Musings on social enterprise, women's empowerment, design and more


August 18, 2017

Imagine the satisfaction of receiving a new shirt that you bought online. You put it on and it fits perfectly--  quite a feat for online shopping. You proudly head to work, still tickled at the convenience of being able to buy clothes you love without ever even going into a store.


But then you notice a stiffness in the front pocket and you begin to grumble, knowing it was too good to be true. If you'd tried the shirt on in store, you would have surely noticed this flaw in construction and chosen a different brand. As you look in the pocket searching for a misplaced seam or poor design, you're surprised to find a folded up piece of paper instead. Opening up the note, you see words in a language you don't understand.


Where did this note come from? Who wrote it? What does it say?


A few weeks ago I got an email from my dad whose coworker had found this note in a shirt pocket he bought online. After recent stories of individuals working in slave-like conditions writing notes begging for help from the buyer of their products, my dad’s coworker was both concerned and intrigued.



We worked to translate the note, and to our surprise we found that it wasn’t an SOS cry for help. It was, instead, original poetry. Our best shot at a translation is as follows:


We met coincidentally by Lake Yunze,

Your smile will be the dream of my whole life.

If the candle was eternal and did not burn out,

I could embrace you forever.

Staring into each other’s eyes in silence,

You look at me so warmly. Oh!

We don’t have to speak yet I understand you.

Even if time passes quickly, what does it matter?

From ancient times, we know one who loves too much,

In the end, it’s only empty love unrequited.

When I look back, I can only say that beauty fades and time flows like a stream.


How am I a very strong and healthy man,

but I am trapped by love?


After translating this poem, I was so struck by its beauty-- both in verse and in meaning. All I could think about last week was the man who wrote it-- who is he? What's his story? What are his dreams for the future?


To be sure, we don't know who wrote the poem. It could have been an American bilingual staff working in shipment or sales. It could have been a manager at a factory. There are many hands that touch your clothes before they arrive to you-- any one of these could have inserted the note. My imagination began racing.


I imagined a strong and healthy young man, sitting in a factory perhaps working long hours in difficult conditions (though of course, not all factories are sweatshops and he may be extremely grateful for his job). Maybe he has children that he provides for through this work. Maybe he’s a migrant worker far away from his parents—or the woman he loves. He may sit at a factory and make shirts day after day, but in his head (and perhaps his heart)—he’s a poet, crafting up verses in between stitches.



I don’t know who this man is, and I’ll probably never find out. But his note got me thinking about the people who make the products that I purchase—the person who made the shirt I'm wearing, the Microsoft computer I’m typing on, the Anthropologie mug I’m drinking from, the coffee I'm drinking inside that mug, the headphones I'm listening to music from… the list goes on and on!


While it’s easy to simply enjoy these products without ever considering the person, I was stunned this week by how interconnected and how similar we all really are. Every individual, from Bill Gates to the man making Microsoft circuit boards at a factory, from the executive grabbing his Starbucks coffee on the way to work to the farmer who harvested those beans... we are all just people—individuals with hopes and fears, passions and dreams. We are more the same than we are different. We are reliant on each other-- interconnected through commerce. 


At Freeleaf, we believe that the people making our merchandise are worth more than the profit of their production. We work with women to identify their skills and dreams—whether that's design, accounting, management, or other… and then we provide opportunities for them to explore those skills and grow into the women they dream of becoming.


For example our new bracelets were designed almost entirely by one of our staff, Yin*, whose been with us now for over a year. When she first came to work with us, she had experienced abuse and no idea what she wanted to do. However, we quickly learned that Yin is a natural designer. Her face lights up with the challenge of creating newness and the accomplishment of producing beauty. And she's quite good at it! 


Yesterday we had a holistic care exercise where we dreamed about where we want to be in the future. Yin dreamed about being head designer at Freeleaf with her own office, children in school, and a happy marriage. And we know that this dream could easily become a reality if her trajectory continues.



When I think about the people who make the products that I use, I hope they have the same opportunities as Yin-- to grow and explore their potential. The harsh reality is that most probably don't. Many trade practices treat people as commodities rather than invaluable individuals. I’m inspired (again) to vote for ethically produced fashion and food through my purchases, to ensure that I'm supporting trade practices that treat people like people.


Do you know who made your clothes/electronics/food? Do you care?


For more information about who may be making your things, check out ProjectJust, the Good OnYou app, and the Good Shopping Guide .

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