A year before I enrolled at New York University and the Reynolds Program, I entered a crash course in Social Entrepreneurship at the Nueva Vida Fair Trade Zone in Nicaragua. Most of the Fall was spent with my eye pressed into a tiny plastic magnifying glass, using the tip of a sewing needle to count each thread in a square inch of unbleached organic cotton fabric. Once Angel and Aguila, the men I worked with at the cutting table, gently unrolled the oatmeal colored cloth across the long surface, I would lean forward and adjust the magnifying glass until the tiny jersey knit came into focus. I would count, write down the results, and the process would begin again. This glamorous job taught me that it was easy to dream about a high quality, fair trade, organic cotton T-shirt produced in a cooperative. It was quite another matter to make that happen.
Several months later, I co-founded the Nicaraguan Garment Workers Fund with this knowledge in hand. At times, applying for 501c(3) status and negotiating with customs brokers felt more painstakingly tedious than counting threads. But with a little patience, the NGWF has blossomed. We sell the organic cotton tees made at the Fair Trade Zone to individuals as well as wholesale to organizations, businesses, schools, and artists. Proceeds from the sale of the shirts are used primarily for employee training programs, technical capacity building, and product development in the factory. We are in the process of investigating how to take the factory off the grid. With rolling blackouts wiping out power in Managua for hours everyday, solar panels would not only reduce the factory’s footprint but it would also save money and improve productivity.
The Worker-Owners of the Nueva Vida Fair Trade Zone are working tirelessly towards autonomy. My goal is to help them get there through the increased revenues and exposure that we can generate through the NGWF. But we are not designed to be a perpetual “crutch” for the Co-op. Because we are consultants and not factory managers, the NGWF will meanwhile work tirelessly to be superfluous. In fact, it was only under these conditions that the Fair Trade Zone and the Nicaraguan Garment Workers Fund agreed to work together. Amazingly, the NGWF has already received similar requests of support from numerous cooperatives around the world and from apparel companies wishing to source from them.
I strongly believe that viable alternatives to sweatshop labor are possible, but there is still a gap between consumers and producers of socially and environmentally responsible clothing. As smart shoppers, strong advocates and savvy businesspeople, together we can continue raising the bar for workers everywhere.
Check out the NGWF in the Shop With a Conscience Guide and look for us soon on Ebay’s World of Good!