Tuesday 24 May 2022

Focus On Maria Chenoweth - CEO TRAID


Maria is the very stylish CEO of the fantastic charity TRAID and has spent most of her working life in the charity sector. TRAID work to save clothing from landfill and in doing so use the funds they make from their brilliant shops for international projects that improve conditions and working practices in the textile industry. If you live or work in London and are serious about fashion circularity you really must check them out and with different stock in different shops you have a very good reason to visit them all. They will even come and pick up your donations from you so you know they are going to a place where they will do the most good.


Read on to learn more about the work Maria and her team are involved in.




D: Normally I start the conversation by asking where you grew up, but today I would like to know how TRAID has faired over the past few years. The charity sector was hit really hard by the pandemic and you have 12 shops in London.


M: For the charity retail sector, the pandemic had a negative financial impact. Like other retailers, we had rents to pay on shops that had to remain shut. At the start of the first lockdown, TRAID staff were in disbelief when told on a Saturday evening, that shops would be shut once again on the Monday morning. There was also a sense of injustice within the sector, as some big commercial clothing brands were able to continue selling clothes alongside groceries.


Fortunately, during the pandemic, TRAID managed to continue funding its international projects that focus on the textile supply chain.


And, the level of custom when TRAID shops reopened was amazing. We never imagined that we would bounce back to the magnitude that we have.


At its heart, TRAID is bricks and mortar. People love our shops and we love being on the high street. The pandemic accelerated new retail habits such as online shopping, and along with this, the closure of department stores and deliveries galore. However, the high street is such an important part of the community and society, and it really shouldn’t be lost.


My own consumer habits have reverted back to how they were pre-pandemic; I walk my groceries home, and I physically go and buy my clothes and goods from charity shops. I love people, interaction and community.


D: You said you were able to keep your projects going. I was wondering had there been an impact at all and on the projects in Africa, Bangladesh, India.


M: We kept our projects going by using our reserves to continue funding. With the organic cotton projects, due to COVID-19, the farmers couldn't get together as usual at Farmer Field Schools, which are really important for sharing knowledge about pesticide free crop management. Luckily, our projects in Benin and Ethiopia were not hit as hard as others by the pandemic, and the local teams managed to continue working with farmers socially distanced to ensure training continued.


In contrast, the children's centres in Bangladesh had to shut and TRAID funding was diverted to feed garment working families who had lost work due to factory closures. At the same time, most big fashion brands refused to honour payment for orders already made.  This meant factories and suppliers couldn’t pay garment workers, who in many cases were unable even to buy food. For the first time ever, TRAID had to stop funding our ongoing projects and divert money to feed people. This again highlights how fragile clothes supply and production systems are, and how closely garment workers exist to desititution.



D: I really love the work that you’re doing developing cotton seeds, how is it coming along?


M: We have three organic cotton projects in India, Benin and Ethiopia. The project in India in partnership with Fairtrade Foundation is focused on developing and increasing the supply of non-GM cotton seeds for farmers to grow organically.  The monopoly of agro-chemical companies like Bayer – which has 95% of the Indian seed market, meaning it is extremely difficult for farmers to source non-GM seeds. TRAID funds are providing around 1,500 farmers with access to organic seeds grown by their own co-operative and they are now selling them. The seeds are bred to be pest resistant, drought tolerant and to grow easy to harvest plants.


The co-operative this project supports now produces approximately 20% of the world’s organic cotton, and our work to increase access to non-GM seeds is pushing back against chemical pesticides for an organic future.


The whole process is science at its best. Creating hybrid seeds which are suited to local conditions to grow the best cotton is complex and risky but it’s exciting and is a project with a lot of passion and love thrown into it.


TRAID funds other partners with huge expertise including Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK) who are an incredible organisation that do so much with so little. We have funded PAN UK for over 11 years commiting over £1.8 million to its work improving the lives, incomes, health and environment of cotton farmers by reducing and eliminating hazardous pesticide use. TRAID funds projects often for the long-term, and from our years of experience, we know what works.


D: Tell us about the benefits of this type of crop.


M: The organic cotton projects TRAID supports are all about reducing risks for farmers. Alongside their organic cotton harvest, farmers also grow rotation crops and intercrop to improve food security and sell produce locally. If something goes wrong, because things can go wrong, like say it rains at the wrong time which going forward will become more frequent due to climate change, it means a farmer’s whole livelihood isn't going to disappear overnight because they aren’t depending on one crop. Intercropping is also really good for nature and encourages biodiversity. Your soil isn’t eroded, it's a healthier life.


It's a harder way to start off your cotton crop. However, once you’re over the hurdles of starting an organic crop, TRAID’s projects with PAN UK are proving that the amount of cotton produced can be much higher with farmers securing higher yields and more income due to the organic premium and spending less on inputs like pesticides and fertilisers.


D: The soil being very important because the topsoil is very fragile now. It also takes a lot less water to produce fabric from organic cotton.


M: Sadly though, less than 1% of all cotton produced globally is organic. Now, there is a huge demand for it but the retailers are so late. It takes time to convert your crop to organic, and the conversion process is slow because of the certification process. Many farmers are already growing organic cotton but they're not certified yet because it takes three years for that to happen.


Retailers want stuff overnight and they don't realise: (a) you’ve got to pay for it and (b) it's a slow, beautiful process.


D: Yet here you are as a charity funding what they should be doing.


M: TRAID funds 2% of the world's organic cotton currently being produced, which is ridiculous because we are a relatively small charity based in London. Compare us to huge high street and global brands and imagine how much more those clothing brands could do and could’ve done by now.



D: Can you tell us about the educational projects that you work on both in India and here in the UK as we should be educating our kids where our clothing actually comes from.


M: Most charities will have an educational objective. About 17 years ago, we set up a school programme working with local authorities, going into schools because the environment was on the curriculum, and recycling was way up the agenda. Due to the pandemic, TRAID stopped going into schools, however we have since restarted working with local authorites delivering repair workshops. TRAID also has an educational toolkit that's free for teachers to download.


D: In India one project you have is speaking to communities to discourage them from sending girls into bonded labour.


M: We have worked with READ since 2010 to address the bonded labour of young girls in spinning mills in South India and end the use of an exploitative scheme called Sumangali Thittam, which means “marriage plans”. It lured thousands of girls from poor rural communities into the garment industry with the promise of earning a marriage dowry in exchange for a three-year apprenticeship. The majority of these workers also lived in spinning mills making them extremely vulnerable to appalling treatment, and rarely got the promised lump sum payment. Women and girls have even been given pills to stop their periods so they could continue working non-stop.


READ works at every level – from the grassroots to government level – to raise awareness in local communities of exactly what happens in local spinning mills to encourage people not to send their daughters there and it’s been incredibly successful. The scheme once so rife, is almost never used now. In the current phase of the project, READ is directing its energies to address the rights of badly exploitated inter-state migrant garment workers in spinning mills and garment factories.



D: I'm going to step back to your own childhood what were your inspirations and where did you grow up?

M: I grew up in the West country, I was born in Bristol - a beautiful community, streets where you knew your neighbours and terraced houses. Very strong women lived on those streets. It was good.

Later we moved to Clevedon, a seaside town where nothing really happened. Because there were no clothes shops, the only really exciting thing we could do was to go to jumble sales on Saturday mornings. It meant I found beauty and fun in really small things, patterns, designs, materials and dressing up.


With this slow pace of life when not much happened, you would sit by the sea and wait for the fair to arrive, once a year, or you would have the time to make things. We used to make 80’s v-back tops out of pillow cases. There were charity shops, and so I got into secondhand clothes. I helped at the school jumble sale when I was about 11 or 12 and fell in love with this nostalgia. The quality of clothing from the 1950’s, you could dress up and be whatever you wanted to be. That's where it all started and I was totally hooked. It meant I could live a dream of being whoever I wanted to be. My Mother banned me from going to jumble sales because I had so much stuff, but I used to sneak it in through my bedroom window - luckily we lived in a bungalow.

The highlight of my youth was getting dressed up in secondhand clothes and getting a bus to Bristol to go out dancing.


D: Do you have brothers or sisters?


M: I have a brother who is older, which meant he left home when I was very young. He's a very humorous character, which I like. I think people from the West country are quite humorous.


D: Does he still live there?


M: He does. I love the accent there and I love the people. My eldest son wants to study in Bristol which is exciting as it brings us full circle.


D: Did you go to university?


M: No, I left school at 15 with no qualifications, and went straight into being a nurse. However in my 50s I completed an MBA. I'm so grateful to the Open University because through their open door policy, they allowed me to do a Masters knowing that I had no previous educational qualifications, and I have been lucky enough to become a Fellow.

What I learnt from my MBA, was how most business models were based on growth and profit over everything, and were written by men. Initially I wanted to learn the language of  business, so I could also talk the talk, but in hindsight, it’s a mechanism for bullshitting and keeping people out of much-needed conversations. My career path from volunteering in an Oxfam shop to CEO of TRAID is not a conventional one. Probably from my studies I learned that I'm not as thick as I thought I was.



D: How did you end up working in the not for profit sector ?


M: I moved to London when I was 20, and in those days, you walked along Oxford Street, saw a vacancy sign in a shop window and got a job. I was lucky and moved onto management positions. One day I questioned what I was doing and started volunteering at my local charity shop, and the rest is history. It’s now my 30th year in charity retail. I have worked at TRAID for 23 years and became CEO in 2003.


D: TRAID really stands out on the High Street. You talk about your stores being very important and they are so colourful and exciting, brilliantly curated and some are big. The only time I ever remember being in a store like yours was in Denver in America where they had big, big second-hand stores. What inspires your shops?


M: When I started at TRAID, charity retail was downsizing and boutiquing their shops. My thought was, well if you're paying nearly the same amount of money for staff and everything else for a small shop, just have a big shop. Then I had this fantasy of a big supermarket type charity shop where everybody was welcome, everyone would find something, and it wasn't rejecting or excluding anyone.


There are only seven senior managers at TRAID, and when people come into the head office, they expect to see departments of people. Everything we do is quite organic with most management promoted from within.



D: Your shops are only in London, any thoughts of pushing them further out?


M: We have fans globally, but there is always so much to do in London with consumption and waste.


D: Do you have a special place for any high end finds you come across?


M: Our shops stock differing products depending on the location. Westbourne Grove sells the high end, Wood Green sells a lower end label, it’s not because we're being geographical snobs, it’s purely because we try out different types of stock and react to our customer preferences.



D: What are your views on how we bring about change?


M: The view is the bigger picture, it's not about blaming and shaming the consumer, it’s about businesses and their behaviour. It’s about using up the earth’s resources, systemic change with business models, profit and wealth distribution. The fashion industry is the fourth biggest textile waste polluter in Europe. All business models are built on growth, growth, growth, growth, growth and cutting costs to the detriment of all things living. We need to redefine what it is for a business to be satisfied, we need to redefine business full stop.


D: Politically we had the Environmental Audit Committee report which we all held high hopes for which was totally dismissed.


M: All the EAC suggestions were rejected by the government and they again exposed the sweatshops in Leicester. It was so obvious that it was just a matter of time before the UK would have its own sweatshops, because of the desired high turn-around of fashion.


D: What would you like to see in the next eight years as we only have eight years before the 2030 climate goals are supposed to be reached.


M: The start of dismantling current business models.






TRAID shops


TRAID donations


TRAID projects











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