What exactly is sustainable fashion?
When asked, I'd mumble - it's clothing made consciously - paying attention to raw materials and factory workers. It sounded right. But my friends weren't convinced. Between a trendy, affordable and accessible choice versus consciously made yet slightly more inconvenient and expensive clothes - my friends didn't see enough difference to change their behavior.
"Hi, my name is Andrea Reyes."
My name is Andrea Bernadette Reyes, and I am a chair of New York City fair trade coalition, which is composed of 20 small businesses and growing. Each one of these businesses works with artisans abroad to help bring their products to market.
"For the past two weeks ever since I was approached to have this talk before I lay in bed at night, I’ve been wracking my brain on what topic I should cover."
Why are we here? Yes, it’s Earth Month and also fashion revolution week, and where did fashion revolution come from?
So April 24th, 2013, 1,129 Bangladeshi passed away tragically in garment building collapse. During this week we are asked to remember those who passed away in Rana Plaza. I’ve been asked to turn my clothing inside out, shop sustainable products, and think about ethical sourcing.
Workers try to release two bodies trapped in the rubble of collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory building in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 30, 2013. (AP / Wong Maye-E)
But for some reason, these events seem more like a celebration, a mutual pat on the back for those of us who decide to ditch the evil corporation in turn for a more sustainable lifestyle. What does that mean - sustainable lifestyle? I don’t use paper towels. I don’t consume much anything but secondhand clothing, and I carefully plan out the more sustainable and expensive pieces I purchase.
There’s abundance of stuff in the world between craigslist, recycle and honestly dumpster diving in New York… the amount of stuff I can purchase from traditional retailer setting is quite low. My fair trade purchases are largely gift items, while my food shopping is done locally in Harlem where I live to support the community. I am not a vegan. I am not collecting my garbage to analyze it. And I have a car.
"So often within the sustainability community, we are committing sustainable shaming."
Why am I telling you this? So often within the sustainability community, we are committing sustainable shaming. Thinking constantly of listicles: “10 ways you are not doing enough,” “25 ways you analyze how you are killing the planet.”
We constantly come up with listicles: “10 ways you are not doing enough,” “25 ways you analyze how you are killing the planet.”
We are taught from the young age we have the power to create change. It’s a small action that counts. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Use energy efficient appliances. While my curiosity for environmental protection grew, my friends and family, seem to stagnate. I always say I am not a preacher. I am not here to convert you but simply try to lead by example. I haven’t given up on my friends and family but I question if I can’t get my mother to stop shopping at Filene’s department, how are my current actions make any real change?
"I haven’t given up on my friends and family but I question if I can’t get my mother to stop shopping at Filene’s department, how are my current actions make any real change?"
For those of us who work in the fashion industry, we often forget we receive a unique education into the world of consuming that most Americans do quite mindlessly. How do we share this knowledge without shame or guilt? How do we encourage lifestyle changes, making education accessible and products affordable? My advice - learn to sew on a button. Take a sewing class. DIY to experience the firsthand the work and effort that goes into making the items we now perceive as disposable.
I had an epiphany in the past year.
The target market fast fashion companies market to tend to skew towards younger demographics. The demographics that has not yet become aware of the impact of purchase habits have in the world. My suggestions? Home economics. Remember home ec? Bring conscious consuming education into the classroom.
As the chair of New York City Fair Trade Coalition, my role is all things fair trade.
I connect fair trade advocates to small businesses. Small business connects to large corporations and government organizations and broke educational institutions into the mix as well. "I often ask myself how does this elitist New York fashion bubble improve the lives of those who make our garments? We must first stop and realize, most of the clothing we are wearing today passed through poor brown female hands."
"We must first stop and realize, most of the clothing we are wearing today passed through poor brown female hands."
Depending on the events you attended this week you may have seen some representing those women but in my opinion, we are being pulled back into traditional fashion aesthetic, and away from unmasking dirty blood and inequality that lies beneath.
It’s easy to blame the corporation, a faceless creature that simply looks at P&Ls, quarterly earnings and stock prices.
What I never understood is - aren’t those corporations composed of people like you and me?
Are people just trying to get by and earn a living? How can we expect to change our corporations’ policies and procedures if each day we are willing to do their dirty work for them? Perhaps it’s the greedy factory owners’ fault for not paying fair wages. I found as we increase our position of power, we are able to justify exploitation - exploit vulnerable populations in the name of opportunism. I recently heard globalization is the new colonialism. It is a way for western countries to retain power over poor state and their resources. That’s certainly a thought to roll around in your brain for a while.
"I found as we increase our position of power, we are able to justify exploitation - exploit vulnerable populations in the name of opportunism. I recently heard globalization is the new colonialism."
Taking personal responsibility for my own actions, I myself skewered my branding away from showing the artist I work with to focus on the products. Away from the dirt that my products are often covered with when they are delivered from Uganda, away from uncomfortable stories how my women refuse to use industrial machines because they do not drink enough milk and their blood is not strong enough (their words, not mine).
Or from countless stories of Westerners throwing money into local’s hands to oversee their mission will quickly result in feverish back fighting […]. What would you do if you only had third-grade education and a white person hands you money and opportunity? Obviously, God was listening and your prayers have been answered. Take that money, and feed your whole family.
At A.Bernadette, I found myself talking more about where the materials are sourced, and their recycled, upcycled and zero waste components.
Half of me is constantly playing marketer. How can I convey the message in clean little package – Instagram-able, short, sweet, concise? How do I deepen the conversation, bring more nuance into the discussion, share the stories of what it’s like to work with the factory? Simply using the word factories or fair trade conjures up horror and dirty images. [...]
What I decided to do was go back to our roots.
When I first traveled to Uganda ten years ago in June, I remember seeing tailors copying designing custom dresses, pants, skirts…you name it and they recreate it. Today, A.Bernadette launched a new initiative called “reincarnation.” Favorite jeans gone bust? Send it to us and we will make a copy. Select one of our upcycled fabrics in this summer and I will bring it to artisans in Uganda who will whip up the new one.
This initiative will once again allow us to deepen the conversation.
For A.Bernadette, mindlessly following trends on WGSN was again what we are not willing to take. So much waste that comes from fashion industry comes from product development and poor sales performance. Companies like [fill in the blank] burn items that they are unable to sell (we will talk later…). As a fair trade business owner providing good wages assembling garments in the environmentally conscious way and now limiting the number of items we produce are my top priorities.
"So much waste that comes from fashion industry comes from product development and poor sales performance."
In closing, I want to thank Eileen Fisher for this opportunity to speak today. My goals for the event are not to say what’s right or wrong in the way we consume and conduct business but to push us to constantly question ethics and principles. To me, that is what sustainability and fair trade are all about. And who knows, perhaps coming together, this will start the new business endeavor that will disrupt the fashion industry.
Andrea is a professor at LAM College and Brooklyn College and coming this fall, she will be returning back to where she went to school, which is FIT. She teaches retail, buying and planning, trend analysis, and product development and few other courses. She also has a small business, A. Bernadette, which work with artisans in Uganda creating accessories and home goods made from recycled materials.