Wilson woman's international work helps address poverty

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Brenda Haitema was only 5 when her family emigrated from Mexico for a better life, eventually settling in Wilson.

Frequent visits back to Mexico kept the plight of Third World residents fresh in her mind, so when an opportunity arose to make a tangible impact and improve the environment, the 31-year-old woman jumped at the opportunity.

“My family has had amazing opportunities to live the American dream and work our way up to a comfortable quality of life,” she said. “In the countries I work in, the infrastructure is not there and a lot of the people don’t have hope anymore.

“I believe if you have the ability to change that, it is your duty as a human being to do so.”

A Stitch in Time

After graduating from Fike High School, Haitema headed to N.C. State University to study polymer chemistry. She spent a year abroad to study Mandarin in China before graduating in 2009. She eventually joined VF Corp. and settled in Hong Kong as the materials manager, in charge of quality, cost and delivery at the company’s shoe factories in Asia.

It was during this time that she first heard about Thread International, but she admits the altruistic company originally left a bad taste in her mouth. Thread was a client of VF that produced plastic-based fabric in America before shipping it to factories around the world to be made into a gamut of products.

“It came across my desk that this product was more expensive than what we normally buy and because it comes from the U.S., we have to wait three months instead of one month to get it,” she recalled. “I was just like, ‘Why? What is so special?’”

She even went to the designers with the hope of getting VF to discontinue the partnership with Thread.

“I had statistics and costs and numbers to convince them that this was wrong for our brand and business,” she said. “But they educated me on who Thread was, and I realized how cool it was. I was just like, ‘Can we use this more? How can I help?’”

Thread was founded in 2011 in the wake of the earthquake devastation in Haiti by Ian Rosenberger, who had a vision of ending poverty not through handouts, but through job creation. It was an uphill fight for the Pittsburgh native.

“Nancy was one of the first collectors for Thread in Haiti, and we came in saying, ‘Hi, can you collect your water bottles and we’ll be back in two weeks to give you money for your trash?’” Haitema said with a laugh. “Thread went away and came back to talk to the same people, and Nancy was one of them. They were confused thinking we weren’t serious, adding ‘We thought you were just crazy white people.’ Recycling didn’t exist as a concept there, and they couldn’t understand us giving them money for trash.”

Nancy Fanord lives in Les Cayes, Haiti, where she was caring not only for her kids but other children after the earthquake. She jumped at Thread’s opportunity and participated in the company’s free micro-loan program when Fanord needed $10 to expand and pay people to collect the bottles.

Fanord now has a collection center in her backyard with 10 full-time employees and four part-time employees. She pays more than 120 people for collected plastic.

“It is a foreign concept of cash for trash, but when the plastic is turned into Timberland shoes and we bring the shoes to Haiti to show them, they have tears in their eyes when they see they’ve contributed to something larger in society,” Haitema said. “These people have never in their lives been told they are worth anything. One of the most exciting and motivating parts for me is giving people a sense of hope and a sense of purpose — often a first in their lives.”

A Change of Heart

Thread has recycled nearly 2 million pounds of post-consumer plastic waste and created nearly 4,000 income opportunities through work in Haiti and Honduras. The company is working to expand the successful model to Asia, and that is where the former Wilsonian came into the picture.

“Thread knew growth in Asia was coming, and I said it needed to come quicker and I’m the person to make it happen,” Haitema said about getting hired last October. “Frankly speaking, they said they were not planning on expanding to Asia for another year, but I was here now, so they decided to get moving.”

Haitema is building on her work through VF in Cambodia and Bangladesh to find people to collect the plastic, then turn the plastic into thread.

“Thread creates jobs by creating a demand for post-consumer plastic bottles. That sounds nice and flashy, but what it really means is our collectors are picking up plastic bottles out of sewers, landfills and off the street,” Haitema explained. “We do that in impoverished nations because they are the most vulnerable people in the world.

“The Thread supply chain is broken up into three sections with the first mile being the people picking up the bottles and going to the recycling centers, where we ensure they are treated ethically and fairly. From there, it goes through the recycling centers to make the yarn and fabric, which is my area of expertise. The last part of it is the well-versed sales and marketing team to sell our ‘ground-to-good’ story to brands.”

Haitema said she’s proud to lead the charge to improve the lives of Asian villagers.

“I’ve gone to Cambodia for the past five years, and I’ve seen the development in the country. There is a lot of investment going on, which sounds fantastic with high-rises built where cinderblock buildings were, but that investment has had no trickle-down impact,” she said. “That juxtaposition is seen in most of our manufacturing countries. Most have the wealthy upper class, the top 1 percent or less than 1 percent, but the gap is huge. We think the gap is unfair in America, but there is no ‘Occupy Phnom Penh’ movement. They don’t even protest because they don’t know to protest and might not have the right to protest.”

She said the gap is especially obvious moving from the big cities to smaller villages.

“Being in the position of a manufacturer, you’ll have a nice dinner in the big city, then drive four or six hours on horrible dirt roads,” Haitema said. “You’ll drive to the villages with people selling dried fish on the side of the road while their naked children run around them playing in yucky water. It makes it clear that what is happening now isn’t enough and gets you thinking about what more can be done to help.”

Thread works with companies big and small to give the recycled plastics a second life through fabric and is developing a variety of new partnerships. Visit www.threadinternational.com/brands/ to buy some of the Thread-based products.

“Our company is a B-corporation, which is a national certification that means we’re not just built on shareholder profit returns, but on our impact to environmental and social problems,” she said. “We have to show our shareholders growth in all three areas. I love that concept and that is why I wanted to work at Thread.”