The Story of BRANDED: Fighting Trafficking One Number at a Time

BRANDED Cuffs. Photo by Elaine Akin.
Each BRANDED item is stamped with a number and the initial of the survivor who crafted the piece. Photo by Elaine Akin Creative.

BRANDED Collective is a Nashville-based company creating employment opportunities for survivors of human trafficking. Just as trafficking victims are often branded by their captors, each of BRANDED’s classic, minimal jewelry designs is stamped with a number and an initial to symbolize the millions of people trapped in human trafficking as well as those who have found the way out to freedom.

BRANDED’s founders, Lauren Carpenter and Emily Mahoney, recently shared with me about their company and ethos.

What inspired you to start BRANDED?

Emily and I (Lauren) met in 2011 through a community group at our church. We realized that we both had the strong desire to help survivors of trafficking in Nashville. We are not doctors, lawyers, or counselors — people that a survivor typically needs — but we decided to take the skills that we have to create a fashion line that raised awareness about trafficking, and also donate a portion of our proceeds back to an anti-trafficking agency here in town called End Slavery Tennessee. We are now fortunate to not only raise awareness, but to also empower and employ survivors, helping them move forward to the next step in their journey.

Textured Mixed Metal Disc Earrings. Photo by Elaine Akin.
Textured Mixed Metal Disc Earrings. Photo by Elaine Akin.

How did you come to partner with End Slavery TN?

We did a lot of research on anti-trafficking agencies here in town and met with many of the non-profit leaders doing awesome work. When we met Derri, the founder and CEO of End Slavery Tennessee (ESTN), we knew we wanted to help her organization. ESTN is doing work right here in Middle Tennessee as the single point of contact for trafficking victims. They provide safe housing and restorative services, providing for all of a survivor’s needs to get them ready to move forward on their own. Our partnership with ESTN has been a great one that has changed and evolved into something even more powerful since our founding in 2012.

How do you ensure the women in your program feel protected and valued?

This is one of the most important parts of our work. We provide a safe working environment by working in our own space housed at the ESTN offices, where survivors already feel comfortable and safe. We have an employee manual and we have rules designed to protect [the employees], just like any other job. We also really get to know the person and try to tailor the work toward the individual. We spend time at the beginning of every work day checking in with each employee about how they’re feeling. That helps us know what things we might need to be sensitive to as we go about our day of work. We also have lots of fun together and do activities that allow us to bond — like having lunch together, singing to favorite songs, or taking silly photos. I recently attended one of our employee’s baptisms, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve been a part of. We’re also excited because next week we’ll be going as a group to see Emily’s current play, Sense & Sensibility, at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. For one of the survivors we employ, this will be her first play. It’s so fun to be a part of these big moments.

Mixed Metal Lariat Necklace. Photo by Elaine Akin.
Textured Mixed Metal Lariat Necklace. Photo by Elaine Akin.

Do the survivors work as volunteers, or are they paid?

Survivors are paid! The purpose of our program is to provide not only job training but employment as well. Survivors make a starting wage of $12 per hour and they have the opportunity to make up to $15 an hour within the first three months. Our goal is to help them strive toward financial independence and smart money management.

Is your goal full-time living wage employment, or part-time job skills training for the survivors?

Right now we are able to provide part-time work for two survivors, however our goal is to have both part-time and full-time employment for survivors. We envision an expanded workforce and a place where survivors can both transition to other jobs or make a living with us long-term.

How do you source the metals for your jewelry?

As a company, we have always been intentional about ethical manufacturing. That’s why we did a ton of research, and we only use metals sourced within the United States. We order all of our metals for cuffs through a small mom-and-pop shop out of Nolensville, Tennessee. The pieces for our necklaces and earrings are ordered through two companies that are well-known for transparent manufacturing. With other supplies, we try to support small businesses if we can. For instance, we buy the polishing wheels for our cuffs through a small jewelry supply business out of Atlanta, and we order our tissue paper and other packaging supplies through an eco-friendly Nashville-based company.

Displaying Jewelry from BRANDED Collective. Photo by Elaine Akin.
BRANDED Collective’s Fall Line. Photo by Elaine Akin.

What keeps you going when the business gets tough?

The women! We exist to see them succeed, and we are inspired and motivated by them every day. Another thing that keeps me going when things get tough is the simple fact that this is really fun! Making jewelry and working with machines and talking with patrons and laughing with survivors… we really do have FUN even on the hard days.

BRANDED recently released a mixed metal fall line in addition to their classic cuffs. Visit BrandedCollective.com to see the entire collection and learn more about the survivors employed by the company.

Thank you to BRANDED Collective for letting me a part of your fall shoot, and special thanks to Elaine Akin Creative for the beautiful photography.

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