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.

 

 

Five Reasons Why You Should Use Latex Foam

Nancy and Dick Coffey of KTT Enterprises look forward to helping you pick the right Talalay foam for your project.
Nancy and Dick Coffey of KTT Enterprises

Sometimes, you find a product that revolutionizes the way you think about your life. At KTT Enterprises, in Hamden, CT, I found such a product–natural latex foam. If you’re not using natural latex in your own home or in the products you manufacture, here’s five reasons why you need to do so.

I’ll introduce you to the friendly and knowledgeable folks at KTT first. Nancy and Dick Coffey helped me chose the right foam for my customer’s bedding project from among the many types of Talalay latex they stock. All of their foam is made in the U.S.A.. Latex foam is a naturally based rubber material made out of liquid harvested from the Havea brasiliensis tree. These rubber trees have a 25 year productive life.  Nancy, Dick and their employees will cut and modify the latex foam they stock to your specifications. In addition to the sheet foam I purchased, they specialize in making cosmetic “puffs” and packing foam for items such as cameras.  They also make “cricket donuts”, which are foam rings made to help keep crickets alive while they’re being shipped to your favorite pet lizard. Who knew…..

Five Reasons Why You Need Talalay Latex Foam

  •  Latex foam doesn’t give off harmful gasses into your household environment, unlike other foams, including some memory foam. All Talalay Latex products are certified OEKO-TEX Class 100; the healthiest classification in the leading global testing and certification process. This certification ensures textile materials and home furnishing products do not contain harmful substances or pose a health risk to consumers.

  • Talalay latex is made in Shelton, CT with an all natural, renewable resource produced by trees that are helping remove CO2 from our environment.

read more!

Have You Thought About Racism and Your Business?

bridges are built with respect
bridges are built with respect Photo by Tim Swaan on Unsplash

I was planning to write a post about the fast vs slow fashion this week, but decided instead to write on what has been on my mind for months now. I’m in a “put up or shut up” mind set after re-reading my LinkedIn profile the first sentence of which reads

“Business is about putting our beliefs to work. It’s not enough to talk about what you think is wrong; you must apply what you know best to create change.”

Also, I ran across Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he chastises white moderates:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is … the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…..Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I’ve been delaying writing about the place of racism in business for two reasons, neither of which I could be faulted for. First, obviously, racism is a controversial topic. As a small business owner, honestly expressing my opinion about it could potentially damage my business in multiple ways not the least of which is alienating potential customers. As you undoubtedly realize, small business owners have a very close relationship with the brand image of their businesses.  It is therefore, fair to assume that the business would suffer if the views of the owner are seen as misguided.

Find out more!

Your Business Creates Waste. Here’s How to Deal With It.

Tote bags with phone pockets and zippered pouches handcrafted for White Horse Style from reclaimed vinyl banners.
Tote bags with phone pockets and zippered pouches handcrafted for White Horse Style from reclaimed vinyl banners.

From the largest to the smallest, every business creates waste of some kind. Paper, old copier cartridges, used motor oil, shopping bags, metal shavings, outdated tech, Brian’s lunch from last week that he left in the break room fridge. Much of the material that ends up in your trash destined for the landfill doesn’t have to go there. I introduced some methods to implement for reducing the amount of waste that your business generates in my blog post of July 20th about closing the consumption circle. All of the materials I listed above, with the exception of Brian’s problematic lunch, already have recycling methods in place preventing those materials from being added to landfills.

Here are some additional, nationally available resources for diverting material from the waste stream into uses that provide meaningful work opportunities, sustain businesses and non-profits, support our economy, reduce dependence on social safety nets, and make your company look good.

Find out more!

Closing Your Consumption Circle–Three Paths That Will Benefit Your Business

We all know that being a business owner is beyond time consuming. Making decisions to move your business forward, managing people, looking for customers, “can I please have an extra day in the week to do all this”? Why would you possibly want to burden yourself or your staff with finding a way to close the consumption circle at your business? What are the benefits?

Think about how your business consumes.
Photo by Sharon Pittaway on Unsplash

First, let’s define some terms as they relate to manufacturing.

Waste—materials that you have left over from manufacturing.

Upcycle— reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of a higher quality or value than the original. Ex: turning moth eaten, cashmere sweaters into a coat by cutting and recombining them.

Repurposed—using something for a different purpose than that for which it was intended, altering it superficially in the process. Ex: creating pillows from the leather of a used couch.

Recycled— convert (waste) into reusable material, breaking it down and altering its form during the process. Ex: shredding discarded textiles to produce stuffing for quilted boots.

Closing the consumption circle means taking all of the materials that are not used in the products you manufacture, (the waste), and either up-cycling, re-purposing or recycling it so that nothing ends up in the waste stream on its way to a landfill.

Here are three ways to close the consumption circle at your business and some of the benefits each method offers.

Find out more!

Sewn Products Created Sustainably

kosrae

Renewable Resources = Sustainable Business

On the tropical island of Kosrae, Micronesia, hidden in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a theory with world wide impact is being proven. The theory maintains that it is possible, actually desirable, to sustainably manufacture well designed, fashionable products that last from renewable materials in a way that leaves no lasting mark on the environment, employs a previously untrained workforce and, of course, makes a profit.

Green Banana Paper, founded and guided by American social entrepreneur Matt Simpson, is proving that theory. Green Banana recycles waste from banana harvesting into weaving materials and paper which are then made into personal accessories and more. Matt’s company creates employment for residents of Kosrae that was previously unavailable to them offering income at home instead of having to go abroad to find work, away from homes and families.

No tech investment bubbles, inflated CEO parachutes, ponzi schemes, or robots taking over jobs here in Kosrae; just sustainable business growth, happy employees and a passionate, socially conscious business owner.