Kristen Sosa, chief merchant at Olivela, discusses the power of retail with a cause at WWD's Digital Forum in L.A.

Philanthropy in fashion retail tends to get treated like a side project or hobby. But it’s actually good business, according to Kristen Sosa, chief merchant at Olivela. And, she says, it’s more important to Millennial customers than any cohort that has come before.

Sosa made the case that a growing number of consumers are looking for more than just a cute bag or flattering outfit. They’re making conscientious choices to back companies that stand for something. Consider it retail with a conscience.

“What we heard from our focus groups was, they really associated the do-good aspect of what we do with the brand,” she said. “And they want to be part of Olivela and what we’re doing.”

The luxury goods company supports children’s causes, but not as a marketing ploy or a mere matter of p.r. Its charitable focus is its raison d’être.

It goes back to a particular trip to Somalia, where Olivela founder Stacey Boyd had an “aha” moment: “When she was there and taking a picture of these girls, she had the idea that, for the cost of her handbag, she could be sending some of these girls to school for a year,” Sosa explained. And that insight led to a viable — and growing — retail operation.

The e-tailer donates 20 percent of the proceeds from every purchase to children’s causes, and since its launch last year, business has been brisk. The site has seen more than 20 times growth and interest from partner brands has also rocketed. It began with an opening lineup of a dozen brands, and that has jumped to more than 200. The number continues to expand by 10 to 20 per month.

Some of that energy may stem from timing. For people who want to help, but don’t know how, the retailer offers a way for them to contribute.

“There actually was a very interesting Pew study done recently that asked Millennials to rank the most important things to them in life,” she added. “Number one was being a good parent, number two was being a good spouse and number three was doing good in the world — and that was ahead of having a great job, making a lot of money, having a big house and being famous.

“So the idea of doing good, to the next generation, is really, really important,” she added.

As for what the future holds, the company is looking to develop styling services, like other fashion retailers. It’s also developing a platform that could expand to other nonprofits — a sort of “Olivela X” that would allow others to help and drive awareness.

On the ground, it aims to expand its brick-and-mortar footprint to more retail locations. Its first store, in Nantucket, will be joined by an Aspen branch this December.

The physical spaces act as another way to immerse customers in Olivela’s brand and mission. People can come in and learn more, whether through particular product information, videos about Olivela’s efforts or viewing real-time numbers for the merchant’s contributions.

“We have created a store experience in which you can, from the minute you walk into our store, you can feel the mission part of what we’re doing,” Sosa explained.

Its Instagram wall has become something of an attraction, she continued. “When they purchase something, we put their name up on the wall and thank them for their impact. And what we found is that there’s a very strong desire to go and stand underneath that wall, with their name on it, with their impact, take a picture of it, and then share it on their Instagram or their social channels.”

All of it works together to help spread the word. It looks like it’s working: To date, the company has donated more than 67,000 days of school.

“That seems like a pretty nice number after just a year, [but] we want to hit a million days of school,” Sosa added. “While we’re thrilled with what we’ve done, it’s just the beginning.”

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus