An online platform for fair trade shoes

Catalina Jossen Cardozo at the Lucerne School of Art and Design has created an intelligent production chain for commercialising shoes without exploiting workers or harming the environment.

She is proof positive that failure makes you stronger. At the age of 23, Catalina Jossen Cardozo launched her first company right out of design school in Bogotá. It wasn’t a great success. “I had a naive vision of the role of the designer. I thought that all you had to do to succeed was to design beautiful shoes. As a result, I sold very little and was ripped off by suppliers.” Cardozo then switched to producing cheap footwear. But the margins were too low and the competition fierce.

“These failures were the making of me. I acquired detailed knowledge not only of all the links and people involved in the footwear production chain, but also of new social settings, like the artisans in the poor areas of Bogotá.” Since arriving in Switzerland four years ago, Cardozo has been studying for a master’s in design at the Lucerne School of Art and Science. She is taking advantage of the programme to analyse the footwear market in detail, “a sector with very complex logistics that is dominated by monopolies”. Despite certification, work conditions in the industry are still often dire and sustainability gets short shrift.

“All of my accumulated experience as well as my sensitivity to social inequality compelled me to show that it was possible to develop an economically viable production model that was fair and sustainable.” With her brand “By Maria!”, Cardozo hopes to create an optimised production chain based on new technologies. Clients get an application for scanning their feet. Designers create their collections with the help of online software and receive 10% of the selling price (compared with 1% on average). The raw materials are selected based on ecological criteria, and the Colombian artisans not only work under fair conditions but are regularly offered further training. The entire operation is run from a platform.

“I’m not trying to create Zalando to get rich, or to act like an NGO,” says Cardozo. “We want clients to choose our shoes mainly because they like them.” Cardozo gets emotional about her project, and her commitment is palpable. Cardozo has been supported by a BRIDGE Proof of Concept grant for the last year; she plans to market her first designs a few months from now. And in the future, she hopes to apply her concept to other items, as well as in other countries.