The holiday shopping season is in full swing, and students from the University of West Georgia this semester received firsthand experience in bringing a product to a store shelf before Black Friday.
Thanks to a unique partnership with Carrollton-based ReThread Thrift Store, students in Simone Lee’s retail management class in the Richards College of Business researched fair-trade consumer products, developed actionable implementation plans for their chosen product, and presented the product in a pitch to store’s owner.
ReThread is the retail operation that supports DriButts, a nonprofit founded by Michael Wahl that provides reusable DriButts diapers to families in need in developing countries.
The project – which ran from the beginning of the semester through October – was the brainchild of both Wahl and Lee, who was looking to “change things up a bit” in the class.
“Writing a comprehensive paper is a fantastic tool once you understand a concept, but to actually do something that has an impact on someone’s life is even more valuable,” Lee said. “Our students were challenged with really getting into the nitty-gritty of how companies get products in their stores. I hope what they’ve learned about business – and about themselves – will be something that resonates with them for many years to come past graduation.”
Lee and Wahl met by happenstance when Lee visited ReThread and struck up a conversation with Wahl, who happened to be manning the cash register that day.
“I knew I needed to get him into my class because I felt like students needed to hear his story,” Lee said. “So when he told me he was going to open up the Do Good Marketplace in his store, I wanted to know how we could plug in.”
Two weeks before the fall 2019 semester was scheduled to begin, Lee retooled the syllabus for her retail management class from the ground up.
“Something I love to do with my classes is bringing in speakers from the business world who can share their insight and their perspective on the concepts we’re learning in class,” Lee said. “I’ve had [Wahl] speak to my classes for the past year or so, and together we formulated this idea that would give the students life experience that they couldn’t get from a textbook.”
So, Lee rearranged the course content, moving the project up to the beginning of the semester so the chosen product could be on ReThread’s shelves before the beginning of the shopping season.
The class’ two-dozen undergraduate students were divided into several groups and charged with identifying a product that would fit well in Wahl’s Do Good Marketplace, a corner of the store he opened in September that features fair-trade products.
From there, students were asked to develop a 30-second elevator pitch and a five-minute explanation of why their chosen product would be the best fit for the Do Good Marketplace, with Wahl asking questions about the economic viability of each product.
“One of my biggest criteria when I was deciding which product would be chosen to go on our shelf was the ‘wow factor,’ or the story that went along with the product they were showcasing,” Wahl said. “I have made a commitment to know the hearts of the people I’m trying to help, and for us, it’s so much bigger than just selling a product. It’s about how we can really change people’s lives.”
One thing several students had to learn was the concept of fair-trade products in general. The missions of fair-trade products are typically to seek greater equity in international trade.
Fair-trade manufacturers contribute to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in developing countries.
Firms that produce fair-trade goods are actively engaged in supporting producers, raising awareness and campaigning for changes in the rules and practices of conventional international trade. The manufacturers also seek to minimize the use of child labor and sweatshops in third-world countries, thus helping people live in a more financially stable environment.
This was an important concept for Wahl to convey in his interactions with students.
“I wanted them to ask questions about every product they buy: where it was made, how it ended up here on the shelf, and did it affect someone’s life in a positive or negative way,” Wahl said. “ReThread started with that concept: one act of kindness threads love into someone’s life. When you repeat that act, you rethread. So we rethread the love from this store into DriButts and from DriButts into the world.”
Wahl’s idea for the Do Good Marketplace, which sells items that follow a similar sourcing process as the DriButts diapers, came from that same idea. The marketplace has numerous items, but Wahl saved one spot on his shelf for the product that was pitched to him by UWG students: a collection of greeting cards.
“Working with these students has inspired me to continue doing what I do, and it’s helped me realize that we can inspire our customers to also change lives,” he said. “When I started this, I was just concentrating on the positive effect this would have on people in developing countries. I didn’t realize that when customers would come to the Do Good Marketplace, their lives could be changed too.”
Madison Murphy, a mass communications major who plans to graduate next May with a minor in marketing, said she took the course because of her previous experience working in retail. However, she learned more than she really expected.
“Finding the product and learning as much as we could about it – whether it was made with free trade practices, what the wholesale price for retailers is, and other important information – was challenging but rewarding,” Murphy said. “I learned a lot about what it means to be fair-trade, and that’s going to affect my shopping habits from now on. Seeing how making and selling a simple product can give people in developing countries a sustainable income and a better quality of life was really eye-opening for me.”
Lee said collaborating with Wahl made “perfect sense.”
“I’m always looking for ways to bring tangible examples and experiences into the classroom, so it was great to see how our students can gain real-life exposure and actually put a product on the floor of a local store and not just engage in conceptual, arbitrary ideas,” Lee said. “This is a real product that affects someone’s actual bottom line. It’s really a perfect partnership.”
ReThread is located at 1561 South Park Street in Carrollton. Its hours are 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information on ReThread, visit www.ReThreadThrift.com. For more information on DriButts, visit www.DriButts.com.