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On the Upcycle: 3 Women Share Their Story of Recycling in Haiti

Her mornings seem ordinary.

She wakes up early, makes breakfast for her children, gets her family ready for the day, and heads to work.

What makes this routine extraordinary is that the ‘She’ in question, Mirlande Joseph, lives in the poorest neighborhood in the Western Hemisphere and the work she heads to each day is running a recycling collection center in a community called Molea.

Her center employs 5 people full time, 3 people part time, and provides an income for at least 60 individuals who collect and sell her plastic regularly.

In an industry dominated by men, it has been a joy and a privilege to watch and support the women entrepreneurs who have seen the opportunity available in plastics and have seized it, quickly becoming top performers in Thread’s supply chains. These women are not stressing over whether to lean in or opt out. They seem unconcerned with having it all, not asking, or glass ceilings.

Recycling in Haiti resembles the Wild West – the women we work with make their own rules for the way they do business and they are excelling.

Mirlande

Mirlande works in Haiti collecting bottles that will be recycled into sustainable fabric. With this dignified job, she supports her three children.

“My favorite part of my job is when the truck is getting loaded,” explains Mirlande. “I really like after working hard, seeing that my plastic will go to the companies. I love that! I feel proud of that.”

Mirlande and her husband (who works with her at her center) have 3 small children. Before working in recycling, she operated a small boutique where she sold food. With the money money she earns in recycling, she helps to support her family, education for her kids, and income generation in her neighborhood

Mirlande was one of the first recipients of Thread’s microloan program. She received funds to help her purchase her own scale. Before then, she had to borrow time on scales at neighboring centers. Having her own scale increased her business and trust amongst her customers.

“A scale is very expensive to buy. Now, I have a small one. It is small, but it is my scale,” says Mirlande, “that scale is the engine of my business.”

Nancy

Nancy Fanord is a quiet force of nature. I heard about her weeks before we met for the first time, when Thread’s in-country manager, Richardson, emailed me telling me he had met a woman who was running a recycling empire in Les Cayes (a city in the south of Haiti that was recently decimated in Hurricane Matthew) and we should pay attention to her. He was right.

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This summer, I had the privilege of visiting Nancy’s center. Located in her backyard, it is full of trees, which create a shaded, welcoming space. Bananas grow among the piles of separated bottles, picnic tables are set up for shared meals, and you can tell immediately that her employees like spending time with one another. It was summer, so school was out and a number of the employees’ children were playing while their parents worked. It’s the kind of space you’d like to spend an afternoon hanging out in, and certainly working in every day. Nancy has 10 full-time employees, 4 part-time, and pays around 120 individuals regularly for their plastic.

Nancy runs a recycling center in Les Cayes and supports her daughter through ethical work. Her center has created 14 dignified jobs collecting plastic.

“I want to be remembered as a woman who worked hard to take of her daughter,” Nancy shared when asked about the legacy she is building.

The majority of Nancy’s employees are also women. While visiting her center, I spoke to Marie Lirese Saint Jean who has worked with Nancy for a number of years. We spoke about what it’s like to work in recycling in Les Cayes.

“Sometimes,” she leaned in and said softly, “people think we’re crazy.”

“When we first started coming to Haiti to recycle, people in the U.S. told us we were crazy too,” I answered.

“But I think,” I continued, “that when people tell you you’re doing something crazy, it’s a sign that you’re doing something special. So I’m just glad all of us crazy people have found each other and we get to work together.”

Marie laughed and said, “Soon I bet they’ll be wishing they were crazy too!”

Nadine

Nadine was one of the first suppliers I met when we started working in Haiti. In our first meeting, she seemed nervous. I know I was. We were both new to the world of recycling and it showed. I wonder if she knows I’ve grown as much as she has in the past 4 years.

Nadine is a supplier who supports her six children by running a recycling center in Haiti. Her center collects both plastic and metal.

Nadine lost her husband shortly before we met. She has 6 children, all of whom she now supports through her business. She is a shrewd business woman, and in the last year has diversified her recycling center to take metals in addition to plastics. The revenue generated by metals has helped her weather the downturn in the commodities market, which has especially been hard for recycled plastics this year.

When Thread released our men’s and women’s styles of Ground to Good t-shirts in June, there was no question as to who in our supply chain we would name the female-fit after. Nadine has inspired our team for the past 4 years.

“I am thankful that Thread supports me and I like when they visit,” Nadine told Richardson. “I feel I am not alone.”

These women are just three examples of how the Haitians we work with are redefining what success looks like and impacting both their families and their neighborhoods. I think a large part of their success is due to the fact that they have found their own leadership styles and have developed those individual styles as opposed to trying to emulate someone else. While there are always lessons to learn from leaders, I find in America a greater tendency to simply adopt habits and mannerisms of those who have been successful as opposed to doing the work necessary to find and hone your own way of leading.

For women especially we are given contradictory advice every day. Be more masculine, be feminine, celebrate being bossy, make sure you’re likeable, always wear lipstick, wear pants, wear a skirt, never cry, but make sure you seem relatable, be smart, but don’t forget to be pretty, stop intimidating the men, be intimidated by men, ask for more money, don’t ask for more money, do power poses before you get to the office, join a coven, be a team player, stop volunteering to do office housework, SMILE! and on and on it goes.

Maybe an advantage of working in Haiti is being insulated from this noise. The most successful people know who they are and build a life and business around that. Knowing the women in our supply chain is a refreshing look at women developing their own leadership styles. They are remarkable, funny, smart, and motivate me to work hard every day.

Let’s hear it for the girls.

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