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
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:
- 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.
- It’s ethical labor practices for the humane and dignified treatment of people involved in the production of an item.
- 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.
Some important resources for further understanding
US Chamber of Commerce Foundation: Circularity vs. Sustainability
“California Cotton Fields: Nathanael Siemens on a 10 Acre Model Toward Regeneration,” Fibershed, September 2019
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.
Mary Ruth, Owner of United Sewing and Design has over 30 years experience in the manufacturing of products by sewing and is author of “Industry Sewing Construction Methods” http://amzn.to/2yMxMmk. Her focus is on design, entrepreneurship; social enterprise; the connections between the environment, the apparel industry, and manufacturing; and how owners can leverage artistic methods to benefit their business.