Global Responsibility: Knotting Business & Humanity

Global Responsibility: Knotting Business & Humanity

Guatemala Fair Trade 2011 Update: Red Oxx delivers a corn grinder

Finding something to focus on may be all it takes to have a sense of Global Responsibility. For Red Oxx it's been about intertwining commercial and humanistic beliefs. Understanding or recognizing the opportunity for participating in Global Responsibility means asking why?

This basic question is the foundation for our LEAN manufacturing methods. What's the best option for all parties? Challenging the system or just making your own way is what entrepreneurs are well suited for. Today's technology is allowing incredible opportunities for small businesses to "Go global." Red Oxx is now exporting 25% of its products to over 90 countries. This opening of the world has been extraordinary and it's all happening at a pace that is hard for the system to cope with.

So it's up to the individual or small companies like ours to see that we work both ways with the new economy. This basic principle is what is making the Internet the next venue for a world revolution. Whether it be social or economic depends on your place in the World. If you're out there trying to make changes in your sphere of influence we would love to hear about it.


For those that are not familiar with our efforts in Guatemala I will review the plan. Each Red Oxx bag comes with a Monkey's Fist Zip Knot for a zipper pull. These handy little knots are great for making our #10 YKK zippers open and close due to their extra leverage. While the number of bags we manufacture keep going up each year, the demand for Monkey's Fists has been growing exponentially; for example: one Safari Beano's has 14 zipper pulls! This kind of quantity has an impact on our workers and the potential to make some positive economic impact.

Using the strengths of an indigenous region, our knots are all hand-tied in the mountains of Guatemala. The parachute cord is fabricated here in the U.S. and shipped round trip. Working with the Mayan craftspeople has been a rewarding experience both for us and of course, for them.

Each year I visit the workers to check on their health and comfort and explore the local culture. I recognized early on from my first visit that we would have to take a different approach to working with them. Business as usual had not made any improvement to the everyday lives of these hard working folks. By reaching back to the source Red Oxx was able to fix some of the most egregious issues involving global trade in a developing country.

First we started paying a living wage and then we went after working conditions by constructing a work room with kitchen attached; next we built a shower and flush toilet.

After all that we were approached for a micro loan to help construct a Molinillo or corn mill. This desire of there's to become business owners was something of a pleasant surprise. Moving forward we have been in construction mode for the last three years on the Molinillo.

Molinillo's are an important part of the daily lives of most Guatemalans. Each day around the country countless tons of corn is ground into flour. Tortillas are then made from the ground corn flour that contains no preservatives. That means grinding fresh every few days since this the staple of their diet.

Last year Billings was the host for the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center's bi-annual conference. This conference brings together a diverse cross section of Montana manufacturing companies. Red Oxx was designated a tour site and I was roped into making the closing statements. One of the highlights of the conference is the showcasing of all the items made here in Montana.

One item in particular caught my interest.


The Grainmaker Mill is built in Stevensville, Montana by a small family owned machine company. This compact mill was exactly something my Guatemalan workers would love to have. Just before my closing speech they drew names for all the items in the showcase.

One year I even won my own Red Oxx bags!

So I was stoked when I won a pair of Schnee's Boots out of Bozeman. Still, I had my eye on that molinillo de maíz. The next few minutes are not something I am exactly proud of, but my village needed that mill more than Rod Miner of Lightfoot Cycles.

Microphone in hand I cajoled him into a trade; boots for the mill? 600 eyeballs locked onto poor Rod and he capitulated. Not exactly an equitable swap but Rod was a great sport about it and the mill was going to where it would be used practically every day. Muchas Gracias Rod!

This trip was getting to be routine, despite that travel advisory from the U.S. Embassy. The hardest choice these days is deciding which Red Oxx bags to take. I would be leaving my Nikon behind and running with a Canon Vixia HD video camera. Last year while shooting with Beyond the Lane I had a chance to experience these handy little cameras.

Red Oxx is now starting to produce our own video content for the Internet. Switching back to the Gator as my personal item carry on I was amazed at how much lighter this camera was. For my carry-on bag I decided to run with the Sky Train again. The more I use this bag the more I am coming to understand why it is fast becoming our top selling piece. Toiletries were also a no brainer and my Tri-Fold Toiletry Kit is always ready for departure.

Construction continues at the new community store.

Last year I had stashed a Medium Aviator Kit Bag as my return checked luggage. This year I had plans for increasing my haul of black gold to 40lbs, so I went with the Large Aviator Kit Bag. With coffee prices taking a major jump recently I planned on stocking up at the source. Simply fold and pack the bag into the outer pocket of the Sky Train and you're all set for checking this bag for the return trip.

Timing my arrival for late night has been a great way to avoid the horrendous traffic that surrounds Guatemala City. The trade off being I was increasing my chances of being robbed kidnapped or murdered. Arriving in Panajachel well after midnight I was greeted by quolos vigilantes, nothing like six guys in ski masks blocking the road to bring you to full awake in about two heartbeats of a tiny chicken. So these are the good guys? Think I will pass on meeting the "ladrones" or thieves for the time being.

My home away from home in Guatemala is Los Encuentros, recently listed by Lonely Planet it has become popular enough that I now have to make reservations. The owner Richard Morgan is a retired Colonel and author of three books about the area. His recent book "Natural Healing: A Journey to the Mayan World of Atitlan" is available on Kindle reader. Richard is truly a renaissance man; his latest efforts include a marathon around the lake in 2012 with the benefits going to efforts to maintain the lake.

Our economic efforts in Guatemala have lifted people out of abject poverty in one of the most depressed locations on the planet. Nor is it a picnic on the mean streets of our hometown of Billings, Montana. OK, not that mean, but the need to re-develop our inner city is becoming apparent.


Red Oxx is located in the Billings Industrial Revitalization District, commonly know as BIRD. This area has been bypassed as the city around it grew exponentially in two directions. Putting good paying manufacturing jobs into the inner core of the district is crucial to making our part of the local economy work. Connecting the dots with a sense of social responsibility has been a natural evolution of the Red Oxx brand. The world has become a much smaller place with the advance of population and technology. I feel it, and so do you,

Other interests include working with the nature preserve and promoting sustainable agriculture and eco tourism. Over the years I have gotten to know the local expat community pretty well. If Los Encuentros is my home then Crossroads Café is my office. Mike and Adele Roberts have built a global reputation from their little location. After placing my order for 40 pounds of black gold, I inquired if they would be interested in having me film the roasting process. To catch this human whirlwind you need to get up mighty early for the best coffee roasting time.

Jim gets ready to drink some fresh roasted coffee

Having little film making experience from this side of the camera, I got a real treat as I scampered after the wild man. One hundred and seventeen minutes later it was all over but the editing. I am pretty sure he didn't stop moving or talking the whole time. All of this before sunrise and the shop being open to the public; I was pretty beat just from just filming. It was time for a double mocha short and one Adele's fresh cinnamon rolls to get me through the rest of the morning.


Working online has greatly increased the opportunity for knowledge workers and entrepreneurs to live abroad. My friend Jack Hulscher has been working on a very dynamic concept for the fishing fanatic. I Fished is a community based website that provides a social space for obtaining weather reports, bait shops and just about anything else for fishermen looking to learn about a new area.

Jack and I spend some time each year discussing technology while engaged in adventures around the lake. Grabbing our packs we hiked down to the boat docks to catch a ride over to Santiago Atitlan. The pace of business around Central America can seem hectic at times, but it can also take all day to have a meeting. It is a strange paradox as the teeming multitudes go about their tasks.

We were on our way to visit Christopher Scheirer of Charley Coffee Company. His part of the coffee business was much different than Mike's as an exporter of small specialty roasted beans consumer direct. Charley Coffee is all about dealing with small independent coffee shops that the connoisseurs prefer.

The three of us spent the day talking about technology, great coffee, life and how the Internet is redefining the distribution model. Sitting on the porch of his lakeside home sipping some of the finest coffee in the world, it occurred to me that it certainly is a brave new world indeed.

My visit each year has gotten to be a much more intimate affair as time has gone on. Seeing happy healthy people rushing at me as we arrived, my first impression was that we are starting to change things for the better. Bright smiling eyes and faces showed in an instant that life was good and getting better.

Construction of the Molinillo was moving along at a fairly sedate pace however; well at least someone had recently applied some stucco. So things were at least moving forward! I've long since given up on any sort of finish date for this enterprise. I figure it will be done in its own time and there was no point in "finishing" since all businesses are constantly working on something. Sitting down for lunch we discussed how things were going for them and what was important in their lives.

The ladies who tie our monkey fist zip knots.

Annually we go through this and it's always a fascinating chance to see inside their lives. Our fastest knot maker Rigoberta was learning English and I got a special presentation of what she has learned so far. It is encouraging to see this hunger for knowledge. Over the course of a simple yet fulfilling feast I learned she wants to continue her schooling in accounting. Great news for this young lady.

She's the most educated person in her family with dreams of becoming an accountant. Making a difference in the life of even one person at a critical juncture is something that cannot be underestimated. For me it was a second grade teacher in South Miami Heights who made sure I learned to read. I put that poor woman through hell, but in the end she prevailed and the world was opened for me through books.

The key to extricating yourself from just about any undesirable situation is knowledge. How to acquire that knowledge is really up to you. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of encouragement or something a bit more hands on like our Monkey's Fist Project.

Your help in this project has been tremendous, the workers who tie these knots are not interested in charity, more than anything they just want a chance to participate and provide for their own needs in this rapidly changing world. Keep spreading that Monkey Fever around the world and remember that each knot tells a unique story. More importantly that story can be shared among those who make conscientious purchasing a priority.

In closing I would like to hear back from the Herd and see what you've been up to. Feel free to share what is important to you and how your Red Oxx bag has helped make a difference in your sphere of influence.

Cheers, Jim Markel, CEO

Watch the movie below and learn more in eight minutes about coffee than you ever thought possible.

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