Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Fair Trade Way

Santiago Halty learns to stitch soccer balls on a recent trip to Pakistan for Senda.
Santiago Halty pondered the question deeply. He was fresh out of college and the pursuit of soccer, which played an unmistakable part in his life, weighed heavily on his future plans.

He could play it, certainly. After all, he'd done so competitively in leagues on two continents. And he was sure he could get involved with the game somehow, though an immediate avenue wasn't open directly.

But one line of questioning kept coming back every time he glanced at a soccer ball.

"Who made it?" Halty wondered. "Who are these people? Are they being treated fairly?"

Halty began unraveling those questions at length in 2010, when he officially launched Senda Athletics to satisfy this desire to see fair trade soccer balls find a toehold in the world of soccer. Senda officially opened with a launch party in San Francisco in late 2010, and some 100 people showed up, including Quakes midfielder Sam Cronin.

Halty recently took a tour of Senda's production factory in Sialkot, a city resting on the northeast border of Pakistan. He walked the floor of the factory, showed workers a thank-you video from a collection of Senda's users and even picked up a football for a brief kick about with the Pakistani staff workers. It wasn't enough for Halty to hear reports about the progeny of his soccer balls and see pictures. He wanted first-hand visuals. And what he saw impressed him.

"I wanted to go see for myself," Halty said. "I wanted to go and learn about the people, learn their stories and see the conditions. It was very important for me."

Halty was born in the US but raised in Buenos Aires, and his rearing there followed all the hallmarks of a childhood spent in soccer-mad Argentina: soccer at recess, soccer at lunch, soccer after school. When he came to San Diego to pursue a college degree, he left behind 45 cousins and 11 aunts and uncles. Luckily for him, he found a weekend soccer group in San Diego that featured a kaleidoscope of personalities, from Latin American to African.

"Soccer played a big role in dealing with that transition," Halty said.

After graduating from UC-San Diego in 2009 with an economics degree, Halty began looking into fair trade and the ins-and-outs of the classification. As he considered the notion that the soccer balls he played with on the weekends on lush fields in San Diego were produced amid crushing poverty in the third world, he was spurred into action. That's when he stumbled across Fair Trade USA, an organization that certifies fair trade factories that produce products like bananas, coffee and tea. Certifying soccer equipment, it seemed, was not quite as much of a priority. Fair Trade USA works with roughly 1,000 factories in Pakistan and even more around the world. The organization audits its factories randomly, showing up unannounced to make sure its holdings are working under proper conditions and paying livable standard wages.

With that arm of the operation secured, Halty and his team spent a year on product development to ensure they didn't skimp on the quality of the ball itself. They worked with more than 100 soccer players and coaches, including a two-hour session with Cronin as well as his teammate Chris Wondolowski to hone the weight and flight of the ball. Senda also designed training bibs and ball bags, which includes 10 training balls and a pair of match balls.

With the operation humming along, Halty was finally able to complete the circle by visiting the Senda factory personally. For 10 days, Halty lived in a guest room in the factory above the offices, giving him free run of the facility and its inner workings. Halty had heard stories about cottage industries popping up in substandard housing across Pakistan, which often led to children stitching soccer balls with their families amid stifling conditions. As he walked the floor, chatted with employees and visited with them in their homes, he could finally rest knowing Senda was doing its part to stamp that out.

"We told them that your work is making a lot of people happy and you should feel proud of yourself," Halty said. "It's a lot of work. They still work hard. That's why they deserve a fair wage. Being that the industry is so large and sometimes it's such an unofficial thing, there's a lot of factories that are really small. I'm sure we have one of the best factories we could have. They really do care about workers."

Today, Senda continues to expand its approach. Eventually Halty wants the brand to become a "fair trade, sustainable Nike," he says, and right now Senda mostly deals its products in bulk straight to coaches and organizers. But as Halty saw in Pakistan, the wheels are in motion for Senda to become a fair trade beacon for the rest of a growing industry.

"I think people appreciate that we're trying to get to know them better and that we're caring," Halty said. "I think that went a long way."

- Will Parchman

No comments: