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 these types of companies conflate consumption with charity. Put another way, we as customers falsely assign moral value to a morally neutral capitalist system. As the critique goes, if we begin to believe that our consumption alone can cure social ills, we simultaneously encourage overconsumption and discourage selfless giving by training ourselves to expect gifts in return for doing good. Why give to a medical charity when we can buy a new pair of glasses and passively “change a life” at the same time? That’s not to say that capitalism can’t be directed toward a moral end, but that consumption is not the cure.

Stevens didn't answer the question, at least not directly. Instead, she emphasized the importance of testimony. The Magdalene Community prioritizes sharing narratives of redemption and hope to people desperate to hear a success story. The social enterprise, Thistle Farms, is simply a way to support those narratives and the lives behind them. In this, Stevens subtly illuminates the key to doing social enterprise right. There is never a sales pitch at one of these talks, because this is about people, and people are not for sale.

Lives may change, in the end, through body butter (their best-seller), but Thistle Farms products can speak for themselves. They're luxurious, sustainably harvested, and scented like a garden in Heaven. They don't need a sob story to sell. When I apply my Thistle Farms body butter, labeled with their motto Love Heals, I don’t picture a woman on the streets. I see a product I enjoy using. And this is the key, I think, to doing social enterprise well. If your product needs to be shrouded in a narrative of heartache, loss, genocide, or poverty to sell it, you're doing it wrong.

June
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Buy the Product, Not the Sob Story