Earlier this year, I sat down with Alma Hartman and Parvez Pothiawala of the Peru-based Rock + Pillar Trading Co., to talk about sustainability, style, and what it’s like to take a leap and move to a new country with little more than an idea.
Rock + Pillar Trading Co. was founded in 2013 after a chance visit to South America led the pair to fall in love with the rich community and culture in the town of Cuzco, Peru. Leaving behind traditional 9-5 jobs, they set out to tell the story of the artisans and to share their crafts in a sustainable way.
They have since grown their business to include a line of botanical products, and are now looking ever-forward to expand their commitment to sustainability and the preservation of Peruvian art.
Their products would make beautiful gifts for the holiday season: you can shop them on their website. I love their all-natural solid lotion bars and woven clutches!
I first met Alma at the Brit + Co ReMake 2014 event in September. Radiant and full of life, Alma was beaming as she told me about the local artisans that wove the textiles for the gorgeous spread of bags and boots laid out in front of me. Later that week, I interviewed her and co-founder (and partner) Parvez over brunch at Plow in San Francisco, and was blown away by their passion for their work and their commitment to sustainability.
NP: What was it that drew you to work with this community of female weavers?
AH: It’s an incredible thing, these generations of women who weave. They begin their training at the age of 9, and it’s not written anywhere. Instead, the mother passes it on to the daughter, the daughter passes it on to her daughter, and her daughter, and so on, and that’s how it’s gone on for 10,000 years.
The issue [that we’re interested in] is what’s happening in Cuzco right now and in all of Peru. The region is very rich in natural resources: trees, lumber, minerals, and a large part of the Amazon. The government’s activity, though short sighted, tends to focus on mining these resources, because mining is more economically profitable than preservation.
But when mining comes in and takes the men away from the farms, the women aren’t able to singlehandedly provide for their families. They aren’t strong enough to manage the plows and also take care of their babies and raise livestock. So what we wanted to figure out was: How do we enable and incentivize these women to provide, while also conveying to the west this connection between the products and the story?
NP: How did conservation and sustainability come into the picture for Rock + Pillar?
PP: Textiles for us is the conservation of a cultural aspect, which is great, but we want to do more that’s direct conservation. The botanical aspect actually physically conserves the land, because it preserves land that then can’t be used for mining.
AH: I find that we are in a very pivotal moment. We still want our products to be expansive, so our biggest challenge is how do we do a few things, but do them well, and in the spirit of conservation? That will be our next journey.
NP: I can imagine that moving to Peru and beginning a business would have a huge impact on you and on your lifestyle. Has this experience changed your perspective at all?
AH: When you’re gone away for more than 3 months, something strange happens. I think back, and it was so eye-opening because of the things I used to stress out about, these little things! Why do I even care about [those things]? I can see now that all that really matters is how many people you are forming relationships with, what are you going to contribute to society, and how happy you are going to be. And it doesn’t take that much to be happy. A good meal, a good partner, and some adventures are all you need.
NP: What have you learned here in Silicon Valley that you see as being of value to you back in Peru?
PP: The market side of it: everyone is saying they’re fair trade, but maybe they aren’t doing it a fully comprehensive way. We have a desire to do something deeper and have a more academic understanding of what we’re creating. What I think will help us the most to be a responsible business is to focus on one or two products, whether that be leather, textiles, or botanicals – choosing and then focusing.
NP: What do you see as being your biggest challenge in the coming year?
AH: The challenge now is to build relationships with producers that have trust, and transparency, and create a definite impact. We need to build partnerships with people throughout the supply chain, and be transparent with everybody. And I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge. Building those strong connections will take time.
PP: It’s going to take a lot more to educate the consumer about that story. People will say, “This is a really beautiful purse, but it’s kind of expensive. Why is that?” It’s not on them to understand, it’s on us to explain. We want to be more transparent on our pricing. People say, “We’ve never heard of Peruvian leather.” and that’s okay. I will tell you how amazing it is, and that it was made by a man named Juan, and that will hold a lot more value.
AH: Lastly, we’d like to be a part of sharping conscious consumerism. It’s not that we want to be that way, but we need to be that way. We need to think about things with a purpose and think about things from a conservation way.
NP: Any advice or words of wisdom that you’ve learned?
AH: When you told me you were leaving, that you were picking up and go [travel], I just thought: more people should do that! Go! Leave! Go now, go in your twenties, or your thirties, or even your forties, just go. Because I think by going and going overseas you realize that we are not the ones with all the answers, and we have so much to learn. It puts you in a place of humility. You are nothing great, nothing special, you are just human – as is everyone else. You share lessons with each other. It can lead to a better overall community and life.
I hope you’re as inspired as I am by Alma and Parvez and the work they’re doing with Rock + Pillar Trading Co.! Check out their website for more about their story and to shop their products.
In the NY area?
Stop by these holiday markets to meet Alma and Parvez, and pick up their products in person!:
Dec 14 – Astoria Holiday Market
Dec 20-21 – Holiday Real NYC Designer Market
Dec 21 – Astoria Holiday Market