Meet the Makers of your Clothes: an #insideout Q&A with Mata Traders

Mata Traders’ artisans (and their kids!) pose for a photo during a visit by the company’s US-based staff to cooperatives in India.

During the summer of 2006, when I was a college student studying in Nicaragua, I visited with female garment workers producing apparel for US-based companies like J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, and Target, in sweatshops in Managua’s sprawling Free Trade Zones. They reported working 11-12 hour days, 6 days a week, and earning what was, at the time, equivalent to 57 USD each week (with today’s exchange rate, that’s only 38 USD). They worked on an assembly line doing one repetitive task – the women I met with sewed the inner and outer seams on blue jeans over and over and over again, all day long. Weekly quotas had to be met in order to earn their full wages – and the already hard-to-attain goals were frequently raised without warning, making it difficult to receive a full paycheck on a consistent basis. Among their fears, they listed hunger, unsafe working conditions, becoming pregnant and losing their jobs, and being blacklisted for joining a union (or for meeting with us).

Have things changed for garment workers since 2006? According to Fashion Revolution USA, the answer is no. In fact, they have likely gotten worse. Many companies have intentionally outsourced their production to countries with the lowest possible labor costs, like Bangladesh and Cambodia, and consistently expose their producers to unsafe, toxic working conditions. Garment workers producing apparel for mainstream brands in developing countries are still paid much less than a liveable wage and are barred from unionizing or bargaining for higher wages, benefits, and safer working conditions. And, 2013 saw the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, when the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,138 workers and injuring 2,500 more. The company operating the factory, which produced apparel for international brands like Benetton, The Children’s Place, Primark, and Walmart, knew that the building was unsafe and needed repairs and deliberately did nothing to protect its workers. Just last week, the floor of a garment factory in Cambodia also collapsed, injuring many workers.

There is a better option: as consumers become more aware of the abuses happening within the garment industry, they are turning in force to fair trade fashion options. Mata Traders, a fair trade apparel and accessories brand that works with artists in South Asia to produce their line, has seen huge growth in recent years as the conscious consumer movement grows. I recently sat down to talk with Jonit Bookheim, Mata’s marketing director, about the artisans they work with, how their garments are made, and their mission to grow fair trade. Take a look at what she had to say…

Q: Tell me a bit about the producers Mata works with. Where are they, how did you connect with them, and what kind of work do they do?

We work with five fair trade cooperatives in India and Nepal. One makes our jewelry line, and the other four produce apparel for us.

The jewelry producer was very well-established when we started working with them; they organize artisans, both men and women, in slum communities to form cooperatives and provide market access for their products. They also make it a priority to fund community development projects and provide services within the artisan communities.

The sewing groups we work with employ women in slum communities and rural areas, and many of the artisans lack traditional education – and therefore lack job opportunities. When women come to the coop, they often need to be trained in hand sewing, before moving on to basic machine techniques, and finally garment-making. Each garment is handmade entirely by one person, and the women take great pride in their work. We will often take them copies of our catalogs when we visit, and they love to page through it, pointing out which garments they crafted.

Q: What is unique and interesting about production of Mata Trader’s line? What sets it apart from mainstream brands?

We use handmade techniques, including block printing, screen printing, and hand embroidery. Some of the fabrics we use are even handwoven! And one co-op actually requires that we include hand embroidery in our designs, because the women can do that work comfortably from home, in sewing groups or with their children nearby. Our artisans are all given room to grow their skills and thrive, and we love that we are able to provide upward mobility for these women, both in the workplace and within their communities.

Mainstream brands really have no idea who is making their garments. They contract with a factory in China, or wherever, but are completely disconnected from their supply chain. Everyone working at Mata Traders personally knows the women who are producing our line – we’ve visited with them and have watched them learn and grow. These are personal relationships for us.

Q: How do you work with your producers to guarantee that production is up to fair trade standards? How do you monitor sustainability, community development efforts, training and education of the artists, and access to healthcare?

Well, all of the cooperatives we work with are WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) members. It’s nice to have the seal of approval from a third party guarantor. We also send staff members to visit our cooperatives twice a year to visit with the artisans and work on product development with them. We meet with the social workers they have on staff and it’s been amazing to watch these women grow and flourish over the years. One time, I was actually visiting a cooperative when they had their eye clinic day – doctors came in to test everyone’s eyesight and give them crucial medical care. It was great to see the access these women have to healthcare because they are a part of these cooperatives.

Q: Why are fair, ethical, transparent production practices important to Mata Traders?

Fair trade is at the heart of what Mata does. The business started because of our love of handmade goods and textiles, but it quickly grew into a mission-based business once we learned about fair trade and the opportunities it provides for producers and artisans in developing countries. What it really comes down to is that we don’t want to contribute to a broken, exploitative system. We want our business to make the world better.

Thanks, Jonit, for sharing your story with us! To shop Mata’s line of apparel and accessories at Greenheart Shop, click here.