Eco, Ethical, and Beautiful: The Story of Olivia & Diego

by Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer June 13, 2016

Eco, Ethical, and Beautiful: The Story of Olivia & Diego

Ever since we began selling our products at trade shows and pop-up markets, we always receive lots of questions about our colourful Olivia & Diego jewelry. After all, it’s not everyday you see bracelets and necklaces upcycled from old t-shirts. On top of being eco-friendly, the jewelry is also handmade by women rescued from sex-trafficking. All of this combined makes Olivia & Diego the right type of partner for our shop. That’s why we decided to go to Davao, Philippines to understand how Yana Santiago, Olivia & Diego’s founder, has created such a unique social enterprise.

Helping Survivors of Sex Trafficking

Olivia & Diego works with Talikala, a non-profit helping women rescued from sex trafficking. Talikala offers support, advice, training, and counselling to women and girls who have been forced into the sex trade in Davao City, Philippines. Sex trafficking is a major issue in Davao City, Mindanao Island’s largest city. Many women from the poorer areas of Mindanao move here in search of employment, but they have little financial or social support, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Talikala is not only helping women but also children. According to statistics, up to 40% of women in prostitution in Davao are minors. It is not uncommon for both a woman and a child to be forced together into trafficking.

Even once they have been rescued, survivors of sex trafficking continue to face several challenges, one of them being a lack of employment opportunities. Many of the women have little professional work experience, having been forced into the sex trade at a very young age. Olivia & Diego aims to address this by training the women as jewelry-makers and providing them with a regular source of income.

The social enterprise’s founder, Yana Santiago, first provides training to show them how to weave necklaces and bracelets from the old t-shirts, using a technique she created herself. Once the women are capable of making the jewelry on their own, they begin making the products in bulk, which Olivia & Diego then purchases from them. It’s not easy as the pieces the women submit are not always quality, so Yana and her team have to continuously re-train and explain the importance of quality control and consistency. Overall, making Olivia & Diego jewelry provides the women with work experience at a fair and sustainable living wage, which helps them re-integrate into society and reduce the risk of being re-trafficked. Since Talikala has many programs to help children, the workers are able to bring their kids to work, which helps to facilitate their combined role as mother and breadwinner.

What does upcycled mean anyway?

If you have been asking yourself all along what upcycled means, let’s clarify that right away! This mean to reuse a discarded material in a new and different way that will ultimately increase its original value. Essentially, Olivia & Diego takes old T-shirts that would otherwise end up in landfills, and transforms (or “upcycles”) them into jewelry. Neat, huh?

The production process

First, they need to source the t-shirts. Yana and her team go into clothing donation centers (called “Ukay Ukay” in Philippines) and source clothes of various colours that correspond to their jewelry designs. No dyes are used, so they need to source the exact colour they need from the t-shirts and in sufficiently large quantities to be able to make enough jewelry of the same colour. This explains why there may be slight variations in colours when products are ordered few months apart.

Once they have the t-shirts, the women cut them into long strips with scissors. They stretch out those strips to make very small and thin fibers which they attach and braid together very tightly,similar to how you would braid a friendship bracelet. What they get at this point is the core of the necklace or bracelet. Threads of yarn of various colours are then added around the upcycled t-shirt fiber following a pre-defined template designed by Yana. The various colours of upcycled t-shirts and yarns is ultimately what makes each collection unique (Severine, Tallulah, Carrie, Paloma, and Simone) . The women then add the chain as the last step.

In fact, the necklaces and bracelets are made using the exact same process. The only difference is the length of the chain – short for bracelets, and long for necklaces!

Olivia & Diego Production

What’s next for Olivia & Diego?

Olivia & Diego hopes to scale their operations by having a dedicated workplace of their own (right now, the team works out of various offices and their own homes). They dream of a place where they can showcase their jewelry to the public, while also having the women work in a dedicated and professional workspace to handmake the jewelry (rather than at home or at Talikala’s offices). Growing the team of women is also a priority for Yana, as she wants to help more women sustain themselves while also growing Olivia & Diego (for example, to scale production during busy times, such as Christmas).

The fact that a solo founder such as Yana Santiago has been able to create a successful and innovative social enterprise on her own has been a great inspiration for us. Yana saw major problems with sex trafficking in her community and decided to do her part to improve the life of some of these women. This is the essence of what social entrepreneurship really is and we couldn’t be more proud to be part of it.

Shop Olivia & Diego's Jewelry

Jerome, Gelaine and Yana Santiago from Olivia & Diego

This blog post is part of a series about our ethical travel adventures in the Philippines. Click here to check out other posts in this series.

Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer
Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer


Jérôme is co-founder of Cambio Market – an online shop for handcrafted, ethical products that give back. He's also co-founder of ChooseSocial.PH – the go-to resource to learn about the social enterprise scene in the Philippines. He's been an IT professional for many years and worked for many e-commerce clients. He also used his technical skills with various non-profits during his free time.

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