The Impact of Fair Trade for the Women Who Sew Our Clothes

I recently spent a few weeks in Honduras with the group who produces our recycled t-shirts clothing. Mi Esperanza is an NGO that provides free skills courses to women who are living in extreme poverty in the capital Tegucigalpa. They offer 6 month programs in sewing, salon, computer, and have started a jewelry workshop. I actually interned at this little spot and then produced my first collection of 100 dresses with them ten years ago. Going back here is always good for my soul - these people seem to love unconditionally and remind me how important laughter is even when life is hard.

I sat across from Amparo (I promise I will never get that women’s name right!) who travels 2-3 hours to this job every day. She lives in the same home she grew up in - they built it onto her parent's house. Like most things in her life, she likes to sew when it is something she knows. She said, “As long as there are instructions and I know it I can make it.” I asked about getting another job closer to her house and she looked at me confused, first she would never really consider questioning the status quo and second she says it’s hard to find a job when you are over 50 - she is grateful for this one - grateful for the flexibility of her working only part of the week since she lives so far away.

I had the opportunity to take this group of women to the beach. Amparo had NEVER seen the ocean. Something I can't really comprehend...if I lived 3 hours from the beach and had never seen it...I would have walked. 

She sat for the first 3 hours we were there 'watching our bags'. Finally we coaxed her to the edge of the water. She grabbed my hand as we walked into the water together for the first time. She kept saying, "I'm scared, I'm scared!"

Amparo did a face plant after a huge wave, had that shocked look when she realized the ocean is salty, and patted my knee as we dropped her home - looked me in the eye and said, "Thank you!"

It will probably always be one of my favorite moments!

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Next I sat down with Ledy, and laughed at the contrasting in these two women. Ledy has big dreams.

Ledy has cut most every single pattern piece for our production in Honduras for the past 7 years. She also quality checks everything and teaches the other women how to make the new styles. Her work is invaluable to me - she is so much better than I am at these things!

Like most of the women in this workshop, At 27, Ledy learned to sewn from the Mi Esperanza program. Then she worked for a t-shirt company for a short time, they closed, and she started working at Mi Esperanza during Liz Alig productions. Now she works there full time. Through her work she was able to slowly earn her degree - taking classes at night - first getting her high school diploma and then a nursing degree.

But her story is not without a lot of heartache.

While working towards her degree, she completed her practicum year at a private hospital only to learn after it was completed that it had to be done at a public hospital. Half way through nursing school her husband left her - with her 4 kids. So she dropped out of classes. During this time she was in a neighborhood that had a gang massacre and she felt incredibly unsafe. Then her oldest daughter ran away and got pregnant.

Since then she got a scholarship from Mi Esperanza to finish classes and her teachers allowed her to come back after missing so much. She has saved every penny she earned from nursing and sewing jobs and built 2 rooms onto their house and completely re-did it in brick instead of wood so she feels safer. Her husband recently returned.

As she fought back tears, she confirmed that life is still hard.

I have watched her grow over the past several years - visiting every couple of years - I have seen the toll these things have taken on her, she just seems a little more focused and a little less joyful - something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it looks a lot like resilience.

I asked her what hope means to her. (After all mi esperanza means ‘my hope’ in Spanish.) She tearfully replied, “It’s like waiting but trusting in the Lord.”

Ledy, words I needed to hear right now!

To change the subject, I asked her about her dreams…while Amparo struggled to understand this question :) Ledy’s face brightened and she explained that she wants to go back to school to become a surgeon's assistant, she wants to build 3 or 4 rooms onto their house and rent them out as another income, She wants to start a sewing school on a piece of land she bought where she grew up.

I want to help her do these things.

But mostly, I want to empower her to be able to achieve these things for herself.

I am so inspired by this women’s determination. After going through a hard time myself I can relate, but this women reminded me you work hard one day at a time. When I asked her why she did this, why she kept going, why she has her degrees. She said, “The Lord kept opening doors for me. I thought it was impossible and then I would get a scholarship or they would let me come back to school.” Don’t get me wrong this women works hard! When she is not working at Mi Esperanza or doing odd nursing jobs, or chores at home, she is making bags to sell them on the side.

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I am asked all the time the impact fair trade has on the women who sew our clothes. It is an incredibly difficult question to answer because poverty is complicate and these women’s lives are hard. It’s not always an easy fix. They also just don't have a lot of opportunities presented to them - some of them at 50 have never been to the beach!

I love the way Lori, the women who started Mi Esperanza over 15 years ago, explained the impact that this program has...when women come here they lack a lot of confidence. Sometimes they don't even look you in the eye when they are talking to you, but when they leave here they have more confidence. It looks different for every women, but she considers every women who walks through their doors a success story. 

I have seen this for myself here.

But in a tangible way, the theme of all these women's stories was that they now have more freedom and more opportunities. If they are not able to work for a month because their husband gets sick they don't lose their job. If they want to send their kids to a better school they are given their own income so they can choose this life for their kids.

Reina, who has worked at this maquila for years and now teaches the sewing classes, previously worked for a large t-shirt company in Honduras. She enjoyed that work too and she was paid well, but she appreciates the freedom she has at this job. She is able to leave for a day or two or a month if there is an emergency. With the money she earned she was able to pay for the expensive medicine for her mother and bilingual school for her kids, “I didn’t have to ask my husband about that money.” In the Central American world this is incredibly rare and gives these women a sense of ownership over their own lives.

Reina added about her work, “Every time I am cutting out a new product, I pray that someone will buy it… I want this project to go on,” 

Anne chimed in, “Keep on shopping because what we do is done with love and we are proud of our work.”

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2 things friends...

1) Donate to Mi Esperanza

2) Buy more of their products