Maggie’s Organics has been making
high-quality durable and affordable socks and apparel out of organic fibers
since 1992. We began quite by accident, when an organic corn farmer in Texas
taught us the truth behind conventional cotton.
Founder Bená Burda was working with
the farmer to improve the quality of his blue corn crop for the tortilla chips
she was marketing at the time. The farmer decided that adding cotton into his
three year organic crop rotation would improve his corn yields. His experiment
worked, and also provided him with 200 acres of certified organic cotton, which
he expected Bená to sell! After researching cotton, and learning that this one
crop is grown on 3-5% of the world’s cultivated land, and yet uses nearly 10%
of the world’s pesticides and 25% of the world’s insecticides, we committed
ourselves to utilizing these 200 acres of organic cotton to tell the real story
behind conventional cotton clothing… Maggie’s Organics was born.
But how to get the word out about this
newly discovered environmental calamity? Given our history marketing organic
foods, it was natural for us to turn to all of our friends who were natural
food entrepreneurs. So we showed up at the 1992 Natural Products Expo (then
called the Natural FOODS Expo) with a wall of socks behind us. Food retailers
with an existing consumer base concerned about the environment were not exactly
eager to sell socks, but we were persistent. And our retailers were and still
are both creative and adaptive. After getting our socks placed in stores
throughout the US, Maggie’s began to expand our line to include tee shirts and
polo shirts, logo wear for organic food companies, and as a result began to
learn about the very convoluted and confusing apparel production cycle.
It was overwhelming, and we made more
mistakes than we thought were possible. Natural dyes that faded in the sun – we
called them ‘mood shirts’ (if you didn’t like the color, go outside for a few
hours). Polo shirts that we were proud to say shrunk only 14% – because it was
all in the length and not in the width, we promoted the midriff look at trade
shows that year. Women’s scoop tops that we marketed as wearing well
day-into-evening because they started the day on your shoulders and were
off-shoulder by the end of the day. Still, we persevered, studied hard, and
continued to improve year after year. Our customers continued to support us,
somehow feeling the special energy in our products.
As we expanded our product offering,
we learned first-hand about the working conditions in textile plants while
dealing with two ongoing problems: late orders and poor quality. All of our
contracts were in the US, where the apparel industry was already working
under-capacity due to off-shore competition. Yet we could not get an order for
10,000 basic tee shirts shipped on time. We began to spend more time in our
contract factories, trying to figure out why these problems recurred. This is
when we learned who actually sews the clothes that we all buy: poor and often
under-educated workers, mostly women, paid by the piece. They choose to stay at
the same repetitive jobs for years in order to become more efficient, so they
can make enough money to feed their families, which in turn wreaks havoc on
both their bodies and their minds. Most important of all, we realized that
worker s in apparel chains are completely disenfranchised from the customers
who wear their clothes as well as the companies whose labels they sew.
We began to ask ourselves how we could
consider Maggie’s an environmentally responsible company while engaging in such
an irresponsible supply chain. We had to find a better way. This is when we met
Jubilee House Community, a community development organization that had operated
in Nicaragua for over a decade helping victims of natural disasters. JHC worked
to find employment for those in need and had access to many workers, both
skilled and unskilled. We offered JHC a challenge: If they could create a facility
where every worker had a vested interest in our success, and had a way to
determine their own success, we would turn all of our sewing contracts over to
them. They suggested a worker –ownership model, and together we created a 100%
worker-owned sewing cooperative in Nicaragua called the Fair Trade Zone. This
experience has inspired us to continue pursuing other cooperative projects and
to develop relationships with contractors who honor workers’ rights.
Today, Maggie’s Organics has developed
three separate supply chains that produce all of our products: socks, legwear,
and apparel. All of our socks are made by 5 family-owned mills in North
Carolina. We are very proud of the fact that every pair of socks we have made
in our 18 years has been made in the USA. Our tights and legwear are produced
in GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) certified facilities in Peru, from
cotton grown by cooperative farmers in the Canete Valley. Our new apparel line
of Hoodies, Dresses, Wraps, Scarves, Pants, Tanks, Camisoles, and Men’s Shirts
is from our Central American supply chain, described below. Each supply chain
we use is committed to providing a quality Maggie’s product that is produced
with fair working conditions and practices and, as always, all of our cotton and
wool is 100% certified organic.
We have spent the past few years
developing our Central American supply chain in order to provide top quality
certified organic cotton apparel that we are able to sell at affordable prices.
This supply chain begins in Nicaragua, where we have helped to revive a
devastated cotton industry and to convert it to organic farming methods. The
grower groups and co-ops we work with in Nicaragua provide livelihoods for over
1200 people. All of them harvest their cotton by hand and use a specific
variety of cotton seed called Melba, which was developed by Nicaraguans to work
best in the Nicaraguan climate. Yields have increased each year, and farmers
earn over twice what they would for conventional cotton.
With the help of the Jubilee House
Community, who coordinates all the growers, we have been able to develop
worker-owned cooperatives for the next two stages of production - the ginning
of fiber and the spinning of yarn. The yarn then heads to Costa Rica where CIA
Textiles dyes and finishes the yarn into different fabrics. This is also where
the fabric is cut and sewn into our finished garments. CIA Textiles was founded
60 years ago by a Jewish immigrant from Poland who was sent by his family at
age 14 to escape the Nazi invasion. His vision and compassion set the ground
work for workers’ rights with a democratic workers’ association, paying above
average wages, and instituting many special work programs.
Maggie’s Organics is intricately
involved with each step of production of our organic cotton apparel, from the
farming of the cotton to the finished garment. Our goal is to connect the
workers who make our products with the consumers who wear them.
Recently, we have begun to work with
independent monitoring organizations that now offer 3rd party verification
programs that certify the working conditions and labor conditions in our supply
chain. Our Central American supply chain is the first to have been certified to
In early 2010, the entire supply chain
was Certified Fair Labor™ through the Fair Labor Practices and Community
Benefits by Scientific Certification Systems. Every stage of production was
certified to this new standard – the growers, cotton gin, spinner, knitter,
dyer, cutter, sewer, and screen-printer as well as our office and warehouses at
Maggie’s. To be certified to this standard there must be 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.
Additionally, this same supply chain
in Central America is now licensed to sell Fair Trade Certified™ organic cotton
apparel. This new pilot program through Fair Trade USA certifies working
conditions for the growers of our organic cotton, knitters and dyers of our
fabric, and cutters and sewers of our garments. It guarantees that we pay the
established fair trade price for our cotton, and that each grower and worker
receives an additional cash premium designed to be used for social programs in
At Maggie’s Organics, we are proud of
what we have accomplished with every worker in our supply chains and we are
honored with the partnerships we have developed. We are persistently searching
for ways to grow and expand our efforts. In 2011, we plan to have our knitters
in North Carolina utilizing organic cotton yarn from our Nicaraguan farmers for
our socks. We are continuing to build a vertical supply chain that is 100%
worker-owned. We are also helping the Nicaraguan farmers supply organic cotton
fiber to Peru. As we have grown over the past 18 years, we have found ourselves
looking for more opportunities, not just for Maggie’s, but also for our supply
Maggie’s Organics mission since the
beginning has been to produce and provide comfortable, durable, affordable, and
beautiful articles of apparel and accessories made from materials that restore,
sustain, and enhance resources, including human, from which they are made. We
are inspired by our fulfillment of that mission, and are humbled by how much
further we have to go. And through it all we are honestly awed by our customers
– distributors, retailers and consumers – by their commitment, by their
support, and by their constant challenges to improve.
Maggie's journey into the organic
cotton business was inspired by the following statistics about conventional
cotton. Maggie's mission has been to raise awareness about the harmful impacts
of cotton, and more importantly, to lead the way to a more sustainable and
responsible industry and product.
Cotton is considered the world's
'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous
pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's
cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other
single major crop (1).
Bringing a new pesticide to market requires a
major investment of nine years of development and $180 million plus the cost of
manufacturing. The effectiveness of these agrochemicals is only temporary as
pests develop immunities (2).
Insecticides are designed to effect nervous
and reproductive systems of insects, which are similar in both animals and
people. This makes insecticides the most hazardous pesticide to human health,
causing a wide range of acute and chronic conditions, behavioral changes,
increased risk of cancer, and death (1).
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three
of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the
World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton
production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are
classified as moderately to highly hazardous (1).
Aldicarb, cotton's second bestselling
insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one
drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the
US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater (1).
Insecticide use has decreased in the last 10
years with the introduction of Biotechnology (BT), the fastest adapted yet most
controversial new technology in the history of agriculture. As of 2007, BT
cotton already commands 34% of total cotton cropland and 45% of world cotton
production. In BT cotton, the insecticide is always present in the plant rather
than applied in periodic spraying sessions which will lead to rapid rates of
pest immunities and possibly produce superpests (3).
Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic
chemicals to control pests, except in extreme cases. Instead, natural predators
and intercropping are used to control pests and special machinery and fire
control handle weeds (1).
It can take almost a 1/3 pound of
synthetic fertilizers to grow one pound of raw cotton in the US, and it takes
just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt (4).
Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are considered
the most detrimental to the environment, causing leaching and runoff that
freshwater habitats and wells (5).
Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are a major
contributor to increased N2O emissions, which are 300 times more potent than
CO2 as greenhouse gas (5), which is ominous for global warming as synthetic
fertilizer use is forecasted to increase roughly 2.5 times by mid-century
Organic farming methods use natural
fertilizers, like compost and animal manure, that recycles the nitrogen already
in the soil rather than adding more, which reduces both pollution and N2O
The cottonseed hull, where many
pesticide residues have been detected, is a secondary crop sold as a food
commodity. It is estimated that as much as 65% of cotton production ends up in
our food chain, whether directly through food oil or indirectly through the
milk and meat of animals (1).
Cottonseed and field trash is usually sold for
animal feed. Studies in Brazil and Nicaragua have shown traces of common cotton
pesticides in cow milk, fueling concerns about chemical residues on the
Cottonseed oil accounts for 8% of the world's
edible vegetable oil (1).
Organic meat can only be fed by organic feed,
and organic feed cannot use any pesticides, including cottonseed. Likewise,
organic food can only use ingredients that are pesticide-free.
The developing world is home to 99% of
all cotton farmers and produces 75% of the world's total cotton, so it bears
the brunt of cotton's environmental and health concerns (1).
Rural farmers lack the necessary safety
equipment, protective clothing, and training for handling hazardous pesticides.
In India, one in ten pesticide applications results in three or more reported
health symptoms related to pesticide exposure (1).
Surveys show that rural cotton farmers often
store pesticides in their bedrooms or in close proximity to their food and some
even reuse pesticide containers for drinking water. These farmers and their
families are at highest risk for acute pesticide poisoning as well as chronic
The production of pesticides in the developing
world is also of concern. In 1982, the worst man-made disaster occurred in
Bhopal, India when a substandard pesticide plant exploded, killing 20,000
people and injuring 120,000 (1).
US cotton subsidies artificially lower cotton
prices while production costs for Biotech (BT) seeds and pesticides are rising,
causing financial stress in the rest of the world's cotton-producing areas.
India's once prestigious cotton belt is now referred to as the "suicide
belt" due to farmers unable to accept growing debts. Since 2003, the
suicide rate has averaged one every eight hours in Vidarba, India (7).
Organic farming poses no health threat from
the use or production of agrochemicals and many farmers profit from organic
During the conversion of cotton into
conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the
product, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy
metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde-just to name a few
Many processing stages result in large amounts
of toxic wastewater that carry away residues from chemical cleaning, dyeing,
and finishing. This waste depletes the oxygen out of the water, killing aquatic
animals and disrupting aquatic ecosystems (8).
The North American Organic Fiber Processing
Standards prohibits these and similar chemicals. These standards are optional
for organic apparel manufacturers to recognize, yet Maggie's produces every
product according to these standards.
(1) EJF. (2007). the deadly chemicals
in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide
Action Network UK: London, UK. ISBN No. 1-904523-10-2.
(2) Whitford, F., Pike, D., Burroughs,
F., Hanger, G. Johnson, B., & Brassard, D. (2006). The pesticide
marketplace: Discovering and developing new products. Purdue University
Extension, report # PPP-71.
(3) Chaudhry, M.R., (2007, March 6-8).
Biotech applications in cotton: Concerns and challenges. Paper presented at the
Regional Consultation on Biotech Cotton for Risk Assessment and Opportunities
for Small Scale Cotton Growers (CFC/ICAC 34FT), Faisalabad, Pakistan.
(4) Lauresn, S. E., Hansen, J.,
Knudsen, H. H., Wenzel, H., Larsen, H. F., & Kristensen, F. M. (2007).
EDIPTEX: Environmental assessment of textiles. Danish Environmental Protection
Agency, working report 24.
(5) Kramer, S. B., Reganold, J. P.,
Glover, J. D., Bohannan, B. J. M., & Mooney, H. A. (2006). Reduced nitrate
leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity and efficiency in organically
fertilized soils. PNAS, 103 (12), 4522-4527.
(6) Tilman, D., Cassman, K., Matson,
P., Naylor, R., & Polasky, S. (2002). Nature (418), 71-677.
(7) de Sam Lazaro, F. (2007). The
dying fields: India's forgotten farmers [Television series episode]. In WNET
(producer), Wide Angle. New York: Public Broadcasting Station.
(8) Kadolph, S. J., & Langford, A.
L. (2002). Textiles (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.