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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.

 

 

Essential Tutorial on Fibers, Fabric and Finishes

Earlier this spring I received a grant from the CT Department of the Arts and the CT Department of Economic and Community Development to present free online programming in response to the COVID crisis. One of my events was a presentation on textiles: what they’re made from, their structures and finishes. I created this presentation because so many of my customers lack knowledge on this subject, I realized that being more informed about textiles would save designers time, money and effort as well as making their lives easier when working with vendors such as myself. I have a Masters degree in textiles as well as over a decade of teaching textiles at the collegeate level. This presentation gives you an overview of an entire semester’s worth of material. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed presenting it!

Who is Independence Day For?

As white, middle-class folk usually do, we think that everything is about us. We also forget that everyone else may not live as we do, with all of the rights and priveledges we are accustomed to. It’s so easy to go about our daily lives, gliding from one hour to the next on a cushion of assumed understandings about what life should be like.

We live in a different society now. We cannot go back to the way things were, nor should we want to. We are called to re-examine our normal behaviors, our assumptions, our thoughts, and what lies beneath them. So, in honor of today, July 4th, 2020, our country’s 244th birthday, I ask, who is Independence Day for?

Instead of proffering my opinion on this question, may I offer an excerpt from one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” Mr. Douglass gave this speech on July 5, 1852, to an abolitionist group in Rochester, NY. I found the excerpt at tolerance.org, a website for educators. The entire speech can be read here.

Below the text is a link to a short video in which Mr. Douglass’ descendants recite selected passages from the speech and offer their thoughts on our current situation. I also include several links to my past blog posts on related social issues.

“…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! …

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.

Continue reading “Who is Independence Day For?”

Take Action. Speak Up.

Sculpture by Tara Springer, Graduate sculpture student at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Image curtesy of
Sculpture by Tara Springer, Graduate sculpture student at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. Image courtesy of Streets Dept

 

Writer’s Note: Before we can go about the business of social change in our country, we need to know and accept fully that our American society is based on racism.  Racist attitudes and actions by white people against Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous people continue to be systemic in every social structure, and every organization, governmental or private. Racism is present in the full light of day in the actions of many white citizens of our country. And, as much as we hate to admit it, racist thoughts lurk in the minds of the majority of every other white person in America, including myself. Although we know how difficult it will be to actively combat this racism, especially in our own minds, we must be diligent and vigilant. Our efforts will not be perfect. I/we will make mistakes. But, we must learn from those mistakes and then move forward again in faith that our efforts are just.

Race Relations and the Color Divide

About a decade ago, I began thinking of race from the point of view of an artist. Here’s why. Artists often compose with color in their work. They understand that white is a color just like every other color including every version of black, red, brown and yellow. As artists apply it, white isn’t invisible, it’s not a lack of color, it’s not a section in a composition that is unnoticed or forgotten. If we extend this thought, we also notice that, although white is not the same as the other colors, it is not any more or less valued in a composition. It shares in the development of the artwork, sometimes moving to the fore, sometimes into the background, sometimes absent altogether. “White” is not one color, it has many shades: ecru, off white, eggshell, bright white, etc.

Let’s agree that using white is a choice that an artist makes when, in their mind, the composition requires it. White, like any other color, can be symbolic in the hands of an artist. Like any other color, it can be used to convey meaning. But, using white in a composition can also be devoid of symbolism; political or religious opinions, or emotion. Because I’m an artist, I know that sometimes, the choice of using a color in a composition is completely devoid of any extraneous thought altogether. It may simply be a reaction to what I see in front of me or in my mind as being appropriate.

From those thoughts, I arrived at the phrase to describe a human as being, “a color other than white” instead of a “person of color.”

Thoughts of “the Other”

The reason that I have an issue with the phrase, “a person of color,” is that the phrase still reeks of division and the comparisons that have led us to the untenable situation we find ourselves in now. The phrase still perpetuates the concept of the “other.” Looking at and thinking of someone as the “other” is the slippery slope that allows us to add additional attributes to that “other.” Attributes such as, “they aren’t as smart as me, they aren’t as honest as me, they aren’t as successful as me, they don’t deserve to have what I have, I don’t need to respect them as much (or at all!) as people who look like me, they don’t share my values”, and on and on…. All of these false attributes that we stick on the “other” inevitably lead to, “I’m afraid of them.” Thinking of someone as the “other” also allows us to think of our fellow humans as beneath us. It allows us to devalue them. It allows us to not bother learning about them. Worst of all, it gives us an excuse to disrespect them.

A Chance for Change

The point of this phrase, “a color other than white” is to understand that although we may seem different in many ways from someone else, deep down we are all the same. I don’t mean just in our bodily structure and functions. I mean that we all need and want the same things. We want ourselves and our families to be safe which includes living in a safe place and the freedom to move about without fear. We want to feel happy most of the time. This includes being well-fed and in good health. We want the best for those around us including the best education possible and engaging, well-paid work that leaves us feeling good about our contributions.

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United Sewing and Design 2019 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. (Click on 2018 last year’s report to see how far we’ve come.) This post is the United Sewing and Design report for 2019 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

This year we began to focus on adding formerly incarcerated individuals to our pool of collaborators. We connected directly with the Department of Corrections Correctional Enterprises of Connecticut system that manages commercial enterprises within the Osborn Correctional Institution in Enfield, CT and the York Correctional facility in Niantic. The apparel manufacturing facility at Enfield includes a very well developed system of managing inventory, workflow and output. It includes patterning, plotting, automated cutting, sewing, packaging and shipping. Inmates are also employed in a computerized embroidery shop with the capacity to digitize patterns and render them on patches, apparel and hats. The female inmates at York sew mostly flat goods including sheets, towels and laundry bags using a variety of equipment. These activities greatly enhance the capabilities of the individuals making them highly skilled candidates for employment once they transition into society. Read my blog post about why you should employ formerly incarcerated folks here.

In 2019 our pay to independent contractors M.I. in Middlesex County and J.T. in Hartford County increased by 49% over 2018. Our work at the moment is mostly developing, prototyping and manufacturing small runs of patented products for individual designers including pet products, sporting gear and apparel. These designers also include an exciting group of inspired, urban designers in the Hartford area. We are actively involved in growing a vertically integrated apparel industry in CT along with groups such as Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Our efforts also include creating connections between designers, producers of textiles, trims and yarn and providers of services such as knitting, dyeing and embroidery in the region.

Read More!

Business Owners: Put Down that Advice Book and Read this Instead

Across That Bridge, A Vision for Change and the Future of America by Congressman John Lewis is a must read for business owners.
My own copy of “Across That Bridge” has been stuffed in my bag or pocket many times.

Business Owners: Change Your Thinking!

Collectively, we business owners have read hundreds of business advice books. You know the typical topics: how to squeeze more productivity out of every second of your day, what entrepreneurs eat for breakfast, how to pump up your sagging profits. Blah, blah, blah.

My advice…read something more holistic that will impact every function of your business.

I write about the books I’m reading because mindset matters. What’s going on in your head has a profound, impact on the everyday decisions that business owners make. You can begin by reading my post about Zeynep Ton’s “Good Jobs Strategy to you improve your profitability. Then, inject some creativity into your business by reading about Pagan Kennedy’s Inventology: How We Can Dream Up Things That Change the World

Read “Across That Bridge” Instead

Just lately, I finished “Across That Bridge, A Vision for Change and the Future of America” by Congressman John Lewis our county’s most influential, living, civil rights leader. I heard his commencement address at my son’s 2013 graduation from RPI. So, while I am reading his writing, I can hear his musical way of speaking in my head. He reminds me of old school African American preachers. His writing style captures their passionate, lyrical, thoughtful way of preaching.

Before you start reading his books, I recommend watching this short video of Congressman Lewis with Stephen Colbert. In it, Lewis speaks about “getting into good trouble,” (be sure to watch till the end for something you’ll never see Lewis do again). Or, watch that RPI commencement address in which he speaks about “keeping the faith,” and “walking with the wind.”

In “Across That Bridge,” Lewis outlines seven concepts which business leaders can employ to build their business, stay motivated, and do good.

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Where Will You Find Your Next Manufacturing Employee?

Sewing contractors such as myself often complain about the lack of skilled labor in our field. This is a common complaint from many manufacturers, especially in CT. What’s your plan for finding your next workforce resource? Need a suggestion?

I have a source of pre-trained, vetted employees whose current supervisors vouch for their training, abilities, demeanor, and attitude. I know exactly what these potential employees have been working on in their professional lives potentially for years before. I know that their training also included soft skills such as being responsible and respectful. And, on top of all of that, they were recommended to me by their direct supervisors as someone I can trust to get the job done. Are you sold? Imagine the huge load having this source would take off your shoulders! How about if I share my source with you? read more!

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.

 

The Wisdom of Seasoned Entrepreneurs

Jeff Haden’s recent article for Inc. magazine made me feel really happy for two reasons.

Meeting to scale up a business

1. He reassured me that I am in the right place at the right time.

2. He justified my opinion about what’s wrong with Facebook.

The article, “A Study of 2.7 Million Startups Found the Ideal Age to Start a Business (and It’s Much Older Than You Think),” expands on the conclusions of the study conducted by the Census Bureau and some folks at MIT. Here’s a demonstrative stat:

“A 60-year-old startup founder is 3 times as likely to found a successful startup as a 30-year-old startup founder–and is 1.7 times as likely to found a startup that winds up in the top 0.1 percent of all companies.”

Does this mean that 30 year olds shouldn’t bother starting companies? Of course not. I started my first successful business when I was in my 30’s while raising two kids. It does mean that as you age, if you pay attention, you pick up massive amounts of experience that can then lead to habits, thought processes, and abilities that will give you the wisdom to have a better chance at success. Older people have usually been through tough times, setbacks and situations where they had to ask for help. Having those experiences will support that great idea that you have. I’m scaling up my third successful business now in my 50’s, secure in my direction and my ability to execute because of what I’ve endured in the past and the knowledge that I have gathered.

Which leads me to the second, related reason why Haden’s article made me happy. The study he highlights has reassured me that my opinion about Facebook is justified. (We can view Facebook’s ongoing difficulties as a case study about the importance of developing wisdom as an entrepreneur.) The issues that Mr. Zuckerberg and his associates have created for themselves (and the rest of the world’s population that is, or will be, connected to the internet) are mostly due to lack of humility, the inability to foresee outcomes and the lack of understanding of human needs and nature. I am absolutely sure that, early in the formation of the company, they could have found numerous folks over 50 with enough experience to help them create a platform that is not so misguided, blatantly manipulative, and a haven for the worst behaviors of human kind. Just had to put that out there.

Please take a few minutes to read Jeff Haden’s article no matter what age you are. It’s short, and contains a lot of useful info. If you’re over 50, it will make you feel really good about starting your business!

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.

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