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A green-business leader in responsible sourcing, Ohio-based Esperanza Threads exists not only to provide high-quality cotton products at reasonable prices, but also to provide good, green-collar jobs to those who need them most.
When Green America published our last Guide to Ending Sweatshops, Esperanza Threads was one of the first companies we turned to to help outfit our "sweat-free supermodels" (featured on page 13). Sister Mary Eileen and crew sent us a beautiful pair of hand-sewn, USA-grown and -made, loose-fitting pants that our "supermodel" told us were as comfortable (and chic!) as any she had ever tried on. We asked Sister Mary Eileen to tell us more about the cooperative workplace at Esperanza Threads, and how the business is making a difference in the lives of Cleveland-area workers.
Green America: What does your business do?
Sister Mary Eileen Boyle: Esperanza Threads makes and sells 100-percent certified organic cotton products -- clothing, towels, sheets, meditation pillows, and more -- that are grown and manufactured here in the United States.
As a project of the Grassroots Coalition for Economic and Environmental Justice of Ohio, Esperanza Threads works to train people with barriers to employment. We work with the under- and unemployed, as well as recently incarcerated women and political refugees (from Burma and Bhutan) to teach them a trade and create good green jobs in our area. We call this our Budding Sewing Entrepreneurs Program, or BSEP.
What makes your business "green?
Sister Mary Eileen: The social justice aspect of Esperanza Threads is the leading force behind its mission and existence.
Of course, we also have our commitment to organics, we use environmentally friendly dyes for both hand dyeing and digital printing, and we use recycled fabric for some of our products.
Also, since 2004, we have partnered with Mujer y Comunidad ("Women and Community"), a cooperative in Zargosa, El Salvador. We have wanted to find a link with a Third World cooperative, so that we could address sweatshop issues. Mujer y Communidad has been making organic cotton tote bags for us and our workers in Bedford have been adding machine embroidery trim as decoration.
What are some of the challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Sister Mary Eileen: Purchasing 100-percent organic cotton, grown and woven here in the USA is a particularly challenging aspect of Esperanza Threads. We keep this commitment not only to protect the environment from dangerous pesticides, but also because we have concerns about the use of black market child labor on cotton plantations in developing countries.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Sister Mary Eileen: Whenever someone we have taught from one of the various populations we serve goes on to another good-paying sewing job, it is our proudest moment.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Sister Mary Eileen: Promote an awareness among the public of the benefits of organic goods - especially those grown, woven, and manufactured in the USA.
Here in Ohio to meet this goal, we are partners with faith communities and civic groups that enable us to speak out on the issues of fair wages, outreach to the un-employed and under-employed, and the need for reducing chemicals in our personal and global environment.
Is there anything you know "now" that you wish you knew "then" when Esperanza Threads was just beginning?
Sister Mary Eileen: We could have sought more financial backers so that our marketing and feassability studies could have been done beforehand, which would have limited the items that we would be manufacturing. We could have also found more companies dedicated to carrying our goods.
In addition to selling directly to consumers, we run a wholesale side to our business.
What is your next green step for the future?
Sister Mary Eileen: We seek to increase the number and variety of participants in the BSEP in 2011.
What green product (besides your own!) could you not live without?
Sister Mary Eileen: Organic milk!