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New Social Enterprise Partner: Common Thread Cooperative

July 26, 2011

Given the enthusiasm and interest we received from Canadians at this year’s PPAI show, we are thrilled to announce our newest social enterprise partner, Common Thread Cooperative. As our first partner in Canada, we’re excited to expand our network and promote their social mission.

As a cooperative, Common Thread operates differently from our other partners. All of their members are organizations, not individuals. They are a cooperative of Canadian enterprises and organizations with sewing programs; and they provide brokering and production coordination for their social enterprise members and other producers. The co-op sources street banners and other fabric for re-purposing into colorful and durable tote bags, drawstring bags, aprons, messenger bags, notebook covers and more. Helping Hand Rewards is currently utilizing their services for gift bags and meeting bags.

Melanie Conn is a member of the Common Thread management team and conceived the initial idea and operation of the co-op. As a community economic development teacher and a consultant for people starting cooperatives, she worked with groups using social enterprises to facilitate participation in the economy by their members: people experiencing challenges because they were immigrants and refugees or living with mental illness. She noticed that a number of the groups focusing on women were providing sewing services.

“I thought a producer marketing cooperative that accessed contracts for these (sewing) groups and helped coordinate production would be a way for them to achieve their goals much more successfully,” says Conn. “I researched the idea and talked to groups across North America. Once I was assured about its feasibility, I was able to identify partners in British Columbia who were excited about it.”

She got very involved in the piloting stage, working on the business plan and connecting with members of organizations. Currently, she provides marketing and general management services for the co-op.

Common Thread was officially incorporated as a cooperative in December 2009, but began operations before then. Their first big contract was in the summer of 2009 for the 2010 Winter Olympics when they were contracted by the City of Vancouver to make 1500 drawstring backpacks from pre-Olympic banners. The City then distributed the backpacks to inner-city schools. After the Olympics, the co-op began to focus on producing delegate bags using their ample supply of Olympic banners and other street banner fabric. Their contracts grew because people liked making a purchase that had added social value and also reduced their environmental impact.

At first, individuals from member organizations worked primarily from home. However, Common Thread was able to purchase industrial equipment a year ago which enabled them to move to the next stage of production. Several members of the production network now work rent-free from a corner of The Flag Shop, an organizational member of the co-op. The owner of The Flag Shop is also a member of Common Thread’s board and an enthusiastic supporter of the co-op. Every order The Flag Shop fills is accompanied by information about Common Thread’s ‘banner to bag’ capacity.

Tote bags in production in a corner of The Flag Shop

While still a relatively new enterprise and the grateful recipient of grant funds from time to time, Common Thread’s current goal is to cover their overhead expenses through sales. They don’t pay production work by the hour. Instead, they break down every contract into operations and pay people for what they produce. The payment rate is based on what an experienced worker would be able to produce in an hour.

One major challenge for the co-op has been the balance between the volume of orders and the capacity of the production network.  As the business grows, expenses rise for coordination, as well as other support service the co-op provides.

“In the corporate environment, you aim to hire the cream of the crop. If they don’t perform, you let them go,” says Conn. “But of course that’s not our practice. Since the purpose of the co-op is to provide a flexible work environment, we find ways to adapt it to the strengths and needs of our production network. It’s quite the balancing act since we also need to get the work done! We’ve integrated a core of very good workers into our network to help establish the strong foundation we need to succeed as a business. We’re also moving into training in a big way to help all our sewers develop their skills. We’re thrilled to see how well it’s working.”

For Conn, the challenges presented by the co-op are a welcome opportunity to give those who thrive in a flexible work environment a chance at a good life. With Common Thread, people from all backgrounds are able to come together, work cooperatively and help each other out.

“I am deeply gratified when I see the pleasure and pride people take in their ability to get better at what they do,  and make some money doing it,” says Conn.

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