Written in collaboration with Abigail Driscoll of Freestate.
I’m not a mother and I don’t plan to be one. Perhaps for this reason, Mother’s Day for me is not only about honoring my own mother—it’s about celebrating women around the world who are doing the best they can for their children, even in the direst circumstances. Women are making gains in employment equality and empowerment, but even here in the US gender gaps still exists for pay and representation. We often work in informal—and therefore vulnerable—employment and in gendered sectors like service. In all parts of the world, women continue to spend more time on domestic housework and care, meaning we work longer than men in unpaid roles. In celebration of Mother’s Day, Abigail Driscoll of Freestate and I wanted to shine a light on the women of the world and the employment structure that best provides them with real power and agency in their own futures: cooperatives.
The International Labour Organization defines a cooperative as an autonomous group “united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” The guiding principles of cooperatives additionally provide members with economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; and concern for community. All members receive voting rights and profit-sharing thanks to the democratic structure—benefits which are especially transformative for women producers struggling against inequality.
In recent years, women's entrepreneurship in developing countries has gained a great deal of attention, and rightfully so. Although there are (and always have been) a significantly greater number of male entrepreneurs across the world, new research is beginning to show the true value of educating and empowering women to start and run their own businesses—in developed and developing nations alike. As the TIM Review states, “Economic analyses now perceive that low levels of education and training, poor health and nutritional status, and limited access to resources not only repress women's quality of life but limit productivity and hinder economic efficiency and growth.” In other words, research is beginning to reveal the truth that when you empower a woman in a developing country, it not only significantly benefits herself and her immediate family, but whole communities.
Educated and equipped female entrepreneurs are a crucial and necessary tool in poverty alleviation and economic growth for entire nations.
As this information gains traction, more businesses, organizations, and non-profits are harnessing this knowledge to create real opportunities for women all over the world in order to create beautiful products, while empowering communities and reducing poverty—one entrepreneur at a time.
THE REMOVAL OF OBSTACLES AND INEQUALITIES THAT WOMEN FACE WITH RESPECT TO EMPLOYMENT IS A STEP TOWARDS REALIZING WOMEN’S POTENTIAL IN THE ECONOMY AND ENHANCING THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT. —THE WORLD'S WOMEN: TRENDS AND STATISTICS 2010
To honor women all over the world this Mother’s Day, we’ve put together a list of co-ops and companies that are working to make women’s empowerment and economic stability a priority. Not every one of the brands we’ve chosen to feature precisely fits the definition of co-op. However, each of these brands has a strong focus on the education, health, and overall empowerment of women, and they give all or the majority of their profits back to the women they work with. These brands make sure the women have a voice in their own lives and throughout the production process, in a way they culturally have not been able to before.
A. Bernadette partners with artisan cooperatives in Uganda to design and create accessories, housewares, and clothing from recycled and natural materials. As independent member-owned businesses, the cooperatives allow artisans to pool savings to buy materials and repair equipment as well as collectively manage profits. The cooperatives are democratically managed—each member votes to approve buying prices, purchase materials, and distribute funds. The cooperatives not only support their work with A. Bernadette, but are prepared to work with other buyers and implement long-term savings goals.
Shop their items here.
Anchal Project is a women-owned non-profit that works with two NGOs in India to provide opportunity to women in the Kalighat red light district of India. This is an area that has high rates of sex trafficking and where women are used to experiencing extreme and systemic oppression. The goal of the company is “to create sustainable, income-generating textile initiatives run by local leadership that create long-term change for exploited and marginalized women.” They provide design and skills training, sustainable jobs, education, health benefits, community, and access to market, with the aim of providing holistic care that empowers women to gain back their dignity and independence. Anchal measures the impact of their work and tells true stories of the women working for the brand, allowing the consumer to see the the true effect of his or her purchase. The brand has also recently developed the dyeSCAPE project, an initiative that works with marginalized women in Louisville, Kentucky to cultivate natural textile dyeing.
Anchal Project makes beautiful, hand-stitched textiles like scarves, quilts, pillows, and men’s ties! Most of their products are made from vintage saris and eco-friendly fabrics.
CHOKI is a non profit organization founded with the mission of protecting the culture and traditions of some of the most sacred places left in the world that are under the threat of “globalization.” Through their women’s cooperative established in 2014 in Bhutan, they sell fairly traded products and promote the culture and values of the country while preserving unique dying and weaving techniques. A high form of art in Bhutan, the intricate brocades and patterns are created on traditional back strap looms. 100% of the proceeds support the Women's Cooperative and other social projects in Bhutan.
Connected in Hope is a non-profit that goes “beyond charity” by providing women with the tools they need in order to overcome poverty in a sustainable way. Focusing on three primary areas: economic empowerment, education, and access to health care, the 100+ artisans employed are able to provide for over 400 dependents, educating them and raising them up to be able to provide for their communities and end the cycle of poverty.
Connected in Hope is located in Shiro Meda, which is one of the poorest and most densely populated communities in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They produce women’s accessories, jewelry, and home goods and are a part of the Fair Trade Federation. The company partners with organizations and corporations in Ethiopia as well as North Carolina in order to empower those who need it and give back to communities.
Della is a women-owned, women-run fashion line that works directly with both men and women in Ghana, West Africa. Their clothing and accessories are made by hand with textiles sourced from the Volta Region. The brand focuses on empowering the people of Hohoe, Ghana, by providing them with stable jobs, education, and other resources. 100% of Della’s profit goes back into these communities, giving the artisans opportunities to take literacy and money management classes, access to healthcare and child care, as well as a volleyball league! The company also works with an orphanage in Ghana, where each week one of the seamstresses volunteers her time to love and educate the children there.
The Fabric Social’s goals are ambitious for their mostly women producers based in rural Assam, India—they include sustainable livelihoods, economic independence, entrepreneurial skills development, community development and women-led peace initiatives, and equal participation in civil and political life. The company maintains that, “Without the being able to meet basic needs with a decent income, women become trapped in a cycle of poverty that results in their exclusion from participation in their community, political process and decision-making forums.” To that end, they employ weavers working in a “co-op style” group on the collective task. The weavers set their own work hours, decide how much fabric they want to weave, and set their own price for every meter they create. This investment in women benefits them, their families, and their community by providing them with a way to break the cycle of poverty.
Make a purchase from them or donate to their social impact fund.
Five | Six Textiles works with the weaving village of Waraniéné in northern Côte d’Ivoire. According to founder Emma Wingfield, “The entire village is involved with the co-op, from raw material, to processing to sales. All the residents of Waraniéné work as full-time weavers—the women spin, dye, and stitch the cloth while the men weave. Their children learn the process through years of apprenticeships. Profits are distributed among the members of the co-op.” The residents of Waraniéné and Five | Six Textiles work in true partnership. While Wingfield was on an artist workshop research trip there, the co-op expressed interest in building a partnership to connect their collective with consumers outside of their local community and the idea for Five | Six Textiles was conceived.
With the goal of sustainable employment and fair wages, the brand is wisely looking to the co-op for direction on further investment. “We have to change the notion of ‘we know best’ and instead collaborate with communities to create a sustainable business independently from us,” says Wingfield, “We asked what else they would want out of a partnership, and so with them we will be creating education programs for their children and adult literacy courses for the co-op members who need them. Better access to education can transform lives and means that less time is spent worrying about the future of their children.”
Support their Kickstarter here.
Haiti Design Co-Op is an artisan cooperative in Port au Prince that employs over 150 people. The brand acts according to the saying,”Men anpil, chay pa lou,” an old Haitian proverb which means, “Many hands make the load light.” They stand under the belief that when designer, maker, and consumer all work together, we can all create real, positive change.
The co-op works with all types of artisans and provides employment, job training, and stability to people in vulnerable life situations. They work on a two part model, first providing in-house training and employment in leatherwork, sewing, or jewelry making, while simultaneously providing other resources such as healthy lunches, access to healthcare, savings accounts, emergency loans, counseling, and educational resources. Second, the artisans who wish to become entrepreneurs are given business mentorship, design training, and help accessing the market they need to succeed.
Though Haiti Design Co-Op works with both men and women artisans, they place a special emphasis on women’s initiatives, as many of their artisans are single moms, have been victims of abuse, and have little to no security where they reside. The brand works to provide emergency resources such as medical funds, savings programs, counseling and support groups, and building and land funds so they are able to purchase their own home in more secure areas.
Kahina Giving Beauty is a high-quality skincare line that actively seeks to preserve and protect the natural, human, and cultural resources behind its products. The brand works with cooperatives and local NGOs in order to enhance the quality of life for women in Morocco. Furthermore, they are committed to sourcing only ethical, high-quality, non-harmful ingredients, and they are ECOCERT (strictly environmentally friendly) and Leaping Bunny (not tested on animals) certified.
The argan oil used in Kahina Giving Beauty products is extracted from the nut of an argan tree, and it can take up to eight hours to produce enough oil for one liter of oil. This work is done by the Berber Women, an indigenous people of North Africa, providing them with employment and economic opportunity. Kahina incorporates the significant personal and cultural symbols of these women into their product branding in order to honor their individuality and their work. The company’s mantra is to “reveal beauty,” and by elegantly recognizing the artisans behind the brand, while simultaneously honoring the consumer, the brand is succeeding in carrying out their mantra and revealing the beauty in the world and in humanity.
Shop their skincare collection here.
Mata Traders partners with fair trade organizations in India and Nepal that train and employ hundreds of artisans in marginalized communities to make an impact on global poverty. With a focus on gender equity and empowering women, the artisan cooperatives provide social services like health care, paid maternity leave, retirement pensions, and daycare to members and their families. Members also have access to benefits like counseling and educational workshops.
Garments are individually stitched by one seamstress creating an entire garment—rather than part of a production line—and then finished with hand embroidery. Members are trained to mastery and those with leadership skills are provided with the opportunity to advance within the cooperative. The women earn a living wage and are paid per piece to allow for flexibility in skill level and time. Members determine their own piece rate and receive a share of the profits. The women of the Mata Traders cooperatives gain skills, social mobility, financial stability and the chance to provide for themselves and their families.
Mi Esperanza was founded in 2002 by two women with the intention of providing sustaining change and breaking intergenerational poverty in the lives of women in Honduras. Mi Esperanza means “my hope,” and for over ten years the brand has been providing just that: opportunity, stability, and hope for the future. 100% of Mi Esperanza proceeds go back into providing resources such as skills training, education, and micro-loans that the women would not otherwise have access to.
Mi Esperanza produces handmade jewelry and accessories, focusing on fresh design, high quality, and durability. The company is able to provide even more work for their artisans by partnering with outside brands, and they now produce goods in their sewing workshop and jewelry studio for seven different labels. The women who are making these products have received education, free of charge, and have graduated from the various schools that Mi Esperanza works with. Combine this education with various kinds of economic opportunity, and these women are able to change not only their own lives, but the lives of future generations.
Sancho’s Dress works with a cooperative in Ethiopia to train women to weave and create garments with minimal environmental and social impact. Production uses pedal-powered wooden looms to produce material and scarves. This work is sustainable because the weavers are able to produce even without reliable electricity. Sancho’s Dress works mainly with women as a way to support them, their families, and their communities with fair trade employment.
Fair Trade is about creating an accountable way of doing business, as well as providing market linkages for artisans in developing countries with conscious and willing pioneers in the developed world.
Serrv is a fair-trade, non-profit network of artisans and farmers all around the world. The organization partners with 60 small-scale artisan and farmer organizations and cooperatives in over 30 countries around the globe, with the vision of lifting entire families and communities out of poverty. The word “partnership” is strongly emphasized, as they have intentionally created a “system of creative collaboration built on mutual respect and trust.” Serrv has been a leader in the fair trade movement, with its origins dating back to 1949, and steadily increasing in impact over the years. Throughout the last six decades, the Serrv team has built strong and lasting partnerships with artisans and organizations and has been able to work together to create well designed and high quality products using sustainable materials and production techniques.
Serrv continues to provide business training and education, tools and resources, access to market, and other support for women who would not otherwise have access. The brand has grown to be able to provide quite a large catalog to consumers, offering fairly made home goods, garden decor, apparel, kitchen utensils, and more.
Purchase their fair trade goods or make a “gift in your name” donation.
The Weavers Project is a weaving cooperative based in Takeo, Cambodia. The fair trade initiative, created by Siphen Meas and Sonas.org, empowers local entrepreneurs with skills training, support, and steady wages. The Weavers Project creates local social enterprises with 100% of profits reinvested into the education of the children, health and wellbeing, capacity building, and impact growth.
The Weaving Village provides artisans with the opportunity to preserve their cultural heritage through the art of traditional weaving, a dying art in the region. You can support the artisans by buying from them directly here or through their other projects with zero waste brand, tonlé.
tonlé not only supports The Weavers Project, but their own employees earn well above the local minimum wage, are provided with benefits and training, and work within team structures to improve their skills and foster creativity.
The Weavers Project is independent of grants and donations, but you can shop their collections and 100% of proceeds are reinvested into the communities they work with.
Since it's likely too late to order and receive items for Mother's Day, we've also provided links to ways to donate in lieu of a physical gift (especially if your mamma is a minimalist). Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers and mother figures out there who raise and support us all year round!
Feel free to download this image I made to include with your donation gift. Print is 8.5x 5.5 inches.
If you know of other women's cooperatives, please let us know in the comments.