Walking Her Talk
For Bena Burda, the founder of Maggie's Organics, cotton socks were the first step toward an eco-friendly business

By Laura McReynolds

These days, Bená (pronounced ben-AY) Burda keeps high-profile clients, from Ben & Jerry's stores to the Dave Matthews Band, in organic cotton T-shirts. But just a dozen years ago, the 47-year-old founder of Maggie's Organics had no intention of getting into the garment industry—she was just intent on making a better blue corn tortilla chip.

As a national sales executive for California-based Bearitos Organics, Burda was wrestling with the grain's tendency to fade when stored from a naturally vivid blue to an unappetizing gray. "Blue food was hard enough to sell," she says. "But gray food? Impossible." Frustrated, Burda decided to go directly to the farms and talk to the growers. A Texas farmer she spoke to came up with a simple, eco-friendly solution: Put cotton into the crop rotation to help replenish the soil's nitrogen, thus producing a more vivid color. The only catch was that he expected her to sell the resulting cotton crop.

Lack of experience marketing clothes, characteristically enough, gave the Detroit native only momentary pause. She did know something about heavy pesticide use in conventional cotton farming, and that convinced her that producing organic fabric was the right thing for both consumers and the planet. So in 1992, with financial backing from her former Bearitos boss, she founded Maggie's. (The partners settled on the name after both demurred naming the business after themselves.)

Burda seems to have energy to spare, which is saying a lot, considering her frenetic schedule and extended business travels. Looking for creative paths out of challenging situations comes naturally to Burda. In fact, for her work over the past decade in helping promote organic agriculture and in pushing for establishment of organic fiber processing standards, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) recently presented her with its Special Pioneer Award. "Bená has exhibited all the traits you would expect from a successful entrepreneur: tenaciousness, problem-solving, having a vision—in this case doing something beneficial for the environment—and having the drive and talent to make that vision a reality," says Phil Margolis, CEO and founder of Pennsylvania-based Neshaminy Valley natural foods distributor and vice president of the OTA. "Her work has benefited all of us in the organics community."

A strong proponent of domestic garment production, Burda had manufactured solely in the United States, but a string of factory closures recently forced her to move some contracts offshore. Adamant about avoiding sweatshops, she connected with a philanthropic organization to find a community that met her criteria—in this case, a village outside the Nicaraguan capital of Managua—and insisted that the factory be set up as a co-op, with its women workers as full owners. This isn't charity, Burda says: "I'm trying to succeed, and I'm looking for people who have a vested interest in my success. That said, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it was right. It's just too hard a road."

Instinctively aligning herself with the Zen Buddhist concept of "right livelihood," Burda takes full responsibility for how her business affects both workers and the environment—and thus manages to make a living in a way that supports both her own values and her community. It's a model that's being increasingly followed by entrepreneurs selling everything from coffee to baked goods. And while these players are certainly far from dominating the market, their impact on consumer consciousness and choices has the potential to help counterbalance today's 800-pound economic gorilla, globalism.

A fit woman with short blond hair and broad shoulders strengthened by paddling the yellow kayak that's usually mounted on the roof of her Toyota sedan, Burda seems to have energy to spare—which is saying a lot, considering her frenetic schedule and extended business travels. She has worked in the organics industry for most of her career; starting out at Michigan-based organic foods pioneer Eden Foods. And in a way, she was born to this work, having been raised by parents she likes to refer to as "the original hippies." As a child, she was embarrassed by lunches of natural peanut butter on whole-wheat bread packed in recycled grocery bags and envied kids who toted shiny Lone Ranger lunchboxes filled with Peter Pan on Wonder Bread. Her parents unwittingly called further attention to her unconventional home life by enrolling her in "mind control" classes, and once pulled her out of school to hear activist and humorist Dick Gregory speak. "It wasn't easy," she says about her alternative upbringing. "But I know I developed a passion for the truth, and a feeling for organics, because of my parents."

As an adult, one moment in particular sold Burda for good on organic agriculture. Working for Eden in the late '70s, Burda was charged with selling both conventional and newly introduced organic beans to retailers. At twice the price, the organic beans seemed a tough sell, so she didn't invest a lot of time into marketing them—until she visited a farm in southeastern Michigan. "There's this thing that happens the first time you step into an organic field," she says, with a proselytizer's zeal. "Your foot sinks in up to the top of your shoe, and there's this rush of energy. You finally get it: This isn't dead soil, it's alive."

Later that day, while eating a homegrown dinner at the farmer's house, she says, "I finally got the connection between the product and the soil and the farmers, who are the stewards of the earth. I thought, 'I know who I'm supporting when I buy these beans. This is Ernie and his family, and his grandkids are going to take over the farm someday. And I trust him.'"

More than a decade later, the newly self-elected head of her own company worked hard to gain a footing in the vast garment industry's nascent organic niche. Pioneered by designers and manufacturers in Europe, organic clothing was undergoing something of a boom during the early '90s. Esprit had introduced an organic line, and Levi's was experimenting with color-grown organic cotton. Burda and her financial partner, Jennifer Mueller, chose socks as their first product, partly because they wouldn't take up much display space and were good impulse buys, but also because the only retailers they knew were grocers, and socks wouldn't require a fitting room.

Burda took the socks to a natural foods trade show and "basically guilt-tripped everyone I knew into buying them," she says. Those connections also led her to Bill Knudsen, then-owner of Knudsen Organic Fruit Juices, who suggested she start making T-shirts for him. And when she added Ben & Jerry's, she had an account big enough to eventually fund her buyout of Maggie's from Mueller. (In 1996, she moved the company from California to Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

After establishing the factory's success, Burda hopes to bring her Nicaraguan partners to the United States to teach women in economically depressed areas of the American South how to start their own co-ops. Throughout those early years, both Maggie's and the big manufacturers made plenty of mistakes while struggling to learn how to work with what was essentially a new fabric. Burda jokingly marketed her first batch of naturally dyed T-shirts as "mood shirts," because they changed color when exposed to the sun. An early attempt at a polo shirt shrank 18 percent in length, but none in width. "Since we were working in a new industry and had no idea what we were doing, we made every mistake we could have made," she remembers. "My CPA, my lawyer, my bank, my friends, even my family, advised me to lock it up and go home."

Driven by stubbornness and "that Midwestern ethic that says if it isn't hard, it isn't worth doing," Burda gradually added clients, including the jam band Phish and Moonstone Mountain Equipment. And in the mid-'90s, when the fashion industry declared the return of the '70s—and polyester—Maggie's and Patagonia emerged as the only real players left in the organic clothing field. In recent years, Burda has focused on adding products—undergarments, gloves, tote bags, bedding—and on finding new applications for organic fibers. This year, she became the first U.S. clothing manufacturer to introduce products (again, socks) made with domestic organic wool.

Perhaps Burda's biggest challenge has been trying to keep all of Maggie's production at home. Frustrated after the fifth domestic "cut-and-sew shop" closed on her within 18 months—but unwilling to consider widely used sweatshop labor—she heard about Jubilee House Community, a relief organization helping Nicaraguan victims of 1997's Hurricane Mitch.

After meeting with Jubilee House Director Mike Woodard, Burda pledged as many contracts as she could to Nueva Vida, an emergency relocation village outside Managua, if the villagers would build a plant and establish a co-op. Local women were at first put off by the suggestion, but eventually some 25 women committed to the 640 working hours required to become a co-op member—most of that time spent hauling and pouring concrete, erecting walls and hammering nails. The co-op, dubbed Maquilador Mujeres, which translates roughly to "women workers" in English, delivered its first order (hair scrunchies) last May, and now sews T-shirts and camisoles. Co-op members make between $3.50 and $5.00 per day, which is considered a good wage in Nueva Vida, a community with 80 percent unemployment.

From a business standpoint, this project has been a bear to get up and running. The economically and environmentally devastated region's infrastructure—roads, electricity, telephones—breaks down regularly, and the co-op has suffered thefts of computers and sewing machines. Initially, Burda was losing 50 cents on each camisole produced, but during a recent visit she was able to show the women how to more efficiently lay out their patterns and conserve thread. She also showed them other tricks to speed up the process and reverse losses. "Periodically, either I'm ready to give up or they are," she says, "but this is still a very new project, and a new project is going to lose money at first. I'm in this for the long haul."

According to Burda's own business philosophy, Maggie's Organics' biggest asset is knowing its customers, and earning and holding onto their faith. So far, Maquilador Mujeres is the only such business in Nueva Vida and is being watched carefully by charitable organizations that consider it a potential template for other relief efforts. "Bená is a ball of energy and enthusiasm," says Jubilee House's Woodard. "This project has helped these women do things they never believed possible." After establishing the factory's success, Burda hopes to bring her Nicaraguan partners to the United States to teach women in economically depressed areas of the American South how to start their own co-ops.

Amidst today's bottom line-oriented, global competition, such idealistic plans and practices are certainly admirable. But are they a luxury a small entrepreneur can afford? Burda is betting that they are. During her 25-year career in the natural foods industry, she says she's seen the ethos evolve from hippie-inspired idealism to button-down big business. And as larger and expanding organic companies have begun to emulate their mainstream, corporate brethren, she believes they've begun to breed the same kind of consumer distrust the corporations do. "Today, we all eat the same food, wear the same clothes from the same national chains, buy the same home furnishings—and no one really knows where stuff is made anymore," she says.

According to Burda's own business philosophy, Maggie's Organics' biggest asset is knowing its customers, and earning and holding onto their faith. The only way to accomplish that, she's convinced, is for Maggie's to "walk its talk." "Our customers want to grab on to something that they feel is real. They want to know who made the products they buy," she says. "We're working to connect the women who sew our clothes with the women who wear our clothes. We're just the middle person."