Most of us would be hard pressed to find a plausible association between tortilla chips and cotton socks. But for Maggie’s Organics owner Bena Burda, she found exactly that.
And it ultimately led to the founding of her company, which as of this year calls Dexter home after operating for years near the Eastern Michigan University campus in downtown Ypsilanti.
Burda spoke to WeLoveDexter.com recently about the surprising and often silly story of how she stumbled into the organic clothing market, while her company’s production room is retrofitted with shelves, racks, and wall-hangers loaded up with inventory for a three-day sale that begins today (Thursday) and runs through Friday and Saturday.
“We’ve had a really warm reception from people in Dexter,” Burda said, noting that two of the area’s most popular local businesses, 3 Birds and Dexter Mill, have already joined the nationwide network of independent retailers who sell Maggie’s lines of socks, leggings, stockings, apparel, and other clothing accessories all derived from organic cotton and wool.
The company has been around since 1992 and has grown steadily by 10 percent year-over-year leading up to the move to Dexter’s Adair Printing building on Second Street.
All thanks to tortilla chips, or more specifically blue corn used to make blue tortilla chips, which is ironic since organic clothing businesses often hear people joke when presented with organic garments, “Can I eat it?
Burda found herself faced with a conundrum in the run-up to another corn harvesting season for the next batch of blue chips. The previous batch had turned an unappetizing shade of gray as many bags sat on grocer’s shelves waiting for a hungry buyer, many of whom asked the same question when faced with an ashen hued snack food.
“Can I eat it?”
That’s not a question you want customers asking themselves when you’re trying to sell them food, so Burda went to her blue corn farmer in search of solutions: “I asked him why our chips are fading … it’s hard enough to sell blue chips, but selling gray chips…”
Maybe it’s because blue corn is more nutrient rich than yellow corn, thus taking more nutrients from the soil, but in any kind of organic farming operation you have to rotate crops to restore depleted nutrients to the patch of Mother Earth that your crops are springing forth from.
Cottoning to a new business
Burda’s supplier said he’d plant cotton on his 200 acres to solve the problem. She gave him the nod and left him to it, not addressing the matter again until it was time to harvest 200 acres of cotton.
“He called me in the spring and said that his cotton’s growing and he’s going to get a yield, so he told me I need to sell it for him because I buy everything that he grows — which is true,” Burda said.
With that settled, she began researching cotton and discovered that it was in the top three of most pesticide laden crops on the planet, sandwiched between tobacco below it at number three and coffee, the reigning champion of environmental degradation.
Burda did her homework and began forming Maggie’s around the idea of providing cotton clothing products that would not hold a place on any top three lists of such dubious distinction.
“We bought every bit of cotton (in that harvest) without any clue what we were going to make with it or how to refine it into a finished product,” Burda said. It’s a funny story in retrospect, but at the time there were hard lessons to be learned.
“I figured we’d take it out of the field and to our local t-shirt house and have them make it into clothing … and it turns out that the production curve in getting raw fiber to even a basic t-shirt is seven steps,” she explained. “You have to gin it and spin it and knit it and there are chemicals at every stage.”
Baby steps, baby steps
Maggie’s Organics started with simple organic cotton socks as a matter of necessity, since Burda and her fledgling company decided that taking baby steps on the production end with something simple like socks would be a safe starting point.
With a quarter of a million dollars invested in that cotton harvest, a lot was riding on the first product run being a sales success.
Luckily the story of organic cotton versus traditional cotton products and their detrimental impact on the environment helped build a core starter market for the company, by way of what Burda jokingly referred to as “guilt-marketing.”
“We were able to guilt trip all of our friends who have natural food stores to carry our socks in them, and socks are a more impulse driven product since they’re small and make great gifts,” Burda said. “We began showing our socks at natural food trade shows, people questioned us and asked us what we were doing, and we informed them that cotton’s really bad for the environment.
“I’d tell my friends that if they knew what was in cotton they’d go back to wearing polyester.”
The sock lines were strong enough sellers that Maggie’s moved into leggings and stockings. Soon organic food companies wanted Maggie’s t-shirts to print their own brands on for employees to wear or to distribute outside of the company to spread their own brands. As the organic food industry grew, so did the success of the folks behind the companies that comprised it. Soon company logos were going on polo shirts worn by organic food company owners and executives, said Burda.
Maggie’s wouldn’t have gotten as far as it has if only relying on a message of environmental responsibility. As Burda likes to say as her company’s slogan, “Oh and by the way, it’s a great pair of socks.” Regardless of the material and how it’s handled, the product had to be a quality one, which caused an investigation into the global labor market and industry practices by Burda when she was building the production and processing infrastructure of Maggie’s.
Having no faith in operating a production outfit that pays per unit, works laborers until their bodies break down, and then discards them as defunct as early as 38 years old, Burda implemented fair trade principals into all areas of her business right up to the moment her label is on a store’s shelves.
“I can’t call myself a sustainable company if I can’t sustain the lives of the workers who are making this stuff,” Burda said. “When you’re paid by the unit, a hemmer is only going to care about the hem. They’re not going to care about the sleeves or the label. They’re just going to hem as fast as they can.”
Maggie’s purchases cotton and wool from 2,000 co-op farmers worldwide and produces the finished products in the Americas with 65 percent of production happening in the United States and the rest in Peru.
Burda isn’t shy about eschewing the label of philanthropist. In her view treating people with dignity isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s what’s best for her business and probably most other businesses as well.
“It was really about getting the best quality product we could versus trying to help this poor women who is getting her body abused … that’s just the way we do things — if you treat people okay they’re going to produce a higher quality product and you’re going to have happier customers.”
It’s business practices like these that have brought Maggie’s Organics to the point that it is at now that operations have moved to Dexter. The company’s Second Street location affords twice as much square footage to encompass the consolidation of the formerly Ypsilanti-based national headquarters and warehouse facilities that were previously located in North Carolina.
Burda says she is looking forward to sharing more of the story of Maggie’s Organics with friends, neighbors, and customers in the company’s new hometown. Look for more events and sales hosted at 7850 2nd St, Dexter, MI 48130.
This week’s sale will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, December 15, 3 to 8 p.m. Friday, December 16, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, December 17.
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