Trash into Jobs: A Trip to Haiti with B Corp Thread LLC
As a Standards Associate at B Lab, my workday revolves around the B Impact Assessment—the assessment that all certified B Corps and GIIRS Rated companies complete. I help companies understand their social and environmental impacts, complete the assessment, and verify their answers. It’s a process that has been described as a “rewarding” root canal by some companies…and our co-founder Jay.
The most interesting part of my job is that I get to work with all the passionate and principled companies that come through the assessment process, learn about the awesome work they are doing to make the world a better place, and (hopefully) add some value to their impact. The most frustrating part: I’m not out there doing the work with them. That changed a bit when I took advantage of the paid volunteer time I get as a B Lab employee and spent a week in Haiti doing service work with the founder of the B Corp Thread, Ian Rosenberger, and Vivien Luk, the Executive Director of a non-profit called Team Tassy.
Thread’s mission is to “turn trash into jobs and useful stuff people love.” They turn discarded soda bottles from Haiti into fabric that is made into clothes and bags. On top of his work with Thread, Ian also founded Team Tassy. Not too far removed from Thread’s own mission, Team Tassy aims to place low income Haitians in jobs. To that end, they provide a suite of services to the families they work with. Knowing that good employees need training and support, they provide it. But they also know that someone can’t be a good employee when they are hungry, homeless, or worried about their sick children, so they help with all that too.
As such, Team Tassy take a holistic approach to impact—they narrowed their work to a particular neighborhood rather than a particular service, and do whatever they can (and listen to whatever the people need) in order to fulfill that end goal of getting the families they work with a steady paycheck. When Marc Noel, a Haitian man who had taken in three of his nieces and nephews after their parents died in the 2010 quake, needed a new home, they found a partner and raised money to build it (earthquake-proof and made of Styrofoam bricks, no less). When kids need surgeries, they get them surgeries, and make sure they go to the follow up visits. And at the end of it all, they work with local businesses—including recycling companies within Thread’s own supply chain—to place people in jobs and provide the necessary support to help those people keep them.
It was my first time travelling to Haiti, and it’s obvious just from a week down there that the challenges Haiti faces seem overwhelming. There are visible scars left by both the human-inflicted wounds of Haitian history and the inhuman devastation of the earthquake; bad roads, armed guards, and crumbled concrete are pervasive. Beyond all that, though, it is impossible to spend time in Haiti and not notice the amount of human capital that goes unused. People just don’t have jobs; the fact is, there aren’t many for them to find, no matter how willing they are to work. In the face of those overwhelming challenges, Thread and Team Tassy are able to make a tangible difference.
I was there, I met a group of men who had been hired to work on the construction of a neighborhood home funded by Team Tassy. Even though their part of the project was over and they were no longer being paid, they continued to come to the work site each day. They had no other job lined up, and attending the site each day was their best opportunity to continue to develop the skills and experience for whenever the next job might come. Beyond that, they had pride in their work. They had built a freakin’ house—something I certainly couldn’t have done—and so of course they wanted to see the final results of their work.
A visit to a footwear manufacturer where Team Tassy had placed employees told the same story. Outside of the factory was a line of people waiting, desperate for a chance to get inside and start working, hoping that a job would materialize by sheer will. Apparently, that line had been overwhelming just a few weeks before. The shortage is not of people willing to work, but of quality jobs: this is the problem that Thread and Team Tassy have made their mission to solve.
We were in Haiti the week before three of the Team Tassy family members—gentlemen named Erony, Marc Noel, and Giordani—were about to start working at one of the local recycling facilities that make up part of Thread’s supply chain. In Marc Noel’s house, Ian showed them what the product of their work would be by taking them step by step through the recycling process—showing them the different phases the material goes through from dirty old plastic bottle to the fabric that comes out the other end, and finally to the “Powered by Thread” messenger bag that he was using to lug his stuff around.
I had learned about the recycling process from Thread’s COO during their B Corp certification, but I had never seen it visually, and I certainly didn’t get to experience it like these three guys did. To see them excited about how they would play an integral role in the process of manufacturing something unique and meaningful reminded me what all those numbers and checkboxes in the assessment translate to out in the world. For them, this job wasn’t just about creating a product. It wasn’t even about a fulfilling job. It was about the relationships surrounding it. They were working to take care of themselves, to take care of their families, but also to represent Team Tassy and their neighborhood, Ian and Vivien, and ultimately all of Haiti. They want things to be better.
After the meeting I saw an old Sprite bottle on the side of the street, and I couldn’t help but look at it like the kids from Jurassic Park look at those pelicans at the very end of the movie. Trash was being turned into jobs, and I won’t be able to look at those pieces of trash the same way again. Neither will Erony, Marc Noel, and Giordani, who can now hopefully break the cycle of poverty because of that transformation.
Jobs for Haitians. Deceptively simple and immensely challenging. The goal is not just to feed a hungry child and keep starvation at bay for another day; the goal is instead to get that child off the perpetual hamster wheel of starvation by creating economic opportunities for their family. Food leads to economic opportunities; health leads to economic opportunities; training and education leads to economic opportunities. Team Tassy champions a holistic approach to impact, and that is exactly where the B Corp ethos fits in so well. Just like all of us working for B Corps, those Haitian men were working both for a livelihood and for a purpose. And beyond that, they recognized the interconnectedness of the things we do and the people we are. Their work affects family, friends, neighbors, other Haitians, and people around the world. In the spirit of that interconnectedness, we should remember that integrating the underserved into our economic system is one of the goals of our new kind of business. And it doesn’t make sense to think that the major agents of the economic system—businesses—have no role in that.
Right before I went to Haiti, our co-founders Andrew, Bart, and Jay were in London accepting the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship on behalf of the entire B Corp community. In their own reflections to the B Lab team about the experience, they told us how humbling it was. B Lab, with its mission to change business for the better, works to build an infrastructure for a better world and thus is deeply committed to the long game and the big picture. Bart, Jay, and Andrew were onstage accepting the Skoll award with the other 2014 honorees: brave folks who have been getting their hands dirty on behalf of social justice causes for years. Incredible organizations like Global Witness and Girls Not Brides have been working in the trenches with those in need, in some cases risking their lives to do so. They have a direct impact on individuals in need on a daily basis, and get to witness the fruits of that impact just as often.
I assume my trip to Haiti was a much less glamorous experience than the Skoll World Forum, but it had a similar effect on me. We at B Lab, at B Corps, and everywhere else—even if we are working on the slow and steady long game of changing norms and culture and law and all that—should always remember what our work is all about. It is about the individuals who we aim to serve, particularly those who all too often don’t get served by the system as it currently is. Our work is still about the hungry kid, about the jobless in Haiti. That is what I’m working for at B Lab, and it is what we should all be working for.