An Honest Conversation at Eileen Fisher
Who am I?
Hello - My name is Andrea Bernadette Reyes and I am the Chair of the NYC Fair Trade Coalition. This coalition is composed of 20 small businesses and growing. Each one of these businesses works with artisans abroad to help bring their products to market.
Why am I credible?
I am also a professor at LIM College, Berkeley College and coming this fall to FIT. I teach retailing, buying and planning, trend analysis and product development and a few others.
I also have my own small business A. Bernadette. We work with artisans in Uganda creating accessories and home goods made from recycled materials.
For the past two weeks before I've got to sleep I've racked my brain on what topic I should cover in this talk. Why are we here? Yes - Its Fashion Revolution week but where did Fashion revolution week come from?
April 24th 2013 1,129 Bangladeshis passed away tragically in a garment building collapse. During a week we are asked to remember those who passed in Rana Plaza, I've been asked to turn my clothing inside out, shop sustainable products, and think about ethical sourcing. But for some reason these events seemed more like a celebration, a mutual pat on the back from those who have ditched the "evil" corporation in turn for a sustainable lifestyle.
But what does that mean? Sustainable lifestyle? I don't use paper towels, I mostly consume second hand clothing and carefully plan the more sustainable and expensive pieces I purchase. There is such an an abundance of stuff in the world between craigs list, free cycled, and honestly dumpster diving the amount of stuff I purchase from traditional retail settings is quite low.
I'm not vegan. I have not collected my garbage to analyze it. And I have a car. Why am I telling you this? So often within the sustainability community we are committing sustainable shaming. Constantly thinking of listicles. 10 ways your not doing enough. 25 more ways to analyze how your killing the planet. We were taught from a young age we have the power to create change. Its the small actions that count. Reduce, reuse, recycle! Use energy efficient appliances. While my curiosity for environmental protection grew my friends and families interest stagnated. I always say I am not a preacher. I am not here to convert you but simple try to lead by example. I haven't given up on friends and family but I question if I can't get my mother to stop shopping at JC Penney's how are my current actions making any real change?
Those of us who work in the fashion industry 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 guilt or shame? 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 first hand 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 a younger demographic. A demographic that has not yet become aware of the impact their purchasing habits have in the world. My suggestion, home economics. Bring conscious consuming education into the classroom.
As the Chair of the NYC FTC my role is all things fair trade. I connect fair trade advocates to small businesses. Connect large corporations and government organizations to small businesses and rope educational institutions into the mix as well. Event planning, blogging, sharing, retweeting, and a lot of panel discussions later I often ask myself how does this elitist NYC 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. Depending on the events you attended this week you may have seen some representing those women but in my opinion we're being pulled back into traditional fashion aesthetic and away from unmasking the dirt, blood, and inequality that lies beneath. It easy to blame the corporation. A faceless creature that simply looks at P&L's, quarterly earnings, and stock prices. What I've never understood is aren't those corporations composed of people like you and me? People who are just trying to get by and earn a living. How can we expect to change a corporations policies and procedures if each day we are willing doing their dirty work for them?
Perhaps it's the greedy factory owners fault for not paying fair wages? I've found as we increase our positions of power we are able to justify exploiting vulnerable populations in the name of opportunism. I recently heard Globalization is the new colonialism, a way for western countries to retain power over poorer states and their resources. Thats certainly a thought to roll around in your brain for a while.
Taking personal responsibility for my own actions I myself have steered my branding away from showing the artisans I work with to focus on the products. Away from the dirt that my products are often covered in when they are delivered from Uganda. Away from the uncomfortable stories of 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 the countless stories of westerns throwing money into a locals hand to oversea their mission which quickly results in thievery, backbiting, and disappearances. What would you do if you've only had a 3rd grade education and a white person comes and hands you a wad of money and an opportunity? Obviously God was listening and your prayers have been answered. Take that money and feed your whole family.
At A. Bernadette I've found myself talking more about where the materials are sourced and their recycled, up-cycled, zero waste components. Half of me is constantly playing marketer. How can I convey our message in a clean little package, instagram-able, short, sweet, concise. How do I deepen the conversation? Bring more nuance into the discussion? Share those stories of what its like to work with a factory? Simply using the words factory or fair trade conjures up poor and dirty images.
So with my own brand marketing as a sustainable brand rather than a fair trade brand what am I to do? A bit ironic or hypocritical as the chair of the NYC Fair Trade Coalition.
What we've decided is to go back to our roots. When I first traveled to Uganda 10 years ago this June, I remember seeing tailors designing or copying custom dresses, pants, skirts, you name it and they could recreate it. Today A. Bernadette launched its new initiative: Reincarnation. Favorite jeans gone bust? Send it to us and well make a copy. Select one of our up-cycled fabrics and this summer I'll bring it to Uganda where the artisans will whip up a new one.
This initiative will once again allow us to deepen the conversation. For A. Bernadette mindlessly following trends on WGSN was a gamble we were not willing to take. So much waste that comes from the fashion industry comes from product development, and poor sales performances. Companies like Target literally burn items they are not able to sell. As a fair trade business owner providing good wages, assembling garments in an environmentally conscious way and now limiting the amount of items we produce are my top priorities.
In closing I wanted to thank Eileen Fisher for the opportunity to speak today. My goal for events like this are not to say what is the right way or the wrong way to consume and/or conduct business but is to push us to constantly question our ethics and principles. To me that is what sustainability and fair trade is all about and who knows perhaps coming together like this will spark a new business endeavor that will disrupt the fashion industry. Thank you.