It can be very easy to ignore or not think about the people who helped make the clothes we wear, grow the food we eat, and mine the jewels we put on. We don’t see them when we buy these goods, and we almost never have the chance to talk to them or say thank you. Most of the time, we don’t even get to know their names. As a result, it can be very easy for us as consumers to completely forget about these producers, and instead focus on getting things as quickly and as cheaply as possible. But behind that pair of pants there will always be a mother, a brother, or a daughter, no matter how much we don’t think about it.
For ShareHope, business isn’t just about goods, but also the people who are a part of making them. The apparel makers are dedicated to providing a good quality of life to the Haitian garment workers who produce their clothing, not only through fair wages but also through educational programs and social services. I reached out to CEO and co-founder Cynthia Petterson to learn more about her background in clothing, her business philosophy, and the ways ShareHope is putting that philosophy into action.
Q. How did ShareHope first begin?
CP: Clothing manufacturing is my background; my family had a factory in the Bronx for 30 years. For us, people and product came together. My philosophy has always been that people should be at the center of business.
On my first trip to Haiti in 2008, I knew a lot about the country statistically. I knew that it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I knew that it had a history of political instability and corruption. But as I was driven from the airport to the industrial park in Port-au-Prince, I watched the many street vendors on the road with goods to sell. The vendors seemed tired, unengaged, and hopeless. However, the car I was in quickly turned into the industrial complex. Here, what I saw was immediately different. The faces of people were different. They were rushing to work, were intent on something, and had a purpose.
That first visit to Haiti strengthened my conviction that what people need at the end of the day is not charity. As I looked around the industrial park, and saw the difference between these working people and the street vendors outside the gates, I realized that these are just people who need jobs. I knew that this was an industry that had the potential to employ thousands of people in a short period of time, and provide them with what should be good and decent work. I also saw that this industrial park, in which 17,000 women and men worked everyday, provided a perfect opportunity to reach large numbers of people with much-needed social programs.
Thus ShareHope was born, part business and part non-profit. I hoped that ShareHope could be a model of how business could be done differently, especially in a sector plagued by exploitation; a race to the bottom, where the individual worker is reduced to a simple cog in the wheel of the profit-making machine.
In the Photo: Leggings by ShareHope. Photo Credit: ShareHope.
Q. What are some of the challenges Haitian garment workers face today, and how does ShareHope help to address them?
CP: Haitian garment workers face many challenges. Haiti is a difficult country of severe poverty, where 6 out of 10 people work in the informal sector. So things for workers in the garment sector are much better than for many others, where they have a minimum of job security, and ShareHope is working with the factories it produces in to make sure that workers are earning a fair wage. But too many workers simply do not have access to basic social services, like health and education. So although one pillar of ShareHope’s business model is to create decent jobs for as many people in the Haitian garment sector as possible, we are aware that jobs are sometimes not enough, and so we’ve tried to fill the gaps through our social programs.
Currently, these programs include a health training program called HERhealth, where workers come during their lunch break (and get free lunch!) to learn about key health issues such as hygiene, nutrition, HIV and other STIs, family planning, waterborne diseases, and others. We are also running a high school completion program, where a cohort of 40 students each year takes after-work classes to help prepare them for the national exam to obtain their high school diploma. Given the high number of deaf and hard-of-hearing workers in the Haitian garment industry, we are also running programs for them, including literacy classes. Finally, we are working with the factory clinics and nurses to help build their capacity and make sure that the clinics are providing adequate services for the workers.
Q. On your website you explicitly talk about the makers of ShareHope clothing, what are their stories?
CP: There are so many amazing people we are working with at ShareHope, whose stories we’ve had the privilege of hearing and being part of. You can learn more about a few of those individual workers and their stories here and here, and if you purchase a pair of our leggings, you’ll get a postcard featuring one of those workers.
But what I want to say is that individual workers are at the heart of everything we do at ShareHope. Too often, those who produce our clothing (or make our food, or any other item that we purchase, for that matter!) are forgotten in the nameless masses. Some people think our clothes are made by robots, but most people simply don’t think about it.
The first decades of my career were spent in a garment factory running a small business. Every day, I had the privilege to walk up and down the rows of machines, talking to the people, seeing how they were doing. Those people had names, families, weddings and funerals. They loved my daughters and I loved theirs. This type of mentality must not only be reserved for small businesses or small factories with just a few dozen people working in them. It’s a whole worldview: individual people matter. Individual people have dignity. This goes for the large factories in Bangladesh or those we work with in Haiti, as much as for small artisan businesses.
We like to encourage people to look at the tag and the country of origin every time they take off their clothes. Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Haiti. Think about the individual people who may have touched that article of clothing, and what their stories might be.
In the Photo: A member of HERhealth. Photo Credit: ShareHope.
Q. What challenges has ShareHope faced as it’s continued to operate?
CP: Staying true to our vision in an industry that doesn’t operate on the same logic as we do is difficult. The garment industry works in a way that squeezes as much out of the workers as possible, with little regard for their well being-we’re trying to do the opposite. One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced has been getting buy-in from brands. We want them to see that what we are doing matters enough for them to let go of a very small portion of their profit margins in order to effectively improve the lives of the workers. We are still in the process of overcoming these challenges. Ultimately, the brands need to have more pressure from their customers. They need to be accountable for their part in the quality of the workers lives.
So it’s certainly hard. But what has helped us immensely is our conviction that what we are doing is right. We are passionate about workers, and that passion is contagious. If we can get individual people around us to be inspired by what we’re doing and catch the vision, they in turn can influence those around them. And slowly, slowly, change happens.
Q. What do you see as the future of ShareHope going forward?
CP: I have many hopes and dreams for ShareHope. Ultimately, I would like us to market a brand that supports workers and contributes financially to their hopes and dreams. I want to be a constant conduit for connections between the workers in less developed countries and those of us that buy the clothes. I want ShareHope to continue to encourage factories to do more for workers in the form of worker wellness initiatives.