Combating the Exploitation of People and our Environment by the Apparel Industry

A Note from Mary Ruth Shields. Owner of United Sewing and Design

I discovered Mary Ann Stewart on Instagram and was instantly struck by her passionate grasp of her status as a white, middle-class woman and eco-conscious apparel professional. Through her Instagram page (@freshcercle) and new “Bold and Brazen” podcast, she spreads nuggets of thoughtfulness and positivity about clothing consumption, history, and the environment. In this post, she discusses the work that white folks must engage in to:

  • learn about systemic racism and negative environmental impacts in the apparel industry;
  • unlearn the thoughts and actions that have built these systems; and
  • relearn a new way to think and act so that we arrive at a “beautiful future” for all.

I’m sure you will find her guest post below to be challenging, thought-provoking, and inspiring.

 

LEARN, UNLEARN, RELEARN

Mary Ann Stewart, eco fashion professional
Mary Ann Stewart, eco fashion professional

by Mary Ann Stewart

 

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

                                                            ~ Alvin Toffler (1928-2016)

Before I dive in, I want to state that I’m a white woman living in a suburban Massachusetts community. I’ve grown up and moved through this world with layers of privilege. Among other things, this privilege has enabled me to start an eco-fashion business in the middle of a global pandemic. But, the framework of this privilege has been built to serve all white people at the expense of black, brown, and indigenous people of color (BIPOC). I’m part of the problems this framework has created so I continue to learn, unlearn, relearn.

Enslavement Builds a Capitalist Society and Systemic Racism

There is documentation, according to the website history.com, that there were already captive Africans in the Americas as early as the 1400s; as early as 1526 in the region that would become the United States. However, it is understood that for at least 250 years, the labor of enslaved built the economic foundation of a new nation. From 1619 to 1865, millions of human beings were hunted and trapped in West Africa. They were ripped from their families and communities, crammed into the bowels of slave ships, and transported to the colonies. From the moment those first African laborers stepped ashore in Jamestown, VA in 1619,

slavery became part of American culture, establishing frameworks and systems of capitalism, employment, and advancement.

Massachusetts was the first among the new colonies to legalize slavery and the first ships were launched from here. Although gradually northern states abolished slavery, northerners did not need to *own* slaves to grow rich from the institution. Ship-building continued to flourish in coastal colonies, including abolitionist states in New England. Shipping tycoons in Rhode Island profited from nearly a thousand slave voyages bound for West Africa. Bankers in New York insured ships that brought captives to Charleston, SC. Distillers in Massachusetts imported molasses from Caribbean plantations and distributed rum to Africa. Textile manufacturers in Great Britain and New England turned southern cotton and indigo dye into cloth. The systemic racism and the racial injustices which grew from these capitalist activities were established well before the Civil War and continued after the Civil War, evinced in “Jim Crow” laws according to a 2014 article by the Equal Justice Initiative. And they continue right up to today.

 

Fashion’s Exploitation of People and Our Environment

Rachel Cargel, a Public Academic, Philanthropic Innovator, and Social Entrepreneur reminds us that antiracism work is NOT a self-improvement space for white people. She says if protecting bodies and empowering black lives aren’t at the center of our work then we’re not here at all for black people, we’re simply going through motions to make our white selves feel better. I’m grateful to have been directed to BIPOC activists for years. Their words and work have brought forth greater urgency for me to learn, unlearn, and relearn some American History, especially where it intersects with my interests and experiences with fabric and making or buying clothes.

I’ve come to understand today’s global fashion industry is a product of slavery, racism, colonialism, and deregulation.

The system established before this country’s founding is a system that relies on the exploitation of people and precious natural resources across a linear supply chain for maximum corporate profits. Right now we’re confronted with multiple, unresolved crises: The Pandemic. Racial Injustices. The Climate Crisis. Epic Wealth Inequality. They all point to the critical need for new systems. Fortunately, new systems are emerging and beginning to change the global landscape — circularity, sustainability, and regeneration among them. (See links for more about these new systems below) After generations of being in a dysfunctional relationship with systems for textile production, I’m grateful this is happening.

 

What We Can Do to Move Forward

Because the fashion industry is responsible for so much of the waste and toxicity currently devastating the environment, and as a one-woman maker studio committed to new systems of circularity, and regeneration, it’s important to clarify what people can do to move forward.

Transparency and accountability are critical. We must require companies to know and share how they’re turning away from production models established over four hundred years ago during our long history of colonialism, slavery, and racism. Companies must show a commitment to people and the planet over their brand’s desire for profit. They must establish a meaningful partnership with consumers, so we know who stitched their product, right through to who dyed the fabric, who made the fabric, and who farmed the fiber and under what conditions.

We must also embrace sustainability. Sustainability is an overarching term under which one finds numerous categories, whether we’re talking about food, furniture, or clothing. I understand something to be sustainable when it’s available for as long as possible. When it comes to clothing:

    1. It’s the ethical and transparent sourcing of raw materials, obtained less along a linear supply chain than via circular ecosystems of regeneration and restoration.
    2. It’s ethical labor practices for the humane and dignified treatment of people involved in the production of an item.
    3. It’s the actual life and care required for an item once it’s in the consumer’s hands, and then, how to handle the item’s end of life/afterlife.

It’s up to brands to show how they’re mitigating the fashion industry’s negative impact: exploitation of people, and natural resources. It’s up to consumers to be critical thinkers, ask questions and demand transparency: Who started the business? What’s their Mission? Their Values? What’s their commitment to climate justice? To antiracism? Are they committed to the #15percentpledge? (See resource below.) If so, what’s their timeline for implementation to higher percentages?

 

A View of the Future

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to get us to stop and listen, examine, and work through our implicit and explicit biases. We’re key players in the work of dismantling these systems of power and we’ll have uncomfortable conversations in order to grow. Be an informed consumer. Shop responsibly. Demand transparency. I believe we can have a beautiful future with the healthy social structures necessary for our survival. They can only be created by courageous, self-aware people.

Who’s ready?

 

Some important resources for further understanding

“The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Here are the biggest ways it impacts the planet,” by Morgan McFall-Johnsen

US Chamber of Commerce Foundation: Circularity vs. Sustainability

“California Cotton Fields: Nathanael Siemens on a 10 Acre Model Toward Regeneration,” Fibershed, September 2019

“This Initiative Could Direct Billions of Dollars to Black-Owned Businesses,” by Cam Wolf

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Mary Ann Stewart sews, knits, and refashions clothing with lots of life still in it. She loves people, this earth, French-pressed coffee, and dancing to classic funk. Find out more about Mary Ann on her website www.freshcercle.com and follow her on instagram and facebook (@freshcercle). This post first appeared on the United Sewing and Design Blog.

 

 

Online Tutorials for Sewing Contractors

As a sewing contractor, I am always searching for more information to be able to create the best products I can for my customers. In this 20 minute blog post, I am listing four tutorial resources that I’ve found helpful.

Kathleen Fasanella

I can’t say enough positive things about Kathleen. Her singular devotion to the success of sewing contractors and apparel designers is legendary. I recommend her book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing to many designers I meet. It’s thorough, easy to read, and chock full of useful info. She even includes examples of documents you can use to keep track of your garment production processes. In addition, her website, Fashion-Incubator: Lessons from the Sustainable Factory Floor contains her blog, tweets, class list and great links.

The Rowley Company

The Rowley Company is my wholesale supplier for pillow forms, tools and machine parts. I featured them in my post about suppliers a few months back. They also have a lengthy list of webinars and how-to videos about anything related to manufacturing home decor items. If you want to know how to make a home dec item and find all the necessary parts (except the decorator fabrics) Rowley should be your source.

Sewing Parts Online

I just came across Sewing Parts Online a week or so ago while searching for sewing machine attachments. Most of the blog posts and videos seem to be geared toward home sewists. But I found a few, including this one about types of thread, which can be helpful to designers and manufacturers alike.

YouTube

If you’re considering buying a new machine or attachment for your workroom, you can find great demos on YouTube. In the search bar, type in “Industrial __________Machine Demo.” Fill in the blank with the machine you want to see such as a coverstitch machine. Most of the videos are from manufacturers, so you can do some comparison shopping before purchasing.

Hope you find this post helpful! Be sure to add any tips you have on finding online tutorials in the comments.

 

A Reading List for the Beginning Apparel Designer

apparel photo by Marcus Loke on UnsplashIn the second post of my 20 minute blog posts, (follow this link to the first one) I’m giving beginning fashion entrepreneurs a list of my three favorite books to read before you start and to have on hand as you progress. If you’re in school, you will want to add these to your list of assigned reading if you haven’t been required to read them already.

Kathleen Fasanella’s “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing.”

Kathleen’s main subject in this book is how to deal professionally with the vendors who will manufacture your apparel. Her writing style is plain spoken, full of nuts-and-bolts info without useless frills. Write your name in the front of this book,  read it from cover to cover and never get rid of it. Her companion website, is also chock full of meaty info. I always tell customers to buy this book first.

J.J Pizzuto’s Fabric Science Textbook and Swatch Kit

As a sewing contractor, I find that too many of my customers come to me without knowledge of the materials they’re going to work with. This makes their decision making process unnecessarily difficult and time consuming. Customers can save untold amounts of time and money by taking time to read and digest this book and put the swatch kit together. Later, when you run across a fiber, a textile, a chemical process, a type of knit structure that you are unfamiliar with, you can run back to your studio, pull this book off the shelf and educate yourself.

Tim Gunn’s A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style

Frequently, I meet with younger designers who have a rather narrow view of fashion. This is understandable as they are inundated with all manner of media demonstrating a particular viewpoint on what to put on one’s body and how to style it. I wish they would all take the time to read Mr. Gunn’s guide to get a solid foundation of what the core of fashion really is no matter what one chooses to wear. His conversational writing style makes the information contained applicable to anyone. A bit of history, a snippet of culture, a hard truth or two makes the book an entertaining read and worthwhile. Plus, take it from me, he’s just a really nice guy.

Why Successful Apparel Manufacturers Should Create “Good Jobs”

The Good Jobs Strategy by Zeynep TonA few years ago, I wrote a blog post on the concepts in Zeynep Ton’s insightful book, “The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.” Here’s an updated version with links to more meaty info.

Frequently, the expenses associated with hiring in the United States (a fair wage, predictable hours, a respectful workplace) are given as reasons not to attempt apparel manufacturing in the U.S. How can we change this mentality?

Read, internalize, then apply “The Good Jobs Strategy.” Ton’s research and conclusions are sound.

In “The Good Jobs Strategy”, Ton details methods for becoming a company that uses a “virtuous” cycle instead of a “vicious” cycle as the heart of a business. As a graduate of the Sloan School of Management, and an adjunct associate professor in the Operations Management group at MIT Sloan School of Management, Ton researched companies with successful methods honed to perfection such as Trader Joe’s, and Costco.

She breaks down the virtuous strategy into four “operational choices,” proving that these “allow (industries) to deliver value to employees, customers and investors all at the same time.” Although her book primarily uses retail businesses as examples, these methods could easily be adapted to manufacturing. They are:

Read More!

How You Can Change Your Bad Consuming Habits and Not End Up Naked

Shop at a Locally Owned Boutique
Photo by Clark Street Mercantile on Unsplash

If you’ve been paying attention to global trade issues lately, you’ve undoubtedly run across discussions about fair wages also known as a “living wage.” Simply put, a living wage is a close approximation of the amount of money it would cost to support a single person or family in the area in which they live. This well written article, by on racked.com about the apparel giant H&M, discusses why they probably aren’t paying their workers a living wage, what it means to make sure a labor force benefits from good pay and how you can make a difference. Please take the time to read it and visit the great links embedded in there. When the people you’ll read about who make the apparel you buy and wear live with their families on the other side of the world, it’s easy to put them out of your mind. However, your consumption of a $10 t-shirt or $20 pair of pants at H&M, Target, Uniqlo or other importer of apparel manufactured overseas impacts the wages of those workers. Your bad consumption habits are denying them a living wage.

The lack of a living wage and safe working conditions for the workers who manufacture over 90% of the apparel available for us to buy in the U.S. is nothing new. I’ve been covering this issue in my lectures, writing and social media for over a decade. So, let’s skip to the questions I know you’re going to ask, “Why should I care? I can’t change what’s in the store to buy. Isn’t it cheaper to live there anyway? I don’t set the prices. I’m just one person. How can I come up with the solution?” Here’s an answer you can use, with some simple steps you can adopt that aren’t too difficult or too expensive.

Find out more!

Truly Satisfying Your Customer

Industry Clothing Construction Methods

In today’s business climate, every advantage counts.  To truly understand what your customer wants, you have to listen to them. This short excerpt from the introduction to my book, Industry Clothing Construction Methods, highlights the essential concept of product benefits and the features that create them. Although the example is apparel, the design of any product could be made more attractive to customers by understanding these simple concepts and making them the core of your process.

“Designers hear the consumer say that apparel should offer benefits. Consumers believe that apparel benefits should help them achieve their goals as individuals, such as feeling more self-confident, gaining respect, saving time and money, attaining comfort during physical activity, attracting a lover, fitting into a social group or expressing them selves. The task for a fashion professional then is to determine what features should be included in the garments to achieve those apparel benefits. The core of the designer’s, merchandiser’s or buyer’s craft in the ready-to-wear industry is to find the right combination of features–silhouette, fit, shape, color, laundering method, fabric, texture, price, and so on–that entice customers to look, try-on, and feel satisfied  with their apparel purchase.”

For more on this topic, additional insight into the apparel merchandising process, and a wealth of concrete information on the construction of retail apparel, add Industry Clothing Construction Methods to your toolkit for manufacturing success.

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How You Can Put Quality to Work

Consistently Great Quality Generates Success

Tara and Tony Costanzo

While the theory behind quality can be debated endlessly, the value of putting quality first in your business is irrefutable. As discussed in our past post “High Quality: Competitive Advantage or Pointless Expense,” quality is one of the factors that you can use to differentiate yourself from overseas competition.   Tara and Tony Costanzo, of Costanza Clothing, (founded in 2002), have leveraged quality in service, materials and workmanship as an integral part of business success.  They have made it their mission to offer a “best dressed” option to professional men and women throughout the U.S.. Their custom made suits are complimented by their expert personal styling and fit guidance. On their website you can sign up for their newsletter (always informing), have your style questions answered, or contact them to schedule a personal fitting at a time the works with your schedule.  Here’s an excerpt from an interview we did a while back.

Find out more!

Re-Shoring 101

Take it from Bill Amos, CEO of NW Alpine Gear, LLC and President of Kichatna Apparel Manufacturing, LLC, you need to thoughtfully consider re-shoring your apparel manufacturing to:

  • shorten lead time
  • get a firm grip on quality control
  • save money on shipping and tariffs
  • attract consumers who care about “Made in America.”
  • Minimize the impact from unpredictable trade policy shifts

Take the time to read his article here, then contact us. We’d be happy to help get your company started on the road to fulfilling your goals.

 

 

Four Strategies You Need to Use for Sewn Manufacturing Success

The global apparel and textile industry began to change about 9 years or so ago.  Back then, I noticed several trends beginning to mature. Notable among them were developing technologies for production, a growing interest in made in the U.S.A., and awareness of labor and environmental issues in production overseas.  Connections began to form between these trends leading to thoughts about strategies that the apparel industry in CT (the U.S.A.) should concentrate on to be most competitive. I believe they are:

·         innovationhanging sweaters

·         high quality

·         educating consumers

·         dedication to “Made in America”

This week, I’ll be discussing innovation. I would love to hear what you have to say on these subjects.

Technological Innovation

The inclusion of the latest technology, such as robotics, in the production of apparel is the single most powerful and expedient addition we can make to create a competitive industry in the U.S. After all, that’s what we here in CT do best, right? Innovation and a can do attitude are the core of “Yankee ingenuity!” The cost lowering affects of technology are one of the factors that are creating the “tipping point” between making the choice to manufacture in China or the U.S. This tipping point represents a call to action that has been growing from a whisper to a clamor so loud that even Walmart is hearing it!

Innovation in Manufacturing Methods

Lean manufacturing, a set of production practices developed in the auto industry to cut waste in manufacturing, is currently being used to advantage by manufacturers such as Joseph Abboud in RI.

It is not so much a hardware innovation as an innovation in thought from the problematic assembly line where workers are isolated to a reorganization of the manufacturing floor into “pods” or groups of workers who complete garments together. Lean manufacturing can cut production time from days to hours, especially when coupled with the computerization of printing, pattern drafting, marker making, cutting and sewing steps.

Software Innovation

Software such as Yunique PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) is only one of the products created by Gerber Technology, one of the world’s leaders in computerized manufacturing support located right in Vernon, CT. Yunique PLM makes it possible for designers and manufacturers to communicate accurately and quickly to insure high quality and profits. 3D body scanning, being spearheaded by [TC]2rd the world leader in body scanning software and hardware located in Cary, NC, is making it possible to easily create a garment fitted to an individual’s exact measurements. AM4U (Apparel Manufacturing for You) located in Palo Alto, CA has created a digital printing process for fabrics which drastically cuts the time needed to print, eliminates the costly, environmentally unsound  practice of dyeing in water and produces a print that is impervious to bleaching and fading.

Employing these products in the manufacturing of apparel in CT falls right in line with the state initiatives to enhance high tech manufacturing. This level of manufacturing  generates professional careers in high paying jobs and the development of training opportunities and apprenticeships for our technical high schools and community colleges.

I am extremely excited about the position in which we find ourselves! The technological innovations being originated in our country, the growing interest in made in the U.S.A., and the economic tipping in our favor are creating an opportunity which we must seize. Please see the links below for more information.

Next week: how quality impacts competitiveness.