After bumping into me at a Mexican tannery, Adelante Shoes invited me to Guatemala so I could try my hand at making my own boots. While I was there, I interviewed founders Pete Sacco and Michael Pelzer to better understand how and why they started their brand and the social mission that underpins their operations.
We started the company around a social mission. We don’t come from a business background, we come from an international relations background, (and we’re) super interested in economic development.
This is why the business isn’t just focused on quality footwear. The point was to bring economic stability, secure employment, and high wages — double the local average — to the famous shoemaking industry of Pastores, Guatemala.
Adelante’s Consumer Model: Made to Order Shoes
Made-to-order (MTO) shoes is a fairly simple concept, but it’s rare. Usually, companies make a large number of shoes in different sizes and colors and ship them to a retailer to sell or store them at their distribution center for online sales. This has a lot of overhead: you need to buy a lot of materials, you need bigger facilities, and you have to store your inventory. But it’s fast.
Mass-producing shoes is tough for a small company because you need a large capital investment, so smaller companies will often make their shoes to order, meaning a longer wait. The smaller the company, the bigger the wait; some Indonesian companies will take up to six months — but Adelante manages to make boots in just two weeks.
“Made-to-order is a really big deal because it enables us to provide value to the customers in ways other brands cannot,” says Sacco. “We can offer folks a much broader spectrum of sizes, lengths, widths, and calf sizes in riding boots. Same thing with aesthetic customization: changing the leather on different parts of the shoe, putting a monogram on your product.”
In a comment on my video about making shoes with Adelante, a guy with 16 EEE feet noted that this customization is a huge deal for him, and I can understand why: there are hardly any options for guys on that end of the foot spectrum and if you are able to find them, handcrafted, made to order boots are normally many times more expensive than Adelante’s sub-300USD footwear.
The way that we manufacture our shoes is a very hand-done process. They are hand lasted and hand finished and you can really see the artistry and individuality of each craftsman coming through on your pair of shoes that were made just for you.
[Watch the full video: How I Learned Bootmaking In 5 Days (In Guatemala)]
Adelante’s Social Mission
But what about that social mission?
“Our whole objective in coming down here was to start a social enterprise that would employ folks and pay them enough to live well in accordance with their own definition of what living well means here in this community, according to the style of life that they live,” says Pelzer.
Veterans of international politics (both founders spent some time working in Washington DC), Adelante created a methodology to determine their employees’ pay rates using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to measure and craft a system that ensures their employees earn enough to purchase the goods and services they need to live well.
Lots of brands engage in corporate social responsibility, often taking the form of donating a portion of their profits to charity — which is extremely commendable and still troublingly rare — but Pelzer and Sacco took it to the next level.
They leveraged their experience in international relations to quantifiably make their craftspeople’s lives better based on their self-described needs and wants.
“We came up with a social impact methodology called the Living Well Line that defines the relative cost of living well here in Guatemala according to these craftsmen themselves,” says Pelzer. “And Every year, we do an impact evaluation and publish an impact report that measures our impact on the craftspeople’s quality of life and measures that impact against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”
Here’s how Adelante describes it on their site:
The Living Well Line theory of change is grounded in the belief that the best way to catalyze social mobility and increase quality of life is to pay individuals enough to consume the goods and services that they define as necessary to live well.
1. If our craftsmen earn over the Living Well Line, then they will invest their increased income back into their families and community.
2. If a critical mass of individuals within the community earn over the Living Well Line for a sustained period of time, then their increased wealth will catalyze broader community development.
3. If Adelante validates market demand for paying workers over the Living Well Line, then other companies will be incentivized to adopt the Living Well Line methodology.
4. If a critical mass of consumers demand more equitable business practice from companies, then the industry at large will experience pressure to conform with Living Well Line standards.
“Here we give a more flexible working schedule,” explains Nelson, a craftsman who specializes in clicking and sewing. “Now I am able to do more things in the afternoon, that’s really helpful. So I can, for example, spend more time with my family and enjoy their company.”
Adds Gustavo, a craftsman who specializes in lasting and finishing,
My life changed when I started working here. My economic stability is better now. I had the opportunity to open a new business: I opened a grocery store in my house. Yes, I’ve been able to grow in that regard.
“We pay our craftsman what works out to be almost double the local market rate,” says Sacco. “”We offer them both private and public health insurance — they have the option between the two. We employ them formally, which is a really big deal; the formal employment rate here in Pastores is under ten percent.”
Over beers, the founders described the process they always see play out among their staff: on their first day they walk to work, then they’ll come on a bicycle, then a motorbike, then a car.
Getting their staff out of the rut that is hand-to-mouth survival and bringing them to a place where they can strive is fundamental to their business model.
[Learn more: 10 Things I Learned Making My Own Boots]
Adelante does a great job not just making boots but in looking out for their employees and the community’s best interests. It’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of simply making a successful new boot brand on its own — when you add to that the mission of meaningfully improving the local economy and employees’ livelihoods, you’ve got to hand it to Adelante. They haven’t finished their journey yet, but they’re moving forward in strides.
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