I was sleeping last night and going over in my head the various conversations I’ve had about SustainU in recent weeks and how it was a real vehicle for change, not just a clothing company. I am not much of a blogger if at all, I usually just post recent events or new shirts being used by different organizations. But I felt compelled to talk about it to all of you so here it goes.
I didn’t start SustainU with the hopes of becoming a millionaire, not even a thousand-aire (not sure that is a word). I just wanted to start something that I personally believed in. I worked in the fashion industry in New York, basically making about a living wage lol ( by Manhattan standards). I started to learn about the materials and labor that went into the final product, the must have clothing of that particular season. “Eco” and “Green” started to be buying buzz words in show rooms across the city as more people were seen carrying a re-usable sacks into Whole Foods around town. Many clothing companies saw a great opportunity to parlay the growing knowledge of climate change and extreme US waste into increased profit margins for their company. I started to see great discrepancy in how the word “eco” and more importantly the word “friendly” was being thrown around and stamped on products just to increase the price. I was perplexed by this and got me thinking, is this really a lasting solution or something we all should really get behind? So I started my company SustainU to try and create a more authentic clothing brand to help provide a more transparent option. We are not perfect either, but trying to use the latest and most current technologies available to make a more sustainable product and to increase jobs here in the United States.
Throughout our first few months as a company, I have had to work hard to show why this matters and pull the blinders back a bit to better inform customers and buyers. I usually run into the same group of statements surrounding sustainable fashion, and want to share with you some of the areas where I believe we can do better.
The first statement:
“The major target market for this eco-product is in the USA, but the product itself is made in another country with strict fair labor conditions (and we have third party certification to prove it)”
Let me say first that I think that is necessary that we insist on the highest standards in labor and human rights laws from countries where we import goods. With that said, if the major target market for these goods is the USA than why are they not made here? What about the consideration for the employees, families, and communities that these “third party certified jobs” where first taken? These people are actually your customers too! American textile communities, once vibrant and prosperous, are now devastated. Some would argue that we need to evolve into other industries, more high-tech jobs. Have you ever seen a Fabric Cutter cut out a 20 foot long, intricate pattern with a 24” knife like as if they were slicing butter? It may not be considered “high-tech”, but it is absolutely amazing and a truly a skill. Textile work was generational in the USA, and something that people’s lives and communities were built upon. These towns are now struggling for jobs, for innovation and renewal. The saddest part is that we have the innovations in the textile industry being put in factories around the globe, just not here. The bottom line is really the bottom line; companies do not want to pay American workers enough money to earn a salary that would allow them to live in America. We would rather outsource, and move away from manufacturing our own goods (allows a big mistake, history has taught us that). The trouble is that we need those jobs, and we need them to be made with new Green technology to be even more competitive..
There are a million excuses why operations have moved overseas and convincing messaging on how super concerned these companies are with their employees. But at the end of the day, Company X didn’t move to Country Y because they saw a major social need and wanted to fix it. Company X moved there because they did not have to pay an American salary, and could pay the people of Country Y less money. Now back in the USA, the person who used to work for Company X now cannot afford Company X’s products no matter how cheap because they do not have a job. Now they rely on tax dollars and on government assistance because their job skills are no longer of value in America. This is a generalization of the whole scenario, but never the less it is a true story that is unfolding every year more and more.
Your garment is made in the USA, in a 200 mile radius, and completely recycled… that is great! But, I can get a shirt that is made in a third world country (in who really knows what labor conditions), in a size range that is never consistent because they are made in different countries and mixed together, which also are made from petroleum based products (the main reason our country goes to war now days) for $1.50 less. So, I am gonna have to go with the cheaper option.
I don’t think I need to really explain why this bothers me; I think we all get it. The thing is every purchasing decision you make as a consumer creates demand at the manufacturing level. We can force companies to bring some jobs back home by the purchasing we make. Yeah I know $1.50 ends up being a lot of a difference when you’re looking at thousands of units, but think about what that the extra money is supporting….more customers for your business! Unless the majority of your target market is in Malaysia or some other far off land, your customer base is being funded by the little extra it takes to have a product completely made in the USA. And to have products that are made from recycled goods only helps you, me, and everyone. Fewer chemicals in the air, cleaner drinking water in abundance, and fewer natural resources exhausted, it’s really all good.
“Yeah we already sell an eco-option or “sustainable” product line in our stores. It is a T-Shirt made in Haiti (but it says Made in the USA on the label because the fabric, not labor was knit there), from 50% Chinese recycled plastic bottles and 50% conventional cotton from India”
How is that eco-friendly again, or supposed to be part of a real solution for a better planet or world? Who knows about Chinese labor not to mention if they really are plastic bottles that are being used (we do not know much about the manufacturing in China, although our country is one of their largest importers). Conventional cotton is one of the most pollutant crops on earth, and it devastating in rural (90% of cotton growers are rural) communities water and air supplies. And how can something have a Made in the USA, yet only have one component of the assembly actually done in the States?
I really believe that Americans want to make a change to become more sustainable, but we have to be better informed about these “green washing” products. We also can’t take short cuts just to say “we are doing the right thing and have that one eco-product, so we’re good…next”. We need a buy-in, at all levels because I do believe Americans can change and want to. If we can curb our consumerism and massive usage of waste, while employing a better way of doing business we can have a vibrant and flourishing country. With this internal stability, we can continue to help with the fight against poverty around the world and here at home. It is not widely known in our country, but there are communities of America that resembles that of a third world country. We need to strengthen our economy and protect our environment so we can be world leaders in humanitarian aid and a prime example of how “Green” can work.