Buy the Product, Not the Sob Story
Image: Thistle Farms

Nashville-based Magdalene community and Thistle Farms is part rehabilitation center and part social enterprise.

The program assists 700 addicted, trafficked, and abused women a year with case management and recovery. After rehab, they can work in the campus’ café serving up fair trade tea, or make ethically sourced Thistle Farms bath products. They brought in $1.7 million last year, selling products in 450 stores, including Kroger and Whole Foods.

Even more remarkable: The Magdalene community takes no federal or state funding, and over 80 percent of graduates stay sober and off the streets long term. This is a smart, holistic approach to healing. And it works.

But ask Episcopal priest and founder Becca Stevens about broad social policies and international trade agreements, and she simply won’t speak to them. That’s because she’s not concerned with applying theory to justice work. Her mission is simple: respond to people in pain and work out the details later.

She focuses on what she and support staff can do to help all the women they can help today: expunging records, ensuring that mothers get custody of their children, and fostering lasting community that keeps residents from backsliding.

As a blogger who follows issues around sustainability and fair trade, I was curious to know more about Stevens and Thistle Farms. At a recent talk she gave at my church, I asked how she responds to critiques of the social enterprise system popularized by TOMS and Warby Parker, where businesses operate out of a sense of “social good” and (generally, but not always) feel responsible for the wellbeing of the people in their supply chain.

Some, like philosopher Slavoj Zizek, believe that ...

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Buy the Product, Not the Sob Story
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