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If you’re a long-time Green American, you probably already know Maggie’s Organics as the pioneering organic-clothing manufacturer that in the late-90s helped create “The Fair Trade Zone” — a sewing cooperative providing fair-labor employment to seamstresses in Nueva Vida, Nicaragua, an area ravaged by Hurricane Mitch.
Starting with their signature socks, Maggie’s product line has grown over the years to include such hard-to-find (sweatshop-free) items as women’s tights and baby clothes – all with a commitment to organics and a fair workplace.
Now, Maggie’s owner Bená Burda introduces you to her newest venture – Maggie’s Menagerie. Burda and her team have recreated their Nicaraguan success here in the United States, supporting a new worker-owned cooperative in North Carolina that makes children’s toys from Maggie’s irregular socks and other scraps, including by recycling fabric mill waste from elsewhere in the Carolinas. Read our interview with Bená to learn more about her support of cooperatives both inside and outside of the United States.
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
NEW: Maggie's Menagerie
Bená Burda: Since 1992 Maggie’s Organics has provided clothing, accessories,and now stuffed animals made from certified organic fibers using fair labor practices. We are based out of Ypsilanti, Michigan, with partners spread across the eastern US and Central and South America. All of our socks (especially tie-dyes) have historically been top sellers, and our new line of toys, Maggie's Menagerie, made from the irregulars of those same socks, is beginning to follow suit. All of both lines are made in the USA.
What makes your business green?
Bená: From start to finish we try to ensure that every step is as green as possible, from the certified organic fibers, to daily office practices in Ypsilanti - including paper reduction, energy reduction, etc.
Of course all of our products are primarily made from certified organic fibers. We also keep our manufacturing as close to home as possible (all of our socks are made in the USA; our tights are made in Peru instead of China), and we are a strong believer in worker-independence, using our sewing contracts to create two 100% worker-owned sewing factories – one in Nicaragua and one in North Carolina.
Our non-co-op-made items are produced by small (by apparel standards) family-owned and operated facilities. Our products are minimally packaged, and we always use the highest percentage recycled content we can find. In our offices, we reuse all paper and encourage sales forms to be filled out online instead of using pre-printed order forms. We recently conducted an independent energy audit and are working on implementing the recommendations, as well as being awarded the ‘Waste-Knot’ award the past five consecutive years by our county. Our biggest environmental impact has come from influencing several of our dyers and producers to reclaim heat, stop using chlorine, and make other environmentally friendly adjustments to their practices.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Bená: In 1978, I started my career in the organic food business right out of college. By 1992, I was busy selling both blue and yellow corn tortilla chips when one of our farmers recommended adding cotton to the crop rotation to improve the quality of the corn. His experiment worked. However, his cotton yielded a crop we were expected to sell!
After learning the harsh facts of conventional cotton cultivation and chemicals used to produce apparel, we began using our farmer's organic cotton. We started with socks and then added T-shirts: simple products that would encourage the use of organic fibers in order to convert as many acres of land as possible from conventional to organic farming methods. After spending time in apparel factories and seeing first-hand the labor conditions, we added social responsibility to our mission statement and began to create new worker-owned factories.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Bená: Since we started so long ago, we never really had a business model. Most of the “professional associates” I turn to usually shake their head when I propose a plan, and tell me how wrong it is. When we began, there wasn’t a co-op in Nicaragua for us to use to produce fair labor clothing; it needed to be built from the ground up. We worked with organizations like the Jubilee House to build the co-op and then monitored every step in the production process to ensure fair labor practices, not only for the people doing the sewing, but also the people who grew the fiber, spun the yarn, or transported the products — every step of the supply chain.
Our biggest challenge has been keeping our commitments and staying the course, through tough financial times, import issues, and quality problems. Being a member of the Green America Business Network helped us so much, especially in the early years. I remember at one of the first meetings with the network, standing up in front of perhaps 50 like-minded business owners and asking through tears for help in starting this co-op. I was so sure we would fail. Within 20 minutes I had a list of names, numbers, and skills — translation help, funding assistance, and import experience, all from other members to help me on my mission. It is truly what kept me going, and Green America facilitated the entire process.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
At the opening of Opportunity Threads in North Carolina, Dec. 2008.
Bená: Each time I see the women from the Fair Trade Zone in Nicaragua proudly sewing in the factory that they own and operate. I remember how timid and scared they were nine years ago, and I get a lump in my throat. When I watch the beaming faces of the children whose parents own Opportunity Threads (our North Carolina cooperative partner) as they hand me the latest tie-dyed Stuffed Chicken their parents created from our irregular socks, I am reduced to tears. Just last weekend, when a young couple from North Carolina who are subsistence farmers thanked me for making socks from organic cotton that would stay on their children’s feet — and for making them affordable — that’s when I know it’s been worth it.
What's the most hopeful sign from the green economy you have seen recently?
Bená: For me it continues to be the commitment and thoughtfulness of the green consumer. For the past several years, consumers have literally pushed the green marketplace forward — by demanding cleaner products, services, and packaging, and by digging deeper and deeper into how things are made, and into how to make them better. They make demands, we get better, and they make more demands. It’s awesome, and so much easier than when we had to push every sale.
Silueta, whose parents Carlos and Miriam are founding members of Opportunity Threads, cradles her specially-designed monkey, made from Maggie’s tie-dyed crew socks.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Bená: The best piece of advice I can give is to always, always tell the truth. Business is about making daily compromises, and in my heart I believe all green entrepreneurs start with a set of values. As we develop and grow, realities can ‘soften’ our ideals. Don’t run from that, embrace it. Compromise is what will keep you afloat. Keep in integrity with the decisions you make and why, whether others ‘get it’ right away or not. Stay the course and lead from somewhere deep inside you.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Bená: Right now we’re working on a new type of fair-labor certification for clothing that not only examines the source of the cotton used, but also every step of the production process. Before we started producing apparel, we never really knew how many steps there were in this process, and just how many hands touched each article of clothing we wear. When we realized this, it was clear there needed to be a much more comprehensive method for labor inspection in the apparel industry. We are currently working with a non-profit organization to help establish these standards.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Bená: I’m a big fan of my Toyota Prius. Gas mileage in the 50mpg range still amazes me; at 95,000+ miles, it’s still going strong. It reminds me daily of my business – it’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Other staff members have suggested Rising Moon Organics’ ravioli, and organic balms from Badger.
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