Fair Trade was my first exposure to ethical fashion (before I even knew about the term “ethical fashion”) and today I still always try to look for this certification or another similar guarantee from brands before I make a purchase. One of the growing Fair Trade fashion companies I recently came across (and was very impressed by!) was Threads Worldwide.
Threads Worldwide is an impact-driven jewelry brand founded by three friends passionate about empowering women to to earn an income that would lift themselves—and their families—out of poverty. The social enterprise works with artisan cooperatives around the world who handcraft beautiful, unique jewelry.
In order to bring these pieces to the marketplace, Threads works with Fair Trade Partners: women in the U.S. who host showcases and own their own online boutique sharing Threads jewelry. (This direct sales model is incredible impactful and something that Threads strongly believes in, but you’ll read more about that below!)
To learn more about the world-changing company, I interviewed one of the founders, Angela Melfi. Check out her responses to see a glimpse into her perspectives founding and running a Fair Trade jewelry brand:
Can you give us some background on yourself and your journey that led you to found Threads Worldwide?
I’m super proud that I have traveled to 54 countries. It is a priority in my life—I took two leaves-of-absences and quit one job to travel!
My travels are at the heart of why I founded Threads with my two besties, Lindsay Murphy and Kara Valentine. The first developing country I ever visited was Cambodia. I could not believe the state of the country and how people were living. Then there was India. Oh India! When we got back from our 3-month backpacking trip it was undeniable that we were going to do something. We knew that when women have access to money, they will invest it to improve their family’s health and community, so we started there. This actually isn’t a women’s issue – this is about community investment.
Why did you choose Fair Trade fashion as an avenue to empower women around the world?
Honestly, I rarely wore jewelry before we started Threads and it’s funny, I don’t consider us in ‘fashion’ even though we sell jewelry. We consider the artisans’ jewelry that we represent and sell to be an invitation. It’s an invitation into a bigger conversation about how things are made, who made them, and what their lives are like.
It’s great for us that women in the United States really love to buy and wear jewelry, so that they can share the artisans’ stories whenever they are complimented. I mean, when have you ever just said ‘thank you’ when someone complimented your earrings? No, you have to say where you got them, or, how much they were, or who gave them to you.
We want you to be able to tell a better story when someone compliments your Threads earrings. We want you to be able to say, ‘thank you – they are made by mothers in Guatemala’ and start a conversation.
What has the process been like working with artisan cooperatives around the world? Tell us a bit about the pros and cons.
My go-to emotion in my life has been ‘frustration’. It’s like my default, it takes no effort for me to get frustrated. So, this business has been great practice for me working with artisans in developing countries. Some of the challenges we face are delays from roads being washed out in Ethiopia, delays from shipping systems going down in the entire country of Uganda, delays for sizing of earrings coming from India that were twice the size we signed off on.
When these things happen, like I said, my immediate reaction is to be frustrated and then afterwards, I remind myself of what a great learning opportunity this is for us and that it can be an educational topic for our customers. When customers order a pair of earrings that is on backorder it an opportunity to share the artisans’ lives and have us be grateful for the infrastructure we have in the US.
It is such a great reality check for me personally and we hope to communicate that to our customers.
Threads Worldwide works with “Fair Trade Partners”. Could you tell us a bit about why you chose this business model?
Originally, we chose a direct sales business model because we are doing so much more than selling a product. We share stories and lives of women from around the world. The best place to do this is with an intimate audience hosted by a woman who is passionate about empowering women – we call these women Ambassadors.
But, what we’ve seen has surprised me! We are focusing on building our team through this model because of what we’ve seen happening with our Fair Trade Partners (women who start social impact businesses in the US). We are seeing how much these women are developing personally by building their businesses. They are developing themselves to push beyond where they are comfortable. There are so many self-development courses and books and Threads provides our Fair Trade Partners an anchor for their development. They get to be in the uncomfortable and then push past it. They get to see what they do to avoid hearing ‘no’ and then ask anyway. And all the while they have a badass community of women who both hold them accountable and have their backs when they need support.
I am SO passionate about the direct sales model. It is a perfect combination of story-telling, empowerment, and personal development. All the while, you know where you’re spending your time is giving a woman somewhere around the world a new opportunity as well.
Founders Lindsay, Kara, and Angela
What do you hope to see for the future of Fair Trade, ethical fashion, and/or your business?
I hope Threads becomes irrelevant. I want to see a future where ethical fashion companies like Threads aren’t distinguished by our labor practices. I want a future where it is no longer the obligation of a brand to show they are fair trade and ethical and it is the requirement of those companies using slave labor to label their clothes as such. Imagine if you walked into Old Navy and picked up the cutest t-shirt and saw: “made with slave labor”. Would you buy it even though it was SO cheap and SO cute?
So while unpopular, I want companies like Threads to not have to exist.