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.
When we buy a low-quality product from a social enterprise working with disadvantaged or oppressed communities, we implicitly tell the maker that their tragedy is the selling point, that their skill matters less than our ability to pity them. I've bought a dozen things from fair trade companies who haven't adequately trained their employees to sew or who insist that skilled artisans work outside their skill set to make something that will catch the attention of the American market.
But if you want to empower people to live better, make sure they can be proud of what they produce. Make sure that consumers would buy it even without a photo of the artisan attached. Make sure that the product is a natural extension of your justice work. Much like the Magdalene community's model, a social enterprise system that is repeatable and can stand on its own is the best way to change the marketplace for good.
Do social enterprises do more harm than good? Becca Stevens doesn't think that question needs to be answered, because she knows that it is an essential part of healing for the women in the Magdalene community, offering economic independence to residents and long term financial support to the residential program. But the reason it works is because it doesn't ask for our pity. Thistle Farms products, instead, ask us to open the lid and take a whiff, and that’s enough to inspire us to buy.
Of course, we must stand for justice in the marketplace. People deserve to be paid fairly, feel safe, and have access to life-saving, life-giving resources. But we must loose our grip on the gimmicks and band-aids. It's time for social enterprises to let go of the sob stories to make way for new narratives of hope. This is redemption work.
Leah Wise writes on fair trade and sustainability issues in the fashion industry on her blog, Style Wise, and runs an Episcopal thrift shop. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia. Catch up with her on social media @stylewiseblog.