Our conversation with the creator of CAUSEGEAR, a social enterprise focused on sustainable livelihoods.
MADE FREE by CAUSEGEAR, a L3C low profit (for profit) enterprise, works with fair trade factories in Indian cities to create a variety of high-quality products, including backpacks and bags. By providing their crafters with self-sustaining jobs and livable wages, CAUSEGEAR seeks to fight poverty and slavery.
Streetside Conversations sat down with Brad Jeffery, CEO, and his wife and co-founder Katherine Jeffery in the company’s headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. During our conversation, Jeffery reflected on the company’s history and the state of the fashion industry.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
Streetside Conversations (SC): How did you become interested in pursuing justice, especially in the fashion industry?
Brad Jeffery (BJ): I come from an industrial manufacturing background. I was part of a small family business for 26 years, and I got to a point in my life where I wanted to do business tied to something that helped people in a really profound way. So when I saw there’s trends in the market for the millennial generation wanting to be more purposeful in how they buy things — they wanted to tie social impact into their purchases — that intrigued me.
Then I started to learn about poverty and slavery, and I traveled, and the one trip that really rocked my world was in Nairobi, Kenya, [a place] called Kibera. It’s a slum that’s about one square mile with about half a million people in it. Hard to fathom. I was meeting with some women who were HIV positive. They were making jewelry, and they asked if I would buy their jewelry, and I said “Sure, I’ll buy some.” I started asking questions, like, “How much do you make? What do you need?” I got them to admit that really eight dollars a day, roughly, would be a game-changer for them. It was at that moment that I was like, “Wow, what if women in deep poverty were making high quality fashion, and the consumer knew their story and knew the impact of their purchase?”
The most popular [way to address poverty] is aid in the form of giving people food, water, clothing, medical help. All those things are important, but they’re not sustainable. Ultimately you need to be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency comes from a job. And you need a job that pays enough so that you can buy your own food. So that was the premise that I became really passionate about [and] tying that in with the movement of millennials that really want to buy things tied to cause, I said “This has a lot of potential.”
And there’s an environmental factor — the second largest polluting industry is fashion.
So there’s some environmental issues, there’s poverty issues, and then there’s slavery issues. Slavery is a symptom of poverty. What happens with people who are super poor — they can’t live on $1.90 a day, so they believe in the lie of a stranger who says “I’ve got something better for you” only to be kidnapped and trapped into some really horrific job. And they can’t get out. For all those reasons, I felt called to make this my work.
With a lot of trial and error I’ve found that the best way to create jobs is to work with established fair trade factories that are small…because they want to help people in poverty. What they lack is a design, the raw materials, the business savvy [needed] to export. So we can provide things like that.
SC: Where have you seen injustice in the fashion industry?
BJ: By and large the fashion industry, like most [industries], is driven by efficiency, productivity, product quality, customer acquisition…A major brand goes to a factory in India and says, “Ok, I want you to make so many of this item, we need to be competitively priced, these are the standards.” The factory loves to get the opportunity, they take the job, they put a lot of pressure on their own people, they pay them as little as possible. They may subcontract out to another factory that’s not even a legal factory [but] a shadow factory. The major brand doesn’t really know what’s going on behind the scenes…Now things are changing. Consumers are asking a lot of questions. They’re putting pressure on brands.
Unfortunately, because there’s so much corruption, even if companies demand these things [like certifications and inspections] [a] lot of factories will create false paperwork to say that certain things are happening and they’re not happening. So we’re really at a hard time right now, where companies, if they’re really going to be serious about the lives they’re impacting, have got to use unique ways to really make sure that there’s transparency, that people are being paid, what the working conditions are.
SC: What do you think it would take to bring change?
BJ: Unfortunately, I believe that businesses don’t really change unless they have to. I believe that capitalism can be really good. It fosters competitiveness, it fosters best practices, and I think that the more consumers make it clear that they only want to buy products that stand for ethical treatment of employees and wages and they want full transparency, businesses will change. But only when they have to.
I also think that the biggest factor in change are new companies that are disruptors. If you look at innovation in the business world, most of the time you can point to a disrupter who [created] the new thing that everybody had to follow eventually. There’s innovative fashion companies coming out more and more. They are raising the bar on fashion, they’re creating more transparency, they’re changing the expectation of the consumer. That’s what it’s going to take.
SC: Do you have hope for the fashion industry?
BJ: I do. Some major brands are actually carrying fair trade products now. Now I think they’re dabbling in it, because they’re charging more, and I don’t think you should charge more. I believe that you can actually be competitive and still pay people up to five times what they currently earn. But there are encouraging signs.
SC: Speaking to the average consumer who wants to buy fair trade and support sustainable and ethical fashion, what should you look for when making purchases?
BJ: I think they need to do their due diligence, and really look at the website, and see what kind of language the company is using. Are they emphasizing product quality and price only? Or are they talking about sustainability? But I would say even more importantly, are they talking about the working conditions for the maker?
Beware of only sustainability talk. When you think of sustainability, you think of products that are recycled, green materials. But you don’t hear anything about the maker. So a sweatshop could be using 100 percent recycled, organic cotton [for] your bag, and it sells wonderful, right? But where did it come from? How are the workers paid? What are the working conditions? And to me that’s more important.
SC: What has surprised you most in the eight years you’ve spent doing this?
BJ: Well, in the very beginning, we used to provide a lot of detail on how we’re helping change lives and facts around poverty. We found that it overwhelms people, and it makes them depressed.
At first I was surprised but now I understand it — we were talking about fashion. When most people go to buy something it’s all about enjoyment. It’s a very positive experience, so when we’re saying to the consumer, “I know this is all positive for you, but we’re going to bring up a really dark topic,” they don’t mix well. We don’t want people to shut down, we want to keep them engaged, so that’s been a really interesting discovery.
We have the trademark now called “MADE FREE.” We changed our tagline. Our statement now is “Every purchase supports a day of freedom.” It’s a positive emphasis versus a negative. I’ve learned that’s really a more successful way to go.
SC: Anything else readers should know?
BJ: One of the things we also emphasize is that we have a life-time guarantee with our products, and one of the reasons we do that is we want to advocate buying fewer things and keeping them longer. Fashion waste is the second largest polluter in the world, so if you want to affect the environment, the best thing you could do, in the fashion area, is to buy fewer things.
Brad Jeffery is the co-founder and CEO of CAUSEGEAR.