We live in a culture increasingly obsessed with getting things for the cheapest price possible with little regard for the human cost. When 1,100 people were killed in a Dhaka, Bangladesh garment factory recently, the response from the American public was indifference. In a culture where maximizing profits is the paramount concern, human dignity and safety halfway across the planet seemingly count for little.
This begs the question of whether it has to be this way. What if we found approaches that provide dignity for human beings who are all too often exploited to minimize prices in our stores?
The good news is that thanks to the vision, creativity and moral conviction of a young woman from Orondo, a new kind of manufacturing approach shows promise of achieving that goal. Jessica Watson, who graduated from Eastmont High School in 2003, has proven herself as a rising star in the design and retailing of clothing. She has worked for Target, Zumiez, Roxy/Quiksilver and most recently was doing design work for Novara bicycle apparel at REI. Her designs have been leading sellers everywhere she has worked and she has also traveled the globe visiting manufacturing facilities, so she has an intimate understanding of the economics at play.
Watson left REI recently and has started Tight Knit Co-op, a nonprofit dedicated to perfecting a cottage industry model that may one day provide retailers with quality clothing at a competitive price. The co-op has a pilot project in Moldova, in Eastern Europe, being funded through a Kickstarter.com crowd-sourcing campaign, to provide individuals the opportunity to work at home, using the co-ops designs, marketing power and quality control expertise. They are targeting women who have been orphaned or who have suffered from human trafficking. Mentors trained by the co-op will provide training and support for these workers.
This approach, she told me, overcomes the traditional weakness of local cottage industries, including lack of access to good designs, an inability to market to global corporations, and a lack of quality control.
Tight Knight is seeking to build networks of workers who can work at home rather than being forced into an urban factory while getting paid a better wage. Rather than producing garments with the brand label of a major manufacturer, she envisions the individual who produced the garment will have her own label, Watson said, so consumers can feel good about spending their dollars on products that are sustainably produced.
Sustainability means lots of things to different people, but in this case it refers to treating workers humanely and fairly, putting more dollars in their pockets rather than in the hands of business owners who may or may not act responsibly, and allowing them to work near home. It also means sourcing the raw materials from the nearest possible source. In the case of Moldova, the material will come from the Ukraine.
“Cottage industry has been the lowest form of manufacturing and we’re raising it up to do it on a global scale in this century,” said Watson.
They chose Moldova to launch this effort because of the great need that exists to help those who are orphaned or otherwise at risk. It’s one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. If the model can work there, it will work anywhere, Watson said. They’re also beginning work in India.
It was Watson’s experience in high school during a humanitarian trip to Mexico working in an orphanage that triggered a passion for finding creative ways to help. During her school years, she was constantly making her own clothes. “People didn’t know quite what I was going to show up in,” Watson said with a laugh. She was voted “most original” at Eastmont.
This passion for helping orphans started out as an idea to teach sewing but evolved into an audacious global vision. “As my career grew, my vision grew,” she said.
She came to a point this year where it was time to put everything on the line. She quit her job at REI and committed herself to making the concept a reality.
She’s been talking to North Central Washington retailers about carrying Tight Knit goods and has gotten good response. But scaling this for a global effort means selling it to the major retailers, and she’s using her contacts and experience to bring that about.
Watson plans to do for manufacturing what flipping the classroom does to education — changing the structure to make it work better for the human beings who are engaged in the effort.
Those who would like to contribute to the first production run of Tight Knit Co-op should visit Kickstarter.com. They’ve raised $3,400 so far of a $10,000 goal. Let’s support a local visionary who wants to make the world a better place. There’s no reason you can’t be a capitalist and make the world a better place, too.