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Maggie's Organics
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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 these standards.

 

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 their communities.

 

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 chain partners.

 

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.

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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 (6). 

 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 emissions (5).

 

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 (1). 

 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 effects (1)

 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 premiums (1). 

 

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 (8).

 

 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.

 

 

 

Sources:

 

(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.



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