With the prominence of mainstream clothing brands like Zara, Urban Outfitters and Nike, it’s easy to fall into a “trendy trap” of purchasing clothes solely due to their raging – albeit temporary – popularity, while ethically sourced companies are left in the dust.
But that doesn’t mean they’re giving up. Matriarca is a global brand dedicated to the production of sustainable goods, with a product list including clothing, purses and furniture. The company, which originated in Gran Chaco, Argentina in 2011, aims to empower the indigenous women of the region by providing them the opportunity to escape traditional feminine roles. The company belongs to a larger collective of over 250 organizations known as Redes Chaco, which shares the mission of strengthening the region’s environment and unifying its citizens, according to its website .
Matriarca founder Paula Marra said she was previously a successful agronomist, having built her agriculture company Los Grobo with a business model that was studied by five different universities, including Harvard. It wasn’t until she visited Gran Chaco in person that she saw the opportunity to bolster the region’s land and people alike.
“I was visiting a piece of land in Argentina that we were loving to get it to be a national park,” Marra said. “I met the original communities for those areas, and they said, ‘We agree with you, but we need to find a way of living that is dignified.’ So I started working with them, trying to apply the system that I developed for a successful business into this cooperative.”
Recently, however, Marra said Ohio State interns working with Matriarca through the Fisher Global Consulting program have turned the company’s attention to the Midwest.
“Ohio is, like, young in a way,” Marra said. “Because the presence of the university is strong, but also in the state in general. [The interns] broaden our view that it’s not only in the large cities where commerce and life and people are flourishing, but also in cities in Ohio, in the Midwest.”
Though the products may fall outside of an average college student’s budget, Fabiana Menna, CEO of Matriarca, said the impact of buying from Matriarca is immensely positive, affecting both the region’s biome and its people.
“We are not selling handicraft[s],” Menna said. “We are reinforcing the capacity of very different kinds of local indigenous communities to persist, to improve their lives and their incomes and so on, but also the forests. The impact of Matriarca is much bigger than we can transmit, and we believe that youth can understand, appreciate and also communicate all of these experiences.”
Marra said although the company consists of distinct individuals with disparate values, religions and even preferred economic systems, the Matriarca collective shares one unanimous vision of progress: sustainability.
“These people, they want to be healthy in their environment,” Marra said. “To be healthy, they have to be sustainable. And we started to define what is to be healthy is to have a healthy relationship with other people, to be able to produce your own income, that your income is sustainable, that you’re good to your neighbors, that you care for your community and your community cares for you.”
Menna said the rural nature of the Gran Chaco region, which is 3,000 kilometers from the nearest city, lent itself to sustainable business practices.
“We realized many years ago that traditional development models didn’t work in this territory,” Menna said. “Nowadays, the challenges of the climate change, poverty, isolation and so on are too many and too big. So, we can face these challenges with ancient tools.”
Such ancient tools involve practices that have been maintained by generations of the indigenous Gran Chaco people, Marra said. These include meticulous plant maintenance and handweaving.
“These are original people that have lived in the same place for 16,000 years, and they use the natural lands and minerals that are part of their environment — they do not disturb the environment,” Marra said. “I can’t imagine a situation where you can find more sustainability.”
Beyond environmental preservation, Marra said Matriarca’s commitment to empowering the indigenous women of Gran Chaco, as the company’s name, which translates to ‘matriarch’ in English, would suggest. Visiting the region, she said, opened her eyes to the potential Matriarca had to give these women strength.
“These persons live in the middle of the rural areas with nothing around them, long distances to schools, to judges, to banks,” Marra said. “So I was sensitive to discover that some people are really living in conditions that make the vulnerability of women or traditional feminine roles. I started to read more about the statistics, and of the poorest of the world, the most poor and the people who struggle the most anywhere are women in rural areas.”
Since beginning to export outside of Argentina in 2017, Marra said Matriarca has targeted the U.S. market via the company’s website as well as various events and pop-ups in cities like New York City.
As the company continues to develop, Marra said Matriarca is making changes to ensure its success as “a business that makes sense, a business that stands on its own.” One of these most recent changes, Marra said, has been a slight change in leadership.
“In 2021, I resigned and gave the company to the women, the people that invested in this project, we all gave shares of the company to the women,” Marra said. “And a year and a half later, it has been great. The experience has been fabulous.”