I was beyond thrilled to meet with Michelle Kime, one of the founders/owners of Imagine Goods, who’s local to me in Lancaster, PA. As I’m in the beginning stages of researching companies that support artisans around the world with fair wages and empowering them out of poverty, and/or support victims of human trafficking, to find someone local who’s in the midst of doing such fantastic work was such a blessing. Michelle’s heart for vulnerable people around the world was evident as she talked about her work and her little shop. While it’s impossible to tell you everything I took away from our conversation, I will share as much as I can here in this space.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in my research of human trafficking is the connection to poverty. When a family is in dire circumstances, with little to no choice of how to feed their families, selling their child into trafficking or even allowing themselves to be trafficked is a common experience. Having a job and a way to break the cycle of poverty can help in the breaking of the cycle of trafficking as well. As someone who often feels trapped by financial debt, my circumstances pale when considering the desperation these women face that they would consider selling their children into trafficking. You can read more about that here.
The goal of Imagine Goods is to employ vulnerable and marginalized people around the world, often victims of human trafficking, and give them training and opportunities for work. Fair wages are of upmost importance. When these women are rescued from trafficking, they need a job to go to. And not just any job, a job that pays them fair wages. Somewhere between 90-95% of those recused from trafficking will return if there is no place for them to support themselves and their families. Imagine Goods offers them a real job, with fair and living wages, to give them empowerment and hope for their future. For these women, work is a matter of survival.
Michelle, and her business partner Aiyana, create designs that are considered “vintage inspired” and take these designs to Cambodia, where they then shop for fabrics directly in Cambodia, to support those locally selling fabrics. They partner with several non-profits, who do the work of rescue and restoration for women caught in human trafficking. Imagine Goods provides the much needed employment following their rescue. Currently, there are 100 women who create products for Imagine Goods, with 30 on a waiting list. The women are paid up-front for their work, which means that even if the products don’t sell, they are still paid their full wage (this is counter to factory sweatshops where women are often paid for how much they produce and are often reduced wages for errors, making around $1/day). The sewing center is a place that provides community for these women. They work together during the day, have a free lunch together, and have a safe place for their children to be cared for while they work (another large problem with factory work abroad). The last 1 1/2 hours of their day is paid education where they are taught basic skills, language, and business skills.
Not only does Imagine Goods offer clothing (for women, children, and men-including ties!), but they have jewelry, accessories, and items for the home including aprons, tablecloths, and napkins. They are a mostly online, but are available in several boutiques. If you are a shop owner and would like to see them featured, please contact them directly!
One of my favorite features of Imagine Goods is their artisan page feature. Each item you buy from Imagine Goods that has been made by a survivor of trafficking has a symbol on it that represents the artisan who made your product. You can find the symbol on the artisan page and see a little bit of the story behind the maker of that product. While names and faces of trafficking victims are protected, this page tells the names and stories behind the women who make crocheted items from Haiti, which is another facet of the work of Imagine Goods. Seriously, take a few minutes and read about the lives of these women.
Imagine Goods also partners with several other non-profits and works as a distributor for their products. For example, their Revolution line is a partnership with Revolution Lancaster, who works with homeless women locally to provide job assistance and income generation. Their ReImagine line is a result of a partnership with Love146, who works with trafficking survivors to create one-of-a-kind items by upcycling used fabrics and other products. 100% of the profits of sales from their 3Strands jewelry goes directly to support survivors of human trafficking. If you’re looking for T-shirts for your business or fundraising efforts, you can purchase them through Imagine Goods, where the women sew the shirts and do the silk screening for them as well. Where your average t-shirt means 1% goes back to the worker, with Imagine Goods, 24% goes back to the worker.
One of the bigger questions I had for Michelle is this: Other than the bottom line, why don’t more companies do what you’re doing? Her response? The bottom line.
It seems to always come down to this. The companies that I have found who are doing the right thing, are about those on the other end of the products. The ones who see the people over profits. Those who want to see others empowered. Those who are willing to reinvest their profits so that more women can be employed with dignifying work. Those who are willing to give of their own little take-home pay to make a better life for someone else. Michelle says that she wants their products to be affordable for others, even if it means they have small profit margins. She wants you to buy from them, not because it lines her wallet, but because it means they can bring more work for these women and allow their jobs to continue.
This is where we come in. I’ve said it before and I will say it again and again. Shop small. Shop with purpose. Use the money you spend on products to make a difference. Where we shop speaks volumes to the kind of world we want to live in. My generation has grown up with the expectation that everything we buy should be cheap. We weren’t raised in a way where we look at the other end of production to see what’s happening. But we need to. And we need to do it for the generation under us. It doesn’t mean we can do it all the time, every time.
But we can do it when we can.
I asked Michelle to share a story about a specific artisan, to help readers understand how their lives are changed. She smiled and her eyes gleamed as she shared about one of her visits to Cambodia. She had taken a small break from the main meeting room and on her way out, passed by the room where the girls sew. The girls were on a lunch break, but one girl was in the room. She was holding a dress she had sewn in front of her, humming to herself and dancing around the room.
Can you just picture it? Pause reading for a second and let the image linger in your mind.
A symbol of hope. A symbol of freedom. An image of our own little girls, singing and dancing and dreaming. And as Michelle says, part of the healing process for these women is to be able to dream again. To know there is hope.
When you purchase from Imagine Goods, you are supporting this hope. The dreams these women are finally able to have. Not for big houses or fancy cars and clothing or dream vacations. But for real, empowering work to support their families. To make a difference for themselves and their communities.