United Sewing and Design 2018 Social Enterprise Report

United Sewing and DesignEach year in CT, social enterprises are required to report their progress toward fulfilling their social impact goals for the previous year. This post is the United Sewing and Design report for 2018 about our progress toward meeting our business goals which are:

  • hiring individuals who have barriers to getting and keeping well-paid employment and,
  • diverting materials from the waste stream into our business and preventing materials from our manufacturing processes from entering the waste stream

Goal 1:  Hiring individuals who have barriers to getting and keeping well-paid employment

Our independent contractors have included individuals with social and emotional disabilities, and full time caregivers for individuals who need intensive support in daily life. I work with social service agencies and non-profits to identify individuals who are trustworthy and dependable, know how to sew, have the appropriate workspace and equipment, and are experiencing barriers to getting and keeping well paid work.

This year we added formerly incarcerated individuals to our pool of collaborators. I connected with the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education to identify ladies who were placed at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. This was an important goal for us because the inmates at York sew a variety of products including t shirts, prison uniforms and bed linens so they are already trained for the manufacturing skills we need.

In 2018, our pay to contractors increased 527% over 2017. United Sewing and Design paid contract labor wages to independent contractor “M.I.” from Middlesex County. (I do not name my contractors to preserve their privacy.) Although this increase is significant, we consider it essential to grow sustainably and look forward to steady growth for the rest of 2019. I interviewed two new contractors, L.A. from Hartford County and L.M. from New Haven County, both of whom were referred by the Weselyan CPE, who will be working with me in 2019. Much of our work at the moment is geared towards developing and prototyping  patented products for individual designers. I anticipate that these contracts will grow into steady manufacturing work for our contractors.


Goal 2:  Diverting materials from the waste stream into our business and preventing materials from our manufacturing processes from entering the waste stream

In 2018 we diverted approximately 120 pounds of textiles from entering the waste stream at the beginning of our processes including 79 lbs. of decorator memos, plus miscellaneous yardage from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Some of this material was passed on to other users (see our Instagram), the rest is waiting for us to use.

We also prevented material from entering the waste stream at the end of our processes. We use a simple sorting system for natural fibers, synthetic fibers, and pattern paper. As small scale tests, we recycle pattern paper and cotton fabric into paper for our tags as seen in this video, and we are re-purposing cotton materials into cleaning cloths. These two endeavors are our tiny versions of industrial processes which you come into contact with everyday almost without knowing it. You can leave a comment if you want to know more about these processes.

We still end up with a good portion of materials that we can’t recycle or re-purpose. This is the same issue that many workrooms face. The problem is that the material is scraps, not yardage and not an item like home textiles or apparel. There are many companies and groups that take finished articles and yardage but very few that take scrap fabric, especially on a small scale. However, Fabscrap, in Brooklyn, does. They primarily recycle and resell fabric from  garment manufacturers like us in NYC. They sell yardage, boxes of color coordinated scraps and a material called shoddy which is shredded fabric. However, they only pick up in NYC so we will have to ship our scraps to Fabscrap or drive them down, a tricky choice when it comes to carbon footprint. In our workroom, we must have systems in place for reducing waste such as using more effective markers.

Observations on 2018

Our processes of hiring disenfranchised workers have led to important discussions, pathways and connections for this year and subsequent years. Some highlights of what we’re thinking about and wrestling with:

  • People want to work, rather than take a handout. If given the appropriate opportunity, folks will gladly work instead. They understand the  connection between work and self esteem.
  • Concerns have been raised by business and social service leaders about the gap between making so little money that a family qualifies for Medicaid or Food Stamps, and making too much money to qualify for these benefits. Specifically, questions are being addressed about how public and business organizations can alleviate the impact on families of falling into this gap. We have connected with the Middletown Working Cities Challenge, a local initiative, to work on useful solutions.
  • We have discovered that being committed to paying our workers a minimum of $15 an hour, is harder than it sounds. In the end, it often comes down to the final price the consumer is willing to pay in a retail setting. If we are manufacturing for retail sale, we must search for manufacturing opportunities that support the work opportunities which we want to create.
  • Personally, I am frequently annoyed and disappointed with business leaders and commentators who perpetuate the image of the “lazy, social service dependent” adult. They imagine the personality, motivations and lifestyle of this community of “others” as simple and one dimensional. I’m not going to attempt to comment on the complexity of this dynamic, but will merely point out some facts that have bearing on the employment issues faced by disenfranchised individuals who are trying to find a decent job. How do I know these facts? Because I have lived them. They are as follows:
    • The CT mass transit system is not built for folks who want to find a good job but don’t own a car. There are very few well paid jobs located in areas where mass transit runs frequently enough to serve the working public. A 30 minute commute in a car is extended, literally, to hours on a bus or train reducing the number of hours a worker can work and increasing the number of hours they must pay for dependent care. Not to mention the fact that, in some areas, there are entire days when buses don’t run at all!
    • Safe, reliable dependent care for children or the elderly is difficult to find and expensive. In order to find a well paid job, one must find work that justifies the expense of dependent care that is flexible enough to cover the hours a working adult is away from home.
    • For low income working adults, it takes extra time and energy just to live that significantly reduces the energy and time one has to work. Just navigating social services processes such as qualifying for food stamps and energy assistance or seeking medical care at clinics and emergency rooms saps worker’s strength and resolve to find and keep a well paid job.

Interested in finding out more about how to create good jobs? Read this.

If you are a designer, educator, home sewist or manufacturer and would like to discuss having your unused material repurposed or converting your material scraps please contact us.

If you have suggestions for ways that United Sewing and Design can positively impact your community in the areas of economic justice and the environment please contact us.

If you are interested in sustainable manufacturing, the circular economy, the environmental impact of the apparel industry, and fair labor initiatives among other topics, follow my Twitter feed @UnitedSewing.

For more thoughts on how your personal consuming affects our environment read this

For more thoughts on how your business manufacturing decisions affect our environment, read this and this.

Thanks for reading!




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