top of page


Sound fun? Join in!


Better Capitalism in Action - Refugee Artisan Initiative

Ms. Shamsa Belgrave, currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College, has been exploring the potential that America’s form of capitalism can be reformed if not transformed to an equitable system by returning to the original ethics of Adam Smith. She does so with the example of fast fashion here and here. This post, an abstract of an article published on Reasons to be Cheerful, illustrates how one entrepreneur with an Adam Smith ethic of mutuality is helping turn textile waste to livelihoods. You can read the full article here and we encourage you to do so.

Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, founder of Seattle-based Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI) discovered that refugee women have the highest unemployment rate and over 85% percent of the textile waste ends up in landfill. Ming-Ming started RAI in 2017 to address both disparities. RAI hires immigrant and refugee women for livable-wage jobs to sew for small-batch manufacturing, all while upcycling discarded or leftover materials.

In its first five years the organization has diverted 5,000 pounds of textiles away from the landfill to their artisans, who have produced 120,000 total items. Thirty-seven women have earned roughly $500,000 in income, and eight have launched online shops through a partnership with Etsy. The stories of renewed lives are testimony to the timeless truth that an ethic of mutuality can steer and drive transformation.

Image Credit:

Herself a pharmacist in search of a transition to a more creative career, a fashion design course triggered Ming-Ming's interest in how the fashion industry could provide opportunities for women to gain financial independence. She set up RAI to help “knock down the barriers of the traditional workforce,” which she points out, does not accommodate women who have multiple children, do not speak English, are unable to drive or do not have a US-based education.

The glaring issue of textile waste also stuck with her, “It was an aha moment for me, thinking about how we could support these women learning new skills with excess textiles, and creating a circular economy through these jobs.” From RAI’s beginnings, Ming-Ming recruited refugee and immigrant women who had sewing skills and wanted to work from home. She works with each woman to determine how best to support them in becoming artisans and entrepreneurs. The women can choose three paths toward self-sufficiency:

  • Work directly for the organization creating RAI brand products.

  • Build skills to become independent contractors.

  • Receive guidance in starting their own microbusinesses.

Thanks to several partnerships with businesses, RAI gets excess textiles free of charge. One of the first emerged when Ming-Ming visited an Amazon warehouse that stores returned products; she simply asked if they planned to do anything with the now-unsellable bed sheets. These were then used by RAI to produce PPE in the pandemic.

By way of one example, Baseerah learned how to sew at age 12 in Afghanistan before coming to the US in 2003. RAI gave her technology support and extra fabrics, and she launched her own Etsy store, AsiyaDesignArt in 2022. If she needs equipment, she uses what’s available at the local RAI’s makerspace. The Etsy Uplift Initiative has been a big accelerator for RAI. It was started to bring more opportunity to artisan communities facing economic hardship, and RAI is one organization connecting the online retailer with craftswomen from Afghanistan.

Image Credit:

Starbucks donates burlap coffee sacks that RAI transforms into ornaments, stockings and totes for RAI to sell online. There’s also a new partnership with clothing retailer Tommy Bahama to create limited-edition products, like cocktail napkins and tote bags, from the company’s excess fabric. Those items will be sold inside Tommy Bahama stores.

In 2023, RAI’s goal is to hire at least one new artisan a month and open a new makerspace. The goal is to train 100 refugee and immigrant women, helping them secure employment either through RAI, their own businesses, or other companies.

Every day and with every action we, individually and collectively, decide what kind of businesses we want, what sort of marketplace we enjoy, the ethics that inform capitalism and how our capitalism informs us, and what kind of society we want to inhabit. As you select your ethics - those perspectives that drive your thoughts, your actions, and your results - we invite you to follow the example of Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman. How can you be the change you want to see?

What about you? Share your story, question, comment, idea, disagreement -- yes, we welcome disagreement for the sake of mutual benefit! -- with us at We will give a thoughtful response.

Our Amazon #1 New Release Book (2021) and Kindle #1 in Law Ethics & Professional Responsibility (2022): Unleash more with Better Capitalism: Jesus, Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, & MLK Jr. on Moving from Plantation to Partnership Economics.

Buy now, or get a free sample here >>

Go to the next level: Free 30-minute call to assess the mutual benefit of consulting based on Partnership Economics™ Ethics.


bottom of page