Bill Bass at with Peruvian school children
Bill Bass at one of the schools in Peru supported by his business, Fair Indigo.

It all started with crafts, coffee and cane sugar. The Fair Trade movement promoting ethics in global commerce soon spread to clothing. Consumers who felt good buying fair trade coffee beans now scrutinized other goods sourced internationally. Were overseas garment workers paid a living wage? Given occasional breaks? Was inexpensive and fast fashion made possible by child labor?

This is when Fair Indigo apparel was born. The brainchild of e-commerce pioneer Bill Bass and his colleagues from Lands’ End, the Fair Indigo clothing line appealed to consumers who cared about the welfare of garment workers. Shoppers liked the warm images of well-treated, happy workers Bass put into the product catalog and they liked fair trade apparel sourced from factories that honored human rights and paid a living wage.

Until they didn’t anymore. 2008 brought The Great Recession and U.S. consumers began to focus less on fair trade apparel.

“When your neighbor is losing his job, and you are worried about losing your job, your concern for others outside your country – your ‘universe of caring’ – contracts,” Bass told CO—. “Our customers no longer cared about the part of the product we hung our hats on,” he said. “That caused a rethinking of the business model.”

A leap was in order.

Fortunately for Bass, while consumers’ love of fair trade dwindled, their draw to apparel made of organic fabric was growing, so Fair Indigo shifted its marketing focus from fair trade to organic fabrics.

This meant Bass, a former U.S. Army pilot and paratrooper, was on a reconnaissance mission to find suppliers of organic cotton — no easy feat because sources were scarce. “It was like .005%” of suppliers offered 100% organic cotton while also complying with fair trade practices, Bass said with a laugh, “and it changed the countries we were working in.” That was 10 years ago and even today, organic represents just 1% of global cotton production, according to the Textile Exchange’s 2018 Organic Cotton Market Report.

Fair Indigo didn’t abandon its fair trade roots. It still advocates “style with a conscience” but sustainable, organic Pima cotton bubbles to the top in messaging.

Leaps like this are not new to Bass, who has a rich entrepreneurial pedigree. He is co-founder and chairman of Tucson-based Black Wolf Group, whose holdings include Fair Indigo apparel, marketing and analytics firm SabinoDB; one of the largest Two Men & A Truck moving franchises and the Brightstar Care healthcare franchise. Earlier in his career, Bass was an “intrapreneur” who pioneered online retailing within the walls of Lands’ End, when e-commerce was in its infancy.

There is a fine line between the persistence that you need to have as an entrepreneur to make things successful because nothing ever works the way you expect it to work.

Bill Bass, founder, Fair Indigo

The decision to take a Leap – or stick with the original business plan – demands commitment and tenacity.

“There is a fine line between the persistence that you need to have as an entrepreneur to make things successful because nothing ever works the way you expect it to work,” Bass told CO—. “You have to have dogged persistence. At some point dogged persistence becomes irrational stubbornness and you need to realize where that line is.”

Fair Indigo’s dedication to ethical business values extends to education and can be seen in the faces of children attending two elementary schools in impoverished areas of Peru, where the Fair Indigo Foundation and donations fund teacher salaries, supplies and other expenses. About 10 years ago, when Peruvians living in the northern Andes were grateful if their children finished grade school, a little boy named Eberth attended one of the Fair Indigo-funded schools. Today, Eberth is attending the University of Cajamarca, the first Serapis Elementary School student accepted to Law School.

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