moral fibre: Organic, FairTrade Cotton Products

Soul Economy thoroughly enjoyed meeting Billie recently and finding out more about moral fibre. They create exceptional quality products of moral fibre, that is, organic and Fairtrade cotton, and make every effort to ensure that the environment and all of the people involved in their supply chain are treated with respect and dignity. They also give a significant % of profits to women’s issues. To find out more from Billie….

1. What gave you the idea to start the business?
Around 10 years ago I crawled out from under the “western world/mass media” rock that had shielded me from the atrocities that were being perpetrated upon women around the world. This was the first time that I had heard of “honour killings”.

Honour” killings of women can be defined as acts of murder in which “a woman is killed for her actual or perceived immoral behavior.” Such “immoral behaviour” may take the form of marital infidelity, refusing to submit to an arranged marriage, demanding a divorce, flirting with or receiving phone calls from men, failing to serve a meal on time, or – grotesquely — “allowing herself” to be raped. In the Turkish province of Sanliurfa, one young woman’s “throat was slit in the town square because a love ballad was dedicated to her over the radio.”

Those who kill for honour are almost never punished. In the rare instances that cases reach the courts, the killers are sentenced to just two or three years. A human-rights report published in March 1999 stated that “honour” killings took the lives of 888 women in the single province of Punjab in 1998. (Pelin Turgut, The Toronto Star, May 14, 1998).

I struggled to understand that this happened in our time, our world, and then I was totally horrified to discover the lack of response that our government gave to this. I have never been one to be content with having heated discussions over the dinner table about issues that concerned me — I am a believer that if you are aware of an injustice and you do not become part of the solution, you then become part of the problem. At that time I was a single mother with 2 young daughters, limited skills, knowledge and money and I realised that I needed more than just good intentions and a physical presence to be of any help so I mapped out a very strategic long-term plan to set about making myself useful.

Over the following 4 years I completed a Bachelor Degree in Social Science (focusing on psychology, sociology, gender studies, theology and law), while working a number of part-time jobs and having fun with my daughters. After finishing my Degree I worked for a number of government departments as a Community Development Officer in areas with significant social problems. My focus throughout this time was developing strategies to respond to Domestic Violence & Child Abuse.

While I was always very clear about what I wanted to use my life and skills to impact on — women’s issues, I was not really sure what path I would take, law reform, political soap box etc. Then I came across and read the wonderful Anita Roddick’s book Business as Unusual. It was one of those powerful moments where it feels that things are all falling into place. Her thesis focused on using business to bring about sustainable change made so much sense and her book is incredibly generous with how to do this.

Within one month of finishing the book, I had written a 50 page business plan and was convinced I was onto something and that I could make this happen. On the 12th August 2004 global sisters was born. Over the past 3 1/2 years I have worked tirelessly to get global sisters to the point of creating precious products of moral fibre through a wonderful supply chain that embraces our values, and to develop ourWILD (Women’s International Leadership Development) funding program.

We believe that for sustainable authentic change to happen it needs to come from within the community it is addressing and we know that there is no shortage of courageous women living in these communities who have the passion in their heart and the fire in their bellies to take up this role and that they are only lacking the education, support and money to move forward.

We give 10% of our profits to supporting these courageous women through our WILD funding. We strive to build long-term relationships with these women — our sisters – and commit to using every opportunity we have to raising awareness of their situations and channeling support to them.

While our primary intention for our business is responding to injustices against women we are also committed to ensuring that all involved in the creation of our precious products share our values and impacts positively on the people they work with and the community they live in.

Sewing the Seeds of Change

Our Organic Fairtrade cotton in India is provided by an organisation that works with 180 small scale farmers and is currently training 125 students in organic sustainable farming methods. When they buy cotton from the farmers, they pay an 8% premium. If there are no immediate buyers for the cotton, they store the cotton in their cotton bank at their cost until it is sold. They also arrange for the organic certification of the cotton on behalf of the individual farmers. They have developed natural farming methods and natural pesticides to control the pests. Farmers use chili, garlic and soap instead of expensive and harmful chemicals, saving the farmers up to 3000 rupees per acre.

At this organisation the women are paid the same as the men – a rarity – and given paid maternity leave. Farmers are paid a 30% premium above the price of conventional cotton, and they receive a pension, health insurance and good medical facilities. Collecting Organic cotton is done from farmers who are paid earlier for their cotton.

Weaving the Fabric of a Just Society

The collected organic cotton is further converted into fine tuned yarns, the yarn and fabrics are made entirely from unprocessed, naturally pigmented cotton fiber rich in natural color. The yarns are then meshed into gorgeous fabrics rich in quality and sustainability. The dyeing process that they perform is unique in its style, and the aroma of life is expressed through the light and grand shades in the fabrics that are obtained by low impact and non formaldehyde dyes.

Our products are manufactured by a non-profit rehabilitation program in Southern India. The company is the first of its kind, it is run by Franciscan Sisters where young women are employed who are considered outcasts because they have disabilities or are considered unfit for marriage by their families. The organisation has a workforce of around 120 women who are given employment, training and support. Their employees are paid 50% above the standard wage, given free accommodation, water and electricity and help towards paying their dowries and a lump sum paid after five years of employment to start a home.

The Sisters care not only for the cotton but also for all of the women they work with. The Sisters’ latest project is the Cancer Institution that currently offers nursing courses. The Sisters take great pride in managing the production process with love and respect.

Our first shipment of precious moral fibre cargo is due to arrive in Australia late October and we are so excited and can’t wait to wrap the world in it.

2. How long did you have the idea for?
Started growing it in August 2004.

3. Did you receive much support from family and friends and other people in the community in the beginning?

Almost everyone has been supportive however some (who did not know me well) were sure that I was biting off more than I could chew. My husband and 2 daughters have been totally and consistently supportive and encouraging.

4. How long has the business been running?
Well running — hmmmm, what date would you put on this? I registered global sisters as a company in August 2004.

5. What were you doing before you started the business?
Raising my 2 wonderful daughters, studying, and Community Development work with a range of government departments.

6. What have been your greatest challenges?
For the first 3 years I had a full-time position with the Department of Housing and was working on global sisters every night and on weekends. Also, I have been on so many steep learning curves I have perpetual motion sickness. I have had to learn about developing a business plan, building websites, negotiating with International Government and Non Government Organistations, creating a brand, designing products, pattern-making, weaves and wefts of fabrics, manufacturing processes, freighting, tariffs and a myriad of very scary financial processes.

7. Your greatest successes?
Consistently attracting fabulous people (mainly women) who want to help me out and cheer me on.

8. What is your core product?
Organic, Fairtrade cotton bags – chairbags for school and conferences, basic bags for library, shopping and other fun stuff and small draw string bags for school reader books, makeup, lunch etc. Waiters aprons – 3 sizes in a gorgeous, chocolate brown or classic black.

9. Do you have other products as well?
We have some beautiful Organic Fairtrade cotton Tee shirts coming real soon and plan on continuing to grow our range to include bub and children’s gear.

10. Are there other people out there doing similar things?
No. While there are companies who work with organic cotton (most are not certified), there are no companies who offer certified Organic & Fairtrade and also give a significant % of profits to women’s issues.

11. Is it difficult or easier to attract the right people to work for you?
Well I can’t wait to have this dilemma, although I doubt I will as I get asked very regularly by pretty amazing women (and some exceptional men) if they can work with me.

12. How have you gone about promoting the business?
We have 2 websites which covers our WILD funding activities and which covers everything relating to our precious products. We will register on website networks (like the fabulous Soul Economy) that share our values and intentions.

13. Of these, which have been the most effective?
We have not started actively marketing yet so I can’t really respond to this yet….

14. What keeps you going?
I am passionate about using my life to make a positive, lasting impact on women’s issues. I seek out and treasure other wonderful women who share my vision. My husband and my daughters provide me with unrelenting support and encouragement.

global sisters & moral fibre:
PO Box 1231
Mullumbimby NSW 2482

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