Purchasing is always a moral, and not simply economic act. —Pope Benedict XVI
A Different Kind of Factory
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Nestled in the lush foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina sits a small cut-and-sew cooperative. Driving along the windy back-country road you might miss it if you don’t slow down and look closely. The single-story white building has a modest appearance. There’s just one door under a simple sign that reads: Opportunity Threads. Nothing about the cooperative’s outward appearance indicates that this facility, one of many factories situated within North Carolina’s former textile haven, is any different from others in the area. But, once the door is opened, a unique story is revealed that will leave you wondering, ‟Who made my clothes, jewelry and food?”
As you enter, your senses are instantly heightened. The air conditioning is on full blast and permeates the room. The mood is one of focus and determination as the buzzing sound of sewing machines and fabric cutting signal that work has begun. Lined against the far wall are ancient iron cutting machines that the co-owner, Molly Hemstreet, describes as matriarchal elephants, standing the test of time and technology. In the center of the floor are two aisles of sewing machines overflowing with fabric that spans the colors of the rainbow.
The 24 workers at Opportunity Threads have begun work for the day — work that they are all thankful for.
Triple the Impact
Molly, founder of Opportunity Threads, began the cooperative in 2008. After years spent watching the textile industry fade away from her beloved hometown, she was determined to bring work back to the area in a fundamentally different way. With the help of a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, or CCHD, and the company Maggie’s Organics, pioneering fair-trade organic cotton apparel, Opportunity Threads was in business.
Opportunity Threads’ unique business model focuses on a “triple bottom line.” This means the company has environmental, social and financial impact. The factory is a zero-waste facility where workers sew sustainable, and often organic, products. The cooperative is also worker owned and strives to create financial sustainability for all employees.
“I’m really privileged I get to work with some really wonderful people” says Molly. Many of the women and men at Opportunity Threads are Guatemalans of Mayan descent. “They have a story of their own to tell and, interestingly enough, a lot of that story is also a story of their textile heritage,” she says.
Many of the co-op workers are experienced sewers, and 14 are co-owners, including Eulalia Francisco.
The People Behind Your Purchase
When you think about the people behind your purchases, who do you see?
A mother? A daughter? Does she have a family? Does she enjoy her work? What are her hopes and dreams?
Eulalia sits at the head of an aisle of sewing machines. Her seat at the head of the line indicates she is a skilled sewer, able to carry out complex sewing techniques.
She is focused, precise and diligent. Her eyes are fixed on the fabric moving through her trusty sewing machine.
Eulalia is just one of the many people behind your purchase. She sews countless products for ethical companies, including our partner, Maggie’s Organics.
Originally from Guatemala, Eulalia immigrated to the United States in 1995 in search of a better life for her family. A mother of five, her face lights up when she talks about her children: Maria, Magdalena, Margarita, Mateo and Angelica.
She chose to work at Opportunity Threads because she saw how people here are treated with respect and paid fairly. She knows the job is an answered prayer. “I thank God that I have work,” she says.
And many other workers at Opportunities Threads echo that sentiment.
Your Power as a Consumer
“You have an incredible amount of power. Each of us has an incredible amount of power in what we purchase and how we purchase. So, if you think about just the shirt on your back or the pants you’re wearing or the socks you’re wearing — that has been affected by someone’s life. Someone has sat down at a machine and created that — sometimes under duress or under very difficult conditions,” says Molly.
So what do we do with our power? We choose to purchase differently and we begin by asking hard questions. ‘‘Is this something I want or is it something I truly need?’’
We pray for workers and consider the question: ‘’Who made my … clothes, jewelry and food?’’
And we do this every time we make a purchase. We think about Eulalia, Francisco, Reyna and all of the other workers at Opportunity Threads and in cooperatives and factories around the world.
Special thanks to Opportunity Threads and Maggie’s Organics for sharing with us the life-changing work that is going on in North Carolina and for allowing us to share the story of the people behind your purchase.
Copyright 2018 Erin Mackey for Catholic Relief Services
About the author: Erin Mackey works as a program officer for Catholic Relief Services, serving with their U.S. Operations division out of CRS headquarters in Baltimore. She develops ethical trade programs to help Catholics better live out their faith by respecting the dignity of work, God’s people and his creation.