(Photo: Bená Burda) 

In this age of global apparel industry chaos, Maggie’s Organics is sticking to its principles of offering affordable, comfortable, and responsibly-made clothing, using the most environment-sustaining materials and methods. More than ever, the Ann Arbor, Michigan company is finding it to be a tremendous challenge to practice social responsibility in a global economy – and to continue to grow. NAFTA and other global trade agreements are reshaping the landscape of the apparel industry, and as a result are wreaking havoc on the lives of garment workers. The global economy is drawing apparel assembly and sewing operations from the U.S. to developing countries, where manufacturers benefit from cheap and unorganized labor, and weak or non-existent environmental and occupational safety regulations.

Apparel Manufacturing is a Complicated Business

Making organic cotton clothing involves a maze of steps and players. The raw material must be grown and harvested, certified as organic, ginned, spun into yarn, knitted into fabric, finished (smoothened), dyed, and cut and sewn. Further complicating matters, each step is usually done at a different facility. The entire process takes about 8 weeks from yarn spinning to the finished product. This is a challenge to coordinate even when the manufacturing operations are all in the U.S. Moving off-shore for some or all of these steps makes the process tougher still. 

Maggie’s goes to great lengths to ensure that each step of the process employs only the most environment-sustaining and socially sustainable methods. This requires monitoring production, assuring non-contamination of goods, and developing and maintaining lasting relationships with contractors. 

Domestic apparel-makers, at all stages of production are closing down with alarming regularity. At Maggie's, we have lost three domestic suppliers to either bankruptcy or foreign competition within the past year alone. Because the industry has many critical links from one step in the process to the next, a broken link can lead to serious repercussions down the chain. The instability of U.S. suppliers has been a major concern for Maggie’s in the past couple of years. Sadly, one Maggie’s supplier after another has closed its doors in the U.S. The trend of declining U.S. apparel manufacturing jobs has been underway for years, most notably since the NAFTA in 1994, but the recent closure of a key supplier in North Carolina was a big shock to Maggie’s. 

“The family business that we contracted with for our Organic Cotton Oxford Shirts had a rich history dating back 90 years,” noted Maggie’s President Bená Burda. Their quality and responsiveness were impeccable, and the sewing heritage of the company was a big part of the community’s social fabric” added Burda. Now the equipment has been auctioned, the workers laid off, and 5000 yards of our beautiful certified Organic Peruvian Oxford cloth sits in plastic. 

The plant will be demolished soon (the family has actually been offered $.57 each for the bricks of the plant, as the have historic value), and Maggie's cannot locate a viable sewer for the shirts. "We have developed a wonderful product, we have customers clamoring for the shirts. Our options are to move to a sweat shop contractor in the far east, or deal with inferior quality here. One sample we received from a domestic government uniform contractor had a one inch hole in the sleeve stitching. And that was on the sample." 

Globalization: The Industry Data Tells the Story

The apparel industry has become a global industry, as clothing is sent back and forth across national borders at various stages of the production process. This dynamic explains the simultaneous rise of U.S. apparel imports and exports. Apparel imports increased 13.7 percent from 1999-2000, while U.S. textile exports reached record levels in 2000, growing by 14 percent. Even with the rise of textile exports, the year 1999-2000 was the single greatest U.S. trade deficit for textiles and apparel, $60.8 billion. More clothing than ever is being processed and sewn overseas and sent back to the U.S., although much of the textile fabric is still being produced in the U.S. Apparel exports, which consist largely of cut fabric pieces sent abroad for assembly and subsequent return to the U.S., rose 2.7 percent from 1999 to 2000. Apparel imports from Mexico, the largest source of imported apparel, rose 9.5 percent in 2000. 

Globalization is Killing the U.S. Garment Industry 

The apparel industry probably has the worst trade balance of any major U.S. industrial sector, and globalization is likely to devastate the industry further this decade. There is a direct correlation between the soaring apparel imports and declining jobs and plant closings. In Tennessee, home to a significant part of the industry, more than seventy apparel manufacturing plants ceased operations in 1997 and 1998 and the state’s apparel workforce has been cut in half in a five-year period (8 thousand jobs in 1998 alone). The College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University reported that Tennessee lost 25,000 garment industry jobs over the 1990s, even jobs with prestigious brands such as Levi Straus. 

The President of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute noted in a March 26, 2001 keynote address that U.S. textile exports to Mexico grew 306 percent over the past five years under NAFTA, and also how U.S. yarn and fabric exports to the Caribbean increased dramatically this past year, due to the U.S. Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act. The latest movement in global trade agreements is focused on the entire Western Hemisphere. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would extend free trade to every country in the Americas except communist Cuba. The FTAA, which was approved in concept by all 33 countries at the April 2001 Summit of the Americas conference in Quebec City has been touted by President Bush as one of the Administration’s top priorities. 

Labor Abuses are Rampant in the Global Apparel Industry

The popularity of free market economics after the fall of communism and the proliferation of global free trade agreements are speeding up globalization, and subsequently oppressive working conditions. Pressured by shareholders, large corporations are seeking out low-wage havens, and the most attractive are impoverished nations with minimal environmental regulations and regimes that oppress labor organizations. This is a formula for sweatshops and horrendous working conditions. New international laws increasingly allow multi-national corporations to go anywhere and do anything they like, and prohibit workers and the governments that supposedly represent them from doing much about it. U.S. workers are beginning to realize that jobs in the U.S. will not be secure and wages will not rise if corporations are free to exploit foreign workers living under dictatorships, unable to organize free trade unions. 

In 1998, the National Labor Committee observed harsh working conditions while investigating 21 factories in China that supply apparel to the U.S. Workers toiled 10-15 hours shifts 6-7 days per week for a total of 60-90 hours per week for below-subsistence wages of 13 to 28 cents an hour with no benefits. Overtime was forced and uncompensated. Workers faced unsafe and unsanitary working environments and were housed in crowded dormitories under 24-hour surveillance. Factory owners and managers repressed workers’ attempts to organize labor groups. The clothing in these sweatshops was being made for retail giants: J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Liz Claiborne, The Limited, and Kmart, and Kathy Lee Gifford. 

A delegation from the National Labor Committee in June 1999 reported that Honduran Gap factory workers are subjected to forced pregnancy tests, forced overtime, exceedingly high production goals, locked bathrooms, and wages of $4 per day, which only meet 1/3 of their basic needs. Sexual and verbal harassment, limited access to medical care and compulsory overtime are commonplace in Indonesian factories making goods for Nike, according to a report issued in February of this year. Female workers at one plant told researchers from the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities that they were forced to trade sexual favors to gain employment. 

While the head of Wal-Mart is among the top five richest people in the world worth billions of dollars, the workers generating much of this wealth for Mr. Walton are trapped in a system of modern day indentured servitude comparable to slavery and denied basic human freedoms like the right to join a union, attend a religious services, quit or marry. Cambodian garment workers make $40 per month sewing clothes for the Gap, Inc. In 1999, the Gap CEO made $172.8 million in salary, bonuses and stock options. 

According to the Washington Post, 250 million children are put to work in poor countries. Unfortunately, labor abuse is not limited to foreign third-world counties. The U.S. Labor Department recently reported that 2/3 of cutting and sewing shops in Los Angeles fail to comply with minimum wage laws, and that overall, approximately 50% of clothing manufacturers in the U.S. qualify as sweatshops. 

Made in the U.S.A.?

A Labor Department investigation in December, 2000 reported that workers at an apparel factory in American Samoa were often beaten and provided food so inadequate that some were “walking skeletons.” American Samoa is a Pacific territory of the U.S. where most federal labor standards are supposed to apply. Investigators found that workers sew clothes 12 hours a day, seven days a week for The Gap, Wal-Mart, Sear & Roebuck, J.C. Penney, Tommy Hilfiger and The Limited. The report stated, “Management admits that they withhold meals from employees as a form of punishment when workers complain about food.” The New York Times noted that a federal investigator likened the factory compound to a prison, saying workers had lived 36 to a room, had received bare-bones meals, had not been free to come and go and had often been forbidden to have visitors. Two workers often shared one 36-inch wide bed. Most of the employees were women from Vietnam, some of which accused managers of routinely entering their barracks to watch them shower and dress. 

Maggie’s Takes the High-Ground in the Global Economy 

Maggie’s is a staunch supporter of fair trade, responsible business ethics and environmental stewardship. The company operates in a close-knit community with farmers, yarn mills and garment assemblers across the U.S. and abroad to produce their goods. " Our current sewers average between $8 and $10 per hour, and many have health benefits, paid holidays, etc. At our new sewing collective in Nicaragua, our mandate is to pay sewers a minimum of three twice their current average wage. They will also be vested member of the worker-owned plant, and will therefore share in its profits. 

In return for these mandates, the women have pledged to set up a trust find with part of their pay, to be used to support the development of other community-based businesses. “Developing relationships with people who work in the mills and sew our garments is one of the unique things about Maggie’s,” said Burda. “Their stories, families, and lives enrich ours, and we’re blessed with a customer base that believes all of this is important,” added Burda. 

"The startling reality here is that we all contribute to the current state of the apparel industry. Companies Maggie's works with are going out a rapid rate, while overseas workers are virtually indentured servants in countries where environmental standards simply do not exist. And then I read that the average American woman has approximately seven years worth of clothes in her closet. An I notice up-scale catalogs listing their outfits as "imported' as if they represent something better. And then to top it all off, the larger garment companies speak to the challenges of cleaning up abuses in the sweat shops, and how the workers beg them to keep the contracts, as the alternative is no work at all. I'm sorry, but I simply do not buy it. As garment manufacturers, it is responsibility to publicize these abuses, and to use our economic power to change these conditions. I don't buy that the average American shopper does not care. I believe she simply does not know, and that if we as an industry stood up to these conditions, and voted with our contracts, things would change. All of us want to believe we are effecting the world in a positive way, and that we belong to something that makes a difference - the workers that sew our garments, and those of us that purchase them. We are really not that different." 

In the face of growing global competition and increasing instability in the U.S. garment industry, Maggie’s has suddenly found itself looking abroad for suppliers in order to remain in business. So how does a clothing company ensure that overseas suppliers are treating workers fairly? The answer is to provide the workers with fair wages and control over the manufacturing operation. Maggie’s is partnering with a foundation that will provide workers with ownership of a newly constructed sewing facility in Nicaragua. 

The sewing co-op is located 20 miles outside of Managua, in Nueva Vida, a village devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1999. The region’s infrastructure was wiped out by the hurricane. As a result, daily survival has been a constant struggle. Since the hurricane, many of the women in the area have been traveling to free-trade zones to work in sweatshops. By establishing ownership in the co-op, the project will improve the standard of living of the workers and allow them to have some control of their lives, rather than toil endlessly in sweatshops. “We hope this project will serve as a model of social responsibility for companies doing business in third-world countries,” said Maggie’s President Bená Burda. The building construction has been completed, thanks to the capable hands of the sewers, who actually built the plant themselves. Production of Maggie’s garments should begin by the fall 2001.

Maggie’s supports the fair trade criteria established by Global Exchange, a leader in the anti-sweatshop movement: 

· Paying a fair wage in the local context
· Offering employees opportunities for advancement 
· Providing equal employment opportunities for all people 
· Engaging in environmentally sustainable practices 
· Being open to public accountability 
· Building long-term trade relationships 
· Providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context 
· Providing financial and technical assistance to producers wherever possible 
· Ensuring there is no abuse of child labor 
Co-op America has established a system of “ladders of labor responsibility,” which recognizes the industry leaders. Maggie’s is proud to have be en identified as the Top Rung of the ladder for tee shirt production, winning out over other conventional and Organic manufacturers. 

College Campuses Are Acting Against Sweatshops

College logo clothing is a $3 billion business. Students have become keenly aware of the role of sweatshops in providing the apparel and they are urging college administrators to pass codes of conduct prohibiting the sale of goods made through sweatshop labor. Organizations such as the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), are pressuring college administrators to disclose the names and locations of factories that make college logo merchandise. Famous retail firms used to get away with the argument that they buy from middlemen all around the world and thus have no way of telling where the clothes are made or under what conditions. In truth, the retailers can monitor labor standards if they choose. It is imperative that regulators hold companies accountable for the labor practices of their subcontractors. 

Organic Clothing is Not Easy to Produce / Due to Enlightened Consumers the Industry is Growing 

Buying clothing made from environment-sustaining methods and materials is the best way to reduce the environmental threats posed by pesticides and chemicals used in the conventional fabric and clothing industries. It takes approximately 1/3 pound of chemicals to grow enough conventional cotton to make a T-shirt. Although grown on 3-5% of the world's cultivated land, cotton consumes 25% of the planet's insecticides 10% of the world’s pesticides. Often sprayed from the air, these highly toxic substances often drift over farmhouses, water sources, and workers resulting in water and soil contamination and danger to wildlife and human health. Over the long-term, pesticides render the soil infertile and contribute to erosion. Since insects build resistance over time, new and ever-increasing amounts must be used for the same effect. During the processing of conventional cotton, finishing chemicals are often used for bleaching, anti-static, dyeing, anti-soil, anti-wrinkling, stain resistance, and microbial protection. These operations usually use toxic chemicals that can harm workers & the environment. Once the products are made, they can pose a threat because they are worn or used next to the skin, the body’s largest organ.

Organically grown cotton makes use of beneficial bugs and manure in place of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic farm management plans include soil rotations, cover crops, and hand-weeding. A field must be pesticide-free for at least 3 years to be certified organic, and the cotton must be processed according to accepted standards. Organic cotton is more expensive to grow because of the required agricultural rotation program, one-third of the cash crop is out of production every year. Because the farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, they achieve approximately a 20 percent lower crop yield. Additional costs include the processing stage where the cotton gin must be cleaned of contaminants before the organic cotton is processed. 

The Giant Clothing Corporations Are Impacting the Organic Cotton Market

According to the Organic Trade Association, in 2000 farmers devoted 12,709 acres of farmland to organic cotton, up from 900 acres in 1990. Consumer awareness of organic crops has increased significantly over the last decade and this has spawned interest in organic cotton from larger clothing companies. This movement is creating a secure market for organic fibers, which in turn is encouraging more farmers to transition from conventional to organic crops. 

Nike currently blends 3% organic fiber into millions of t-shirts and socks, and has set a goal of including 3% organic fiber in all cotton products by 2003. Levi Straus also blends organic cotton into its jeans. With mainstream manufacturers adding organic cotton content to their garments, demand for organic cotton is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, in the short-term this demand can inflate prices and put a squeeze on the smaller 100% organic manufacturers. 

Do you Support Sweatshops with Your Purchases?

In this world of increasing isolation, people are losing touch and are trying to gain meaning in their lives. They want to identify with a company that shares their values and connects with them. The Clean Clothes Campaign, another anti-sweatshop organization, helps to educate consumers on where clothes were made and the labor conditions of the workers. Do you know where your clothes were made? 

Since 1992, Maggie’s has made comfortable, affordable, and durable clothing from the most environment-sustaining materials and methods. Maggie’s makes a wide range of clothing and accessories from Certified Organic Fibers including: Socks, Camisoles, Underwear, Nightshirts, T-shirts, Dress Oxfords, Gloves, Aprons, Tote Bags, Sheets, Bedding & Baby Clothes. Maggie’s products are sold around the world in natural product and specialty stores, as well as on Maggie’s Webpage. 

For information about Maggie’s, please visit or call 800-609-8593.

Maggie's Functional Organics
306 W. Cross Street
Ypsilanti, MI 48197

Phone: (800) 609-8593
Fax: (734) 482-4175

Nicaragua Co-op/Maggie's Organics Video
"Ants That Move Mountains"
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