In a nondescript Nashville office park, I find two women forging the weapons of a 21st century abolition movement. Working with thin sheets of brass, copper, and stainless steel, they hammer and twist until each item is complete. They’re fighting to end slavery just like the abolitionists who went before, only this time, the victims are harder to spot — while the weapons are unmistakably beautiful.
“Whatever her story, it’s an incredible gift for a woman to financially provide for herself.”
Modern slavery (also known as sex trafficking) is a $99 billion global industry, with victims in the U.S. perhaps numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In Tennessee alone, law enforcement estimates that nearly 100 girls are trafficked through the state each month, and that doesn’t include all the grown women trapped in the sex trade through “force, fraud, or coercion.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation routinely conducts stings across the state, arresting customers and pimps while freeing women from their ordeal. A statewide nonprofit, End Slavery Tennessee, then moves in with immediate support for survivors, including food, housing, healthcare, and counseling. It can take months or even years for a woman to recover from the initial trauma, and then a new reality sets in: How will she support herself now that she’s free?
It’s a question of more than just dollars and cents. Human trafficking robs its victims of autonomy and self-worth, so once they are freed, “What these women want most is independence and financial security,” says Emily Mahoney, co-founder of BRANDED Collective. “Whatever her story, it’s an incredible gift for a woman to financially provide for herself.”
Encouragement and Empowerment
That’s why BRANDED partners with End Slavery Tennessee to hire survivors and teach them the skills of jewelry making and design. On the day of my visit, I find the two women are working on bracelets — shaping, stamping, and polishing the pieces that will help to grow the abolition movement. (We don’t name them or show their faces to protect their privacy.) Each item is imprinted with a unique number plus the initials of the woman who made it. Buyers can go online to register the number, which represents their place in the collective. Once registered, they can look up the initials of the maker and send personal messages of encouragement through the website.
“You are special,” writes customer 31377 to RO, the woman who made her jewelry. “I love my bracelet, and I love you for fighting for your life and dignity. There is no one like you, and you fill a special place in the world. Be strong. You’ve GOT THIS.”
From California, customer 45134 writes to PB: “Thank you so much for creating my beautiful necklace. Stay strong, let your soul’s bright light shine through, be compassionate toward yourself and let yourself heal. No one can ever take your dignity away. The best views are after the hardest climbs.”
With this numbering system, Emily believes that BRANDED is helping to create an army of abolitionists who feel a personal stake in the struggle to free women from modern slavery. Meanwhile, the women who make the jewelry get to reclaim their sense of identity by “branding” each piece with their initials — an empowering twist on the forced tattoos or scarification that many traffickers impose on their victims.
Humble Beginnings, Big Dreams
Emily and her co-founder, Lauren Carpenter, first planned to combat trafficking with a line of original, ethically sourced tee shirts. To raise $10,000 for that venture, they created a limited edition of 100 numbered cuffs, which they quickly sold out at $100 each. But ethical sourcing of tee shirts turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and the pair ended up with a pile of $115 shirts that few could afford — though would-be customers kept asking for more of the limited-edition cuffs. When the partners protested that they’d sold all 100 of the numbered pieces, a friend challenged them to rethink their assumptions: “You do realize that numbers are infinite, don’t you?” she asked.
That was in 2012, and since that time trafficking survivors have created more than 48,000 unique items. Hired at a living wage of $15 to $16 an hour (more than twice the federal minimum wage), survivors can achieve the kind of economic stability that allows them to make choices for themselves — perhaps for the first time in years.
“It’s about empowerment,” Emily says. “In a sense we combat trafficking through financial independence and meaningful work.”
Though customers come from all over the world, BRANDED — for now — hires only women who were rescued from trafficking in Tennessee. With its proven, self-sustaining business model, Emily believes that the BRANDED approach could work elsewhere, eventually helping thousands of women to recover from modern slavery.
In the meantime, she’s focused on growing the core business to reach more survivors in the Volunteer State — while shrinking the company’s environmental footprint at the same time. Jewelry-making tends to be inherently wasteful, since scraps and seconds are an inevitable part of any handmade process. But this year, instead of sending those scraps to a landfill, BRANDED will turn them into unique, one-off pieces of wearable art.
Sales haven’t begun yet, but there’s already a perfectly fitting name for the new line: REDEEMED.
Spend for Good: The online shop at BRANDED features more than three dozen unique designs, including necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets. Shipping is free on orders over $100.