Fact: "Big Cotton" in America grows poverty around the world. Since the days of legal slavery -- a labor subsidy for cotton production -- to today's taxpayer-financed cotton grower welfare (which the majority of Americans oppose), the Made-in-America cotton that you wear is destroying economic opportunity for millions of cotton farmers around the world.From Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy:
No wonder then that the West African nation of Liberia's unemployment hovers around 80 percent.
"In West Africa, cotton is a principal cash crop and export, and provides more than one-quarter of export earnings for 11 countries... Because of low-priced or even free family labor, West African cotton farmers can produce cotton at a far lower cost than Texas growers... Remarkably, U.S. government subsidies [to American cotton growers]... (approximately, $4 billion in 2000) exceed... the entire USAID [foreign aid] for the continent of Arica."
Against this backdrop of unfair trade barriers and underhanded market competition, in Liberia -- founded, suitably, by former American slaves -- a fair-trade clothing factory is competing internationally. It is the start of something important in the new Africa. It is globalization to believe in.
Probably the first image in your mind was yet another textile sweat shop, only profitable because the workers are exploited. To the contrary! Made In: Liberia is Africa's first factory built to fair trade standards, air conditioning included -- a rarity in that part of the world. It employs 32 women at reasonable wages, providing basic health care and a monthly bag of rice as employee benefits.
Thirty-year-old Chid Liberty, a Liberian educated at Western universities, is the force behind Made In: Liberia. For the Liberian Women's Sewing Project, a women-owned workers cooperative making T-shirts and other cotton clothing, Liberty's organization coordinates financing, manages the supply chain and production schedule, and acts as the sales representative.
Liberty believes in rock solid business ethics. He once told National Public Radio, "That's actually our competitive advantage over a factory in China or a factory that uses sweatshop labor is that we say, listen, we have a supply chain you can actually boast about."
Liberty is a master craftsman at turning probabilities into profits to combat poverty. A distinguished Delegate to the Opportunity Collaboration two years in a row, he tells the story of converting a chance encounter into gold, "We just ran into each other on the path, and then sat down for lunch together. I was describing the work we do, and our goals, and all of a sudden, he pulled out his cell phone and made a call, setting me up for a meeting back in the Bay Area. I didn't realize it at the time, but he's on the Levi Strauss board. When I had that meeting, [it] led to concrete negotiations. It's far beyond what I thought I would get out of this conference!"
The Liberia to Levi's connection occurred at a poverty leadership conference. If you don't go to conferences, don't happen to be on the Levi's board, or can't travel to Liberia, or don't know how to make a T-shirt, or hate writing letters to your Congress person to protest wasting taxpayer dollars on Big Cotton, at least visit Made In: Liberia and see what else you can do to help 32 women in Monrovia, Liberia.
Follow Jonathan Lewis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CafeImpact