be healthier, physically, mentally, and spiritually and are looking for products that help us feel good about ourselves and the world around us. Thoughtless consumption and materialism no longer resonate in this new mindful marketplace. 

People want products made with meaning by makers who mean it. At the Atlanta Market, products with a social conscience, ethically sourced and/or American-made items stole the show.  As The Design Tourist, I champion the work of artisans using commerce and consumerism for the good of all. Check out my favorite picks for mindful brands making the world a better place. 

Companies with a Conscience:

Ellie Clougherty and Kristin Malinowski, founders of Kamaria

At the Kamaria booth, a butterfly necklace caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. Butterflies are popular motifs in jewelry at the moment but there’s more than meets the eye. 

I met cousins Ellie Clougherty and Kristen Malinowski who started a jewelry company to support college students who are survivors of sexual assault. They founded a nonprofit, Restore Dignity, and proceeds from the jewelry they design and sell fund the charity. Restore Dignity aims to change the way society supports survivors of sexual assault.

“The butterfly has become a very symbolic shape for survivors. It’s all about rebirth, hope and transformation, so we’ve kind of become known as the butterfly company,” Ellie says.

The cousins founded the company five years ago after both experiencing sexual assault while attending college. “We are both survivors and we felt like it was important to support other survivors, especially in this space where direct support didn’t exist.  Many of the resources available focus on prevention or awareness. There is little direct support at the point of trauma,” Kristen explains.

Ellie’s mother Ann Clougherty serves as the director of Restore Dignity which helps pay medical bills, rent, tuition and provides assistance to help the survivor stay in school. 

The cousins trained in New York’s Jewelry District, learning the artform and craft of jewelry-making and they co-design the collection. “We both have a background in neuroscience which informs our social and psychological mission,” Ellie says.

As part of their mission, the women have testified in Congress, campaigning for laws to better protect sexual assault survivors.

I’m obsessed with all things handmade, so next, I stop to admire intricately woven stars at the Augusta Training Shop Booth. There, I learn each star is the handmade creation of an adult with special needs employed at The Augusta Training Shop. 

The company started as a cane chair refinishing and seat weaving business. After business started declining because the cane chairs fell out of fashion, owner Audrey Murrell, reinvented the program.  “We were already using the material for seat weaving and we decided to use the cane to create art.  It was out a necessity to keep the special needs adults on payroll,” Audrey explains. She serves as Executive Director of the studio of artisans who make decoupage ornaments, animal face art, beaded bracelets, and earrings.

The company’s tagline is “New life for furniture. New purposes for life,” which succinctly says what The Augusta Training Shop is all about.

All proceeds from the nonprofit go back into the program to keep adults with special needs living in and around Augusta, Georgia, employed. 

Helena Chou, Founder of Good Works Make a Difference

A few booths over, I met a very charismatic woman who reached for my arm and started wrapping it with a leather strap embossed with positive words. “You are beautiful. You are brave. You are strong. You are worthy,” Helena Chou says as she wrapped the silver leather bracelet around my arm. It was a clever and compelling approach to drawing me into her booth.

Helena is the founder of Good Works Make a Difference, a faith-based line of jewelry full of positive affirmations. Helena was a multi-millionaire owner of several factories until life humbled her as she suffered bankruptcy, health issues, and marital troubles.  She founded Good Works and rebuilt her life as a successful entrepreneur aiming to uplift people and support charities. 

“We want to inspire and empower people through words. My whole line is about how I can become a blessing,” Helena says. She gives back 25 percent of her profits to missionary work to fund projects including schools, churches, water wells, and homeless programs. “Sometimes you need to hear you are beautiful, courageous, and indestructible. Everyone needs a little bit of hope and encouragement,” Helen says. Good Works resides in California, where Helena designs each piece.

In my quest to find companies with a social conscience, I discover World Finds Ethical Style. The company’s brightly colored woven beaded bracelets catch my eye and warm my heart as I learn the backstory. 

Artisans in India handmake these bracelets out of recycled cotton saris wrapped over wooden beads, sourced from old furniture.  World Finds ticks off all of the boxes for a company with a conscience. Their business model is sustainable, turning out ethically sourced products that pay a fair trade wage.  The company has been in business for 20 years and pays a fair wage based on pricing artisans in India establish with 50 percent payment upfront to purchase raw materials. 

Artisans carve beads from scraps of wood from discarded furniture and cover the beads with repurposed Kantha and Sari fabric to create this collection of textile beaded jewelry. 

Made In the USA

As The Design Tourist, my favorite exhibition at Atlanta Market hosts vendors who proudly proclaim “Made in the USA.”

Roxi Suger, Founder of Suger and Angel Rox clothing companies

There, I met Roxi Suger who makes sustainable clothing out of plant-based fabrics in a historic textile mill in Biddeford, Maine. Her two brands, Suger and Angelrox  turn out multipurpose garments that are handmade, soft, and breathable.  “Our fabrics are finished within a five-hour drive from our factory, keeping us as eco-friendly as possible. We also work designs into every scrap possible. Even our final waste scraps are upcycled by local arts and craftspeople, so we have zero percent waste in our fabrics,” Roxi says.

I’m loving The Band which works as a headband, hair tie, face cover, or sleep mask. I also discovered an unusual garment that I never knew I needed, The Opera Sleeve. I appreciate the ingenuity and versatility of her multifunctional garments including The Hourglass that transforms from an infinity scarf to a hood, a pencil skirt, a t-shirt extender, or a soft body shaper. 

“Our primary fabric is 92 percent bamboo and 8 percent spandex so it breathes, wicks moisture, and is cozy and soft,” says Suger, who learned to sew from her grandmother and taught at Parsons School of Design before starting her own clothing company. The clothing comes rolled up in unassuming brown paper labels staying true to the brand’s ethos. 

Nate Barr, Founder of Zootility

Perhaps the most passionate Made in America entrepreneurial spirit I met at the market belongs to Nate Barr, founder of Zootility. The mechanical engineer bootstrapped his company from a Kickstarter campaign to make everyday, functional products using laser cutters to create fun designs with a sense of humor.

Zootility, based in Portland, Maine, gets its name from the animal motifs in its product designs.  “It’s certainly on trend to be making something in the US because people are thinking differently and reexamining the choices we all make and what matters most. There’s a new awareness of choosing products that are going to last, not just the cheapest thing for sale online,” Nate explains.

Zootility launched a new product at market, the Rift Belt, submitting its patent two days prior to the show. “We put our energy toward creating things that consumers appreciate. This approach differentiates us, as opposed to trying to slog the same global game with the lowest common denominator, working to get it the cheapest product out there,” Nate says.  

The Rift Belt is a single piece of metal with a simple, long-lasting design. “It will last forever because there is nothing on it that can fail. The belt only slides in one direction because of the laser cut sharp edge on the back and a machine rounded edge on the front.  It’s a simple design that has all of the features you need in a belt,” Nate explains.  The Rift Belt also allows you to change the straps for different looks. His team started working on the Rift Belt a month prior to Atlanta Market. “The Rift Belt shows how fast we can come up with an idea, develop the whole thing, and bring it to market. Our speed to market is unparalleled as opposed to overseas manufacturing, where buyers are worried about getting shipments here in 16 weeks or getting stuck in port or stuck with exorbitant shipping costs,” Nate explains.

 That quick response to consumer needs and cultural moments has also produced one of my favorite new products, The Vaccinated Tag necklace that I proudly wear daily—definitely a conversation starter. 

Other best-selling Zootilty products include the Pocket Monkey, a multi-tool with 21 functions, the Wild Card, a pocket knife the size of a credit card, and the Grilla, a bristle-free grill scraper.  “Zootility is a whole zoo of different products we make. We focus our efforts on things that really matter instead of spending time and money on fancy packaging,” Nate says.  

Zootility is having its moment of validation as the virtues and values of American Made products are enjoying the respect they deserve. 

“The pandemic hit, everybody had shortages of necessities. They realized how scary it could be, living in a world where someone could control your supply of goods and services. Consumers want to be more self-reliant which gave a boost to the buy local movement,” Nate says.

Jason Etner, Founder of Made In Brooklyn California

Another American Made product originated in the home of Jason Etner who had an Ah-ha moment with plants and small spaces. Jason invented and introduced at market, Vertical Wall Gardens, modular plant holders that hang using recycled food cans.

“The big idea is that you if live in a small apartment, and you don’t have a lot of counter space or horizontal space and want to have plants, you can create a vertical garden,” Jason explains.

Trained as an architect, Jason designed the modular plant holders for the wall or tabletops, available in a five-pack and three-pack system. Jason’s company Made Brooklyn in Calfornia also launched at market, vertical plant holders that use Mason jars as planters.

Entrepreneur and artisan Rachel Gordon is solving an environmental challenge by creating a  thing of beauty with her company Grit & Grace. Rachel and her team of artists turn discarded oyster shells into handpainted art objects and keepsakes.

Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Rachel founded Grit & Grace after discovering a problem with oyster shell dumping. She learned that restaurants were dumping discarded oyster shells in the landfills so she worked with the State Department of Natural Resources to start a recycling program. 

For every oyster Grit & Grace collects, the company gives 10 back to local oyster reef restoration projects to help combat South Carolina’s critical shell shortage.

Karen LeBlanc, aka, The Design Tourist at Atlanta Market, Summer 2021

Spending time at the Atlanta Market confirms what I intuitively know—the pandemic has fundamentally changed the marketplace, what we value, and how we spend our money.  This new consumer mindset is reshuffling marketplace leaders and I’d like to believe that entrepreneurs making products with meaning and a social conscience continue to succeed over price-driven cogs in the commerce wheel. Let’s hear a big hurrah for the artisan-entrepreneur trying to make a difference through beauty, art, and function!

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