Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Maggie's Organics Certified Labor Practices


Maggie’s Organics will be first to acquire Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits Certification

Maggie’s Organics will become the first apparel company ever to be certified Fair Labor under a rigorous new auditing process: Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits certification by Scientific Certification Systems. This certification validates socially responsible practices both in agricultural production and at all stages of the post-harvest production process.

Ypsilanti, MI – September 15th, 2009 – Maggie’s Organics has been making apparel items with certified organic fibers and fair labor practices since 1992. The agricultural standard and process of growing fibers organically has been in place since Maggie’s started their business. Maggie’s is proud to announce that its production chain in Central America has been evaluated by an independent third party and all of the workers involved in the process are treated fairly with safe and healthy working conditions based upon a global standard. Maggie’s Organics will be the first company in the world to hold this certification.

BenĂ¡ Burda, President and Founder of Maggie’s said, “We have always taken the high road when it comes to making sure all who are involved with producing our products are treated fairly and that somehow we have helped sustain their lives in the process. It is validating to have others verify this and put a standard in place that can be measured.”

The Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits Certification standard, developed by Scientific Certification Systems ( in conjunction with key stake holders, validates socially responsible practices in agricultural production and all stages of processing including: growing, harvesting, ginning, spinning, knitting, finishing, cutting, sewing, screen printing, and distribution. Certification to this standard covers: equitable hiring and employment, safe workplace conditions, worker and family access to health, education, and transportation services, local and regional impacts, community engagement, and demonstrated economic stability.

The Jubilee House Community (, a non-government organization located in Nueva Vida, Nicaragua was instrumental in coordinating the production chain within Nicaragua. JHC has been nurturing local communities in Nicaragua since 1994.

The first products to be offered under this new certification are Maggie’s Solid Scarves made with 100% certified organic cotton and will be available in all stores this holiday season. Whole Foods Market® has been offering Maggie’s Organics products in all of its stores for years. “We are excited to be able to offer these scarves that not only look and feel great but they also have quite a story behind them. Our customers will not have to second guess about what went on behind the scenes of the production of this product”, said Jeremiah McElwee, Senior Whole Body Coordinator for Whole Foods Market.

All of the solid color scarves: Black, Maroon, Plum, and Olive, will be ready to order on September 17th, 2009. Other items including a new t-shirt will be available Spring 2010.

About Maggie’s Organics

Maggie’s Organics is located in Ypsilanti, MI. BenĂ¡ Burda is the President and Founder of the company. Ms. Burda helped launch worker-owned sewing cooperatives in Nueva Vida, Nicaragua and more recently in Morganton, North Carolina.

For more information about Maggie’s Organics and their products, please visit, or contact Doug Wilson at 800-609-8593, or


Thursday, September 3, 2009

CIA Textil in San Jose, Costa Rica

This is the 3rd installment of Bena's journey to observe the Fair Labor Practices certification of Maggie's production process in Central America

September 2nd, 2009

Today we visited with the knitter, dyer, finisher, and cut and sew facility here is San Jose. This is all done by one company, Cia Textil CentroAmericano, in business since 1953.

We have done business with Cia over three years, first as a knitter of fabric only, and gradually to cut and sew our garments also. They are not a co-op, but are a family-run business. Costa Rica is one of the most developed countries in central America, and is highly regarded for both wages and labor laws.

The company was started by a Polish immigrant here in Costa Rica, Mr. Israel Nowalski. He was a very poor farmer when he began, and started the company on a shoestring. He actually started by knitting socks (an irony for us), and as the company grew they kept taking advantage of market opportunities, adding on operations bit by bit.

Mr. Nowalski is now 91 year old, and still comes to work for 2 hours each day. He checks in on operations, tours the plant, and leaves. His original 2 partners were his brother and a lawyer friend. When they wanted to sell their shares, Israel bought them out and gave shares to each of his 4 children. Now one of his sons and one of his son-in-laws are active in the business.

It seems that Israel Nowalski has always been a very special owner, and took great care of his employees. Many have worker here for over 30 years. All employees belong to an association that represents the workers, runs a health clinic, etc.

The company pays 10-15% higher wages than the prevailing rates for textile workers in Costa Rica. The company has an in-house clinic, and a doctor is on hand each day from 7AM - 9AM, and a nurse is available all morning. Costa Rica has socialized medicine, but the employees here tend to get better treatment and service at the clinic.

Today for example a notice was posted about flu shots being available to all employees and their family members for $14. All the employees had to do was sign up, and they were presented an option of paying the $14 as a payroll deduction with no interest.

These shots will be available later this fall through national medicine. However, anyone who wants them would who is not part of a high-risk group will have to go to a private clinic and pay $50 each for the immunization.

The clinic offer free wellness seminars often, open to all, on things like handling stress, nutrition etc. Their clinic also handles dental work, optical, and can also dispense medicines.

I found out about two other community benefits today that I never knew were offered by Cia:

First, there is a gorgeous national park right across the street from the company. They have been active as a company in helping improve the park. A few years ago, Cia actually paid for the construction of an events building at the park, which is used to teach classes to kids on natural resources, host park tours, etc. The park has two swimming pools, soccer fields, many hiking trails, and a zip line (just like the tourista eco tours, only this one is free and you have to climb the trees to get to it!). Cia employees use the park at lunch and after work. Fabio (Tonio) Vargas, who is a designer and the pattern-maker for Maggie's garments, toured me around the park. He teaches swimming classes here to Cia employees' kids.

The other community benefit I was struck by involves houses and land provided to approximately 60 employees. Apparently, years ago Mr. Nowolski found out about some land for sale near the plant. Cia is in a very residential area (kind of like Maggie's). Mr Nowolski purchased the land, and then sold it to the worker association for a very low price. The association then accepted loan applications from employees, and provided low-interest loans to approximately 25 of them to buy a lot and build their own home. Interest rates are always very high in Costa Rica, and the rate the employees paid was about 1/3 of a typical bank rate. All payments are deducted from the employee's pay.

Our pattern-make Tonio and his family took advantage of the loan program 20 years ago. A few years and two kids later, they were able to secure another loan from the association, and added on a second story with 4 bedrooms to his home. His house is now paid for, his children are now able to attend a semi-private school, and his wife Karen has a room to run her own business, which is designing and sewing custom undergarments for women (very high end and beautiful pieces).

After touring their home, admiring Tonio's orchids and their many amazing plants, I asked both Tonio and Karen if they could have afforded to purchase a home like this without the benefits at Cia, and they both replied with a resounding "no way!".

Cia has since purchased more lots nearby, making a total of 60 workers who have been able to buy a lot a build a home this way.

Unfortunately, globalization and the recent economic crisis have taken their toll on this company. From a high point of 1000 workers, they are down to 155 workers today. So many of Tonio and Karen's neighbors are not currently employed by Cia. But they have all been able to keep their homes, and we hope to increase the Maggie's business in upcoming months and years to provide them the ability to bring workers back.

Bena Burda
Maggie's Organics

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

More on The Road to Fair Labor Certification

As our fair labor auditors visited more farms on Monday morning, I went into Managua to visit with a potential sewing company for Maggie's garments. The workshop is small, but their products are extremely high quality, and their story is another that is so impressive: Sonia, the owner of the company, is a clothing designer and importer. She runs her own retail shop, where she sells beautiful woven dresses and tops, as well as hand-made jewelry.

Sonia and her new partner, who is someone we have worked with before here in Nicaragua, have actually begun to find, train and hire prostitutes off the Pan-American Highway. These women have fallen into their trade due to the high unemployment and poverty that is rampant here in Nicaragua. The women have come to trust Sonia, and are constantly asking her for help. Her form of help is to show them another way to support themselves and their children. They are learning traditional Central American embroidery, and are paid well for their beautiful work. The sense of accomplishment and recognition that they get from this new form of employment has already led in some instances to a change in their profession and a renewed sense of purpose.

Maggie's contracts would offer this business a way to scale up and hire many more workers. We have never partnered with this small of a group before but it does fit into our business model of sustaining local economies when possible. The challenges are different, and we all have much left to do to make our dream a reality, but our inspectors were very impressed with this group, and feel that together we can and will make our dream real.

Our inspection took place today, Tuesday September 1st. On Monday afternoon, we inspected both the new cotton gin and Genesis, the spinning co-op.

Both projects have been worked on by JHC for over four years. Since we first helped the sewing co-op (Fair Trade Zone) get going, we all realized that one of our major obstacles was creating a consistent source of good quality organic fabric to use for sewing our garments. Nicaraguan organic farmers grow great cotton, but the country is so poor there is no processing infrastructure left.

After years we have located an excellent knitting partner nearby in San Jose, Costa Rica (who we will inspect tomorrow). JHC decided to take on the huge task of building the spinning mill. I had been very skeptical of this undertaking, as spinning is a very expensive and automated task. But Mike from JHC has assured me that the tougher the task the more potential workers we could employ, so JHC has persevered.

Yesterday I met with 24 of the original worker-owners of Genesis Spinning Cooperative in their new huge building. The workers, mostly but not all women, hauled and poured cement all day to make their new floor. Like the members of the sewing co-op years ago, the founders of Genesis have worked for 24 months without pay to build their business from the ground up. In addition, they decided as owners to provide English classes to all members, which they take for 7-8PM each night. The workers are amazing. They hope to be spinning cotton by December of this year.

The cotton gin is set up and running and it will also be owned and operated by the workers. This co-op is not yet organized, as they wait for full-time work until the spinning mill is operating. However, it was impressive to see the gin built and capable of spinning yarn.

We are almost through our entire chain, as tomorrow we will visit the fabric-making operation in San Jose, Costa Rica. We had a celebratory dinner tonight - our inspectors Jorge and Michael from SCS, and our observer from ILRF, Trina Tocco. I was honored to hear each of them comment on our supply chain being special.

Bena Burda

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Road to Fair Labor Certification

Bena Burda is in Central America this week to observe the Fair Labor Practices certification process that is being applied to Maggie's Organics. Here is her latest update dated 8.31.09:

The past 2 days we have visited a total of four farmers groups, whose cotton will be used to make most of our scarves this fall, and hopefully many other products in the future.

I am thrilled to actually tour the farms, as I have been actively trying to support these farmers since 2003. We have had their cotton tested for quality by at least three spinning mills before. It always tested out to be perfect for our needs, but one thing or another prevented us from using it (the spinning mill went out business, the US government told us we would have to fumigate it, etc).

Three of the groups we have seen over the past two days are cooperatives; the other is an association that handles marketing, administration, education, etc. for all the farmers.

Farmers here are small and consist of 2 - 30 manzanas per farmer (a manzana is 1.6 acres), and the farmers are very poor. So it is common in Nicaragua for farmers to band together to form associations to help bring product to market. Coops are encouraged by the current Sandinista government - the grower’s share tractors, trade work at harvest time etc.

The first group we met with represents 150 farmers. They are certified for organic production by BioLatina, a USDA accredited certifying agency that operates all over Latin America. The second and third groups have 30 farmers, and the last one has 48.

The farmers use a three-year crop rotation, planting each crop by July and harvesting in Nov/Dec. They generally grow cotton, yucca, and then a nitrogen-fixing legume (white beans or soybeans). This year the Nicaraguan government is offering a very high price for mung beans (apparently because Venezuela wants them) so many farmers have planted mung beans instead.

Nearly all of the farmers have a few farm animals as well (cows, chickens pigs). For fertilization, they use approximately 8000 lbs of seasoned manure per manzana. The cow manure works best, as it 'seasons' within 1 year (chicken manure can take 10 years). They generally spread the manure 1 month before planting, and that is the only input they need on their fields.

Although this is rainy season (Nicaragua has two seasons - wet and dry), for many farmers this year's rains have been slow and low. So our cotton for this year is very late. They cannot plant unless ground is moist. We were told that they have until next weekend (Labor Day in the US) to finish planting. We did a few rain dances yesterday.

All of our cotton is hand-harvested, which is grueling work. Once our crop is out of the ground, the remaining "Rastrojos" (basically 'field trash' and stalks in English) is allowed to decompose for a few weeks, and then plowed under, adding nutrients for the next crop.

The second and third groups we met with are two cooperatives of women's farmers. This is very unusual in Nicaragua, and as ever, I am so inspired by the strength and attitude of the women here. Thanks to Nicaragua's tumultuous political history, land has changed hands many times. In the mid-1980s, during the Sandinista revolution, the women who grow our cotton found out that a bank had taken over a land-baron's farm for non-payment of loans. They quickly formed their co-ops, and were able to attain the land under the Agrarian Reform Act.

We met with all 30 of these growers in the office they have managed to build, which is on land owned by one of their members. It was inspiring to walk out to their fields, along a path by a cool river, under giant Guanacaste trees. Each member's land is fenced off, all part of a larger piece. These women work together to raise their children, help each other plant and harvest, and bring product to market together. All of their children are in school, which they are all very proud of. Domitila, one of the leaders of one of the groups, actually purchased a small home in a village away from her land, so that her children can attend a better school. Her 5 children live their full-time, while she stays out on the farm during the week. Each weekend she drives to her home to bring clean school uniforms to her kids and to be with her family. She is a single mom. One of her daughters is now a schoolteacher, and her son works as an exporter, and together those two take care of the younger ones during the week. They both also still work the fields. As we walked along the fields, they introduced us to a wild plant that they dry and powder, as it works as a great insecticide on the fields.

Our Fair Labor auditors have interviewed and visited 29 farms so far, with more being done today.

It is great to see how all of this happens, and as ever I am humbled by how hard these folks work. I've showed our products to them all. I also showed the hang-tag that we hope to use to identify their certified product. Most know of our work with the Fair Trade Zone, and they seem excited for the opportunity. And of course they all have worked with JHC for years, so trust that we will not let them down.