There are numerous examples of bottom-up, socially driven models of sustainable fashion. One model is Custom Collaborative, a Harlem-based nonprofit that helps low-income and immigrant women learn the business of fashion design using sustainable materials. The idea for the project started out simply enough, says executive director Ngozi Okaro. “I wanted to help women access clothes that fit their bodies and that were made by women who needed the economic opportunity.” Graduates have gone on to start their own clothing lines and to work for other independent designers. Some have even formed a worker-owned cooperative that provides garment manufacturing for New York City makers. “If we can help foster a feeding ground for women to own their own businesses collectively, then we’ve really done our work,” says Okaro. Worker cooperatives can thrive anywhere (they’re “imminently scalable,” says Okaro) with proper support.
In Philadelphia, where one in four people lives below the poverty line, Mary Alice Duff is building a clothing brand around a similar ethos: making clothes for women ignored by mainstream fashion, while using sustainable materials and providing living-wage jobs. Duff’s made-to-order, size-inclusive clothing line, Alice Alexander, runs from size 0 up to a 30 (with special orders for any body type) and is crafted out of lower-impact fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, and Tencel, a type of eco-friendly rayon. Her clients and visuals feature women of color, plus-size women, and nonbinary people, as well as others who simply support her mission. “What we’re trying to do is create a more inclusive apparel industry from the people who make our clothes to the people who wear our clothes,” says Duff.
What would it take to see more business models like Alice Alexander and Custom Collaborative? Duff says we need better leaders. Political candidates tailor their messages to the illusive middle class, and often ignore the working poor. According to a 2019 survey by Bankrate, a personal finance website, 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough money in their savings account to cover a $1,000 emergency. “I want government incentivizing businesses that are actually going to create jobs and wealth in low-income communities,” explains Duff. “Small businesses also need easier access to low-interest loans and more grant money,” she adds. Likewise, Okaro says cities need to make bigger investments in ethical garment manufacturing. “With fashion being a foundational industry of New York City’s economy, past and present, I think that the investment needs to match that.” She imagines more money going toward skills training and more dedicated space for manufacturing, in addition to consumer education about why supporting local and ethical manufacturing matters.