The Return of the Textile Industry

April 29, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Sina Trinkwalder did what all experts declared impossible: she built a textile factory in Germany and is paying decent wages.

There is an unusual factory right in the heart of Augsburg. The visitor steps through a glass door to enter the factory floor. The bright room, painted purple, is brimming with the hum, whir, and rattle of dozens of sewing machines. Women are swiftly assembling red and flowered plies of cotton into tote bags, then piling them onto wood pallets. Two men are reeling fabric off huge spools and laying it in piles the height of a palm, before a machine slices them into stacks of cut-outs with a precision down to the millimeter. Further in the back, other employees are sewing jeans, wrap dresses, and underpants.

Manomama has a staff of 140—predominantly the type of workers that any job agency would label as candidates with "multiple impediments to job placement" or with bleak prospects on the job market: single parents, older workers, immigrants, people with disabilities or without a high school diploma. And yet, everyone here has a permanent work contract and is making at least 10 euros ($13.75) per hour. Those who achieve double the required quota make 20 euros. They exclusively process organic fabrics because their suppliers are also supposed to operate under decent conditions and avoid harm to the environment.

"We women stick together, like family," Roswitha Schlotte reports. The position at manomama is this 60-year-old’s first permanent employment in Augsburg. She used to work in the textile industry back in the GDR. After that, she toiled away as a temporary worker at a laundry and completed a computer class that was supported by the Federal Employment Office. She was frequently unemployed. When she read in the newspaper that Sina Trinkwalder, head of manomama, was specifically looking for older women and single parents, she applied right away and hand-delivered her resume. "Everything here was so laid back from the start," she remembers. The trained seamstress compares returning to her beloved trade to hitting the jackpot in the lottery.

When Trinkwalder started out as a textile entrepreneur in the spring of 2010, many declared her insane. Everyone told her that, given the global market situation, it was mathematically impossible to produce everyday clothing in Germany. But Trinkwalder, who had made a lot of money in advertising at a very young age, did not let anyone discourage her. First, she built a small workshop. Then, when she met the CEO of "dm" drugstores Erich Harsch at a function, she sensed her opportunity to secure a large number of jobs for the long term. And so manomama was asked to produce a million cotton tote bags each year.

Trinkwalder agreed to deliver the first shipment half a year later—even though at the time, she had neither the premises, the staff, the right fabric suppliers nor the necessary equipment to meet this goal. Yet she managed to make it all happen in time. She found the building in the center of Augsburg, an equipment manufacturer magically came up with the sewing machines that normally had a three-month delivery period, and Trinkwalder hired people in droves. The brightly colored "dm" bags were finished on time. And the next big job was already rolling in. New staff had to be hired immediately. And so it continued. Today, the manomama customer log also includes grocery chain "Edeka" and retailer "real," for which they make underwear and jeans.

The business is booming – probably precisely because Sina Trinkwalder does not go by the industry’s playbook. She never conceived a business plan because to her that is "drawing board crap". Nor did she ever obtain a bank loan or government funding, which is making her happy now. "I am completely independent, I can tell every banker to piss off." She is bawdy, spontaneous, and direct, looks her interlocutor in the eye, laughs a lot, and seems to be completely relaxed. That rubs off on her surroundings, which means she can count on support when she needs it. The boss of manomama has been known to crowd-fund sewing machines. And once, when money was short, a supplier waived part of the bill, knowing that the survival of the company depended on it.

Trinkwalder does not believe in authority by rank. When she met the President of the Federal Employer’s Organization, Ulrich Grillo, before a talk show and he did not deem it necessary to introduce himself, she gave him a piece of her mind. She let SPD candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück visit her factory during his campaign—but without any press. "I thought you were an arrogant jerk—but look, I can actually talk to you," Sina Trinkwalder said as she bade the politician farewell at the end. By contrast, she calls her employees "ladies and gentlemen." The rules of the company are displayed on small pieces of paper on the columns all around the factory floor: "We are all equal. We are honest with each other. If I don’t like something, I’ll say something. We stick together. We are manomama." Trinkwalder’s motto is that it has to be fun to save the world: "After all, nobody wants to be bossed around by a grouch waving a pedantic finger in your face." She does not have a long-term plan, and she forgives her own and others’ mistakes. "Everything will be all right, and if it isn’t right yet, then we aren’t done yet," is another slogan you will hear her use.

Calculation at manomama is as simple as it is transparent. Trinkwalder adds up the cost for materials, utilities, and wages, plus the expenses for machines and transport, and then calculates the price she charges retail chains. She makes it unmistakably clear to anyone who wants to order from her that she will neither haggle with her fabric suppliers for lower prices nor pressure her workers to increase their output or lower their wages. Her jeans still do not cost more than other brand-name products, because Trinkwalder doesn’t pay herself much and doesn’t spend any money on advertising. Manomama’s marketing consists of Trinkwalder’s appearances on talk shows, where she defies politicians and corporate bosses and demonstrates convincingly that it is possible to pay a 10 euro hourly wage in Germany.

All this is very apparent to the customer—making transparency and fairness the 36-year-old’s most powerful weapons. She felt that manomama pants at "real" stores should have a tag telling shoppers exactly how the final retail price was derived. At first, the retailer was opposed to such a tag. So the founder of manomama put her delivery on ice. "I want people to be able to take their tag to Gucci and ask why the pants there are so expensive despite the low wages they pay their seamstresses," she explains. In the meantime, manomama pants are on the shelves all over Germany—with tags.

Tags: living wage, new economy