Homebody in the news

Sunday, September 11, 2005
Trying to make a difference
By Erin Zlomek
Special to The Roanoke Times
Blacksburg businesses work together to sell free-trade and sweatshop-free products.

On a Saturday afternoon, eight people representing Amnesty International, the Virginia Anti-War Network and the Environmental Coalition rummage through a downtown Blacksburg storefront, muttering under their breath.

Each waves hello to the ringleader at some point, a petite woman behind thick-rimmed glasses, before returning to their duties.

They all come with a purpose -- to shop.

The ringleader is Margaret Breslau, general manager of Homebody, a boutique at 119 N. Main St. in Blacksburg.

Her store sells only sweatshop-free and fair-trade products, assuring buyers that profits from the goods go directly to the producing farmer or craftsman.

Homebody has attracted a locally active clientele since opening in March 2003.

Despite their affiliations, the Saturday patrons aren't planning a protest. Instead, they palm Chilean glass jewelry and squat down to examine organically made baby nightgowns.

"I just couldn't open a business and sell things that were made in sweatshops," Breslau said. "As I learned more, I became more committed to the idea of not carrying goods that were made primarily by exploiting women and children."

Breslau's business ethos is one slowly growing in the minds of American producers.

Five years ago, Starbucks introduced a fair-trade coffee blend. Internet mega-market Overstock.com recently launched a fair-trade shootoff called Worldstock.com . As for clothing, sweatshop-free manufacturer American Apparel is chasing Gap and Urban Outfitters in casual clothing sales.

But if you ask Breslau, it still isn't enough.

"If you think of all the thousands and thousands of producers in the world, of goods made outside the U.S.A., there's only about 30-some producers [of fair trade products] ... it's crazy."

Finding sweatshop-free clothing is harder.

"If you want it to be in the purest sense, union made or worker-owned cooperative, there's maybe only four [producers] available for wholesale," she said.

American Apparel, for example, pays their workers a minimum living wage, but does not allow them to unionize.

While folding a "What would McGyver do?" T-shirt, Breslau sighed and explained a common misconception.

"The most misleading thing is when people say, 'Oh, I always try to shop for things that are made in the U.S.A.' There are plenty of sweatshops operating in this country and a lot of stuff is made in U.S. territories like Saipan and Guam that carry the 'Made in USA' label," Breslau said.

Breslau's boutique is the only local store to carry the sweatshop-free and fair-trade combination but not the only one in general. Blacksburg's Oasis World Market grocery store carries fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate.

Store owner Alan Moore compares the fair-trade explosion with another specialty business trend.

"It's kind of like the way organic foods were 10 years ago; now that there is more of a market, there are more producers and stores," Moore said.

Together, Moore and Breslau started the New River Independent Business Alliance.

Through the NRIBA network, small businesses can keep one another posted on new fair-trade products and ethical business movements.

Breslau opened Homebody after relocating with husband and Virginia Tech professor Daniel Breslau. Originally from Chicago, the pair arrived from Tel Aviv, Israel, where they lived for seven years.

Breslau says her time overseas helped shape her political conscience, but admits she is still far from perfect.

"I'm no purist. My shoes are probably made in sweatshops ... you can't completely avoid it. But even if [the movement] is like fighting David and Goliath, you have to start somewhere," she said.

Last spring, Breslau enlisted her politically conscious customers to protest clothing manufacturer Cintas.

The company became the core of several humanitarian protests as it battled living-wage lawsuits across the country.

"Cintas had a big banner down on Main Street advertising they were sponsoring [Virginia Tech's philanthropy,] the Big Event. I thought it was ironic they were helping communities. How can you be pro-community and anti-worker?" said Breslau.

So, she and crew provided student volunteers with sweatshop information and a rap sheet of Cintas' violations at the event.

Cintas representatives then, and now, refused to comment.

"Last year's rally was put together really quickly within two days. Next spring we'll be able to organize it bigger and better." Breslau said.

Until then, Homebody continues to double as boutique and community activism center.

"We are sort of centrally located so many people sort of come to me like, "Geez, are you organizing a bus for the September 24th mobilization against the war?' " Breslau said.

The short answer is yes; stop in for details.

(C)2005 The Roanoke Times