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These local factories are creating an ethical economy amid the pandemic By MegAnne Liebsch

Poverty, ecological destruction, labor exploitation — these issues are the roots of global injustice. They create a forest of social ills that feels overwhelming and impenetrable. The spread of coronavirus has further confirmed how systemic injustice makes communities especially vulnerable to harm.

Pope Francis stresses the need for a comprehensive response to economic and environmental injustice through "integral ecology." Amid the current public health and economic crisis, his teachings in Laudato Si' serve as a roadmap to a better future. In order to combat climate change and social injustices, he argues, we must eradicate poverty and end labor exploitation. But how? As individuals, we can often feel powerless, unable to visualize — much less create — a just global ecosystem.

Just like with climate change, the worst effects of the pandemic have fallen on the most vulnerable communities, owing to the drastic inequalities in resource allocation across the globe.

For a group of North Carolina factories, called the Carolina Textile District, the answer is simple: Uplift your local community. This cooperative of textile mills formed with the goal of revitalizing the local economy with stable jobs. To that end, these manufacturers developed a brand of sustainable textile products, called COLLECTION.

And, through COLLECTION and its parent non-profit The Industrial Commons (funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development), they have built a movement that prioritizes people over profit. COLLECTION offers a powerful model of a just integral ecology that addresses economic, social and environmental ills and responds to immediate needs, like coronavirus.

Angel Rojas-Hernandez, is an employee at The Industrial Commons enterprise, Material Return. Last January, he spoke to a gathering of Catholic and Jesuit leaders about his work recycling unused fabrics (Courtesy of The Industrial Commons).

Collaboration is central to the success of the COLLECTION model. Over the years, they built collaborations with workers, community colleges, art education non-profits, clothing brands and suppliers, like their partner Ethix Merch, Catholic dioceses and Jesuit schools. Through these partnerships, COLLECTION works to uplift their local community by promoting environmental sustainability, fair labor practices and overall economic health.

Amid the pandemic, COLLECTION’s community commitment has taken on a new focus. With numerous reports of virus outbreaks in production lines across the country, the need to put people over profit is clear.

“Just like with climate change, the worst effects of the pandemic have fallen on the most vulnerable communities, owing to the drastic inequalities in resource allocation across the globe,” says Ethix Merch CEO Daniel Cardozo. His company partners with COLLECTION to brand and supply their ethical products, including masks, to institutions. “Supporting sustainable manufacturing and fair labor conditions — through organizational and individual purchasing — is like casting a vote that says ‘enough of this.’ When we reward companies who incorporate these values into their business models, we restore power and resilience to the human beings who toil for our comfort and (in the case of personal protective equipment) for our safety and our lives.”

Left: Francisco Son Chay, a PPE Cohort member with Opportunity Threads, sews the pedestrian mask. Right: Brandon Roberts, a PPE Cohort member with Ethan Allen, carries fabric for PPE gowns. (Courtesy of The Industrial Commons).

COLLECTION’s partner factories have instituted stronger worker health and protection protocols to support their communities. In a few short weeks, they retooled their textile factories to produce much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE). Since April, 60 manufacturers have made 400,000 units of PPE for essential workers and local communities.

“We’ve always been a community. We’ve always been connecting the supply and the demand through our services,” says Libby O’Bryan, COLLECTION-affiliated textile company. Dedicating production to PPE felt like the natural response for their manufacturers, she says.

COLLECTION has worked closely with physicians to develop sustainable and high-quality PPE for essential workers and healthcare professionals. Through Ethix Merch, they are also working to provide masks to the public.

“The COLLECTION masks are unique in their integrity,” says Cardozo. “The masks offer the perfect opportunity for the community to support COLLECTION's robust ethical standards, because people can easily understand that an item they put directly over their face to stay safe, should also be produced in a way that protects the maker and the environment.”

So far, Ethix Merch and COLLECTION have sold 1,800 masks, and they hope to reach 20,000 by the end of July. Their clients include several Ignatian organizations — Ignatian Solidarity Network, Marquette University Alpha Sigma Nu, Holy Trinity School and St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

St. Peter’s, a Jesuit parish in Charlotte, North Carolina, purchased over 50 masks for its teen service program, which partners young volunteers with local charities and ministries. Branded with the signature Jesuit sunburst, the masks embody St. Peter’s commitment to Catholic social teaching, says parish faith formation director Cathy Chiapetta.

St. Peter pastor, Fr. Jim Shea, SJ poses with St. Ignatius of Loyola, wearing his new COLLECTION mask (Courtesy of Cathy Chiapetta).

“One of the principles of being a Jesuit Catholic church is that you’re men and women for others. We also say men and women with others. We like the COLLECTION because we know that it supports our mission — by supporting and protecting creation and having a living wage that respects the dignity and rights of workers.”

Normally, the parish would purchase T-shirts for the teens, but “it just didn’t seem like the right way to spend money,” says Chiapetta. Instead, St. Peter’s chose the COLLECTION masks, which will protect the volunteers and the folks they serve.

Wearing masks is an act of solidarity—it protects others as much as it protects yourself.

The masks are also a symbol of solidarity. By supporting local textile artisans and eco-friendly production in North Carolina, St. Peter’s is living its mission of social justice, says Chiapetta.

Chris Kerr (right) visits the network’s fabric recycling company, Material Return, with other Catholic leaders earlier this year. (Courtesy of The Industrial Commons).

A long-time supporter of Ethix Merch and COLLECTION, the Ignatian Solidarity Network offers a “Solidarity” mask through their online store.

"Wearing masks is an act of solidarity—it protects others as much as it protects yourself," says ISN director Chris Kerr. "Intentionally choosing an ethically-made mask furthers that commitment of solidarity, ensuring that the inherent dignity of those who make your mask is affirmed through your purchase. This goes for the Earth too, ensuring that God's creation is cared for through the materials and methods utilized to produce a facemask."

The COLLECTION

COLLECTION — which also offers shirts, beanies and rucksacks made by different partner mills — embodies the principles of Laudato Si’: ethical labor, sustainable materials (using cotton from U.S. farming associations or local recycled fabric) and collaboration between factories and branding suppliers.

According to founder Molly Hemstreet, COLLECTION is about “creating a movement. The products are just one part of what we see as a cultural change in consumption patterns. We want to build up a real revolutionary alternative to the current fashion industry.”

But what makes COLLECTION so “revolutionary”? What can their response to coronavirus teach us about building a more just and healthy society?

Step 1: Put People Over Profit

Maricela Lopez (foreground) shows off a T-shirt quilt (made for Project Repat) at Opportunity Threads, COLLECTION's flagship worker-cooperative mill in Morganton, North Carolina.

Maricela Lopez has worked on factory floors for most of her life. She describes her past experience at a chicken processing plant as violating and dehumanizing. But now, as a co-owner of a COLLECTION-affiliated textile factory called Opportunity Threads, she has the power to improve working conditions and support employee welfare.

In many ways, coronavirus has heightened our collective awareness of unsafe working conditions and insufficient social assistance for low-income workers. Research shows that infection rates are higher among low-income communities, which lack access to healthcare or even adequate sick policies. These trends indicate a fundamental disregard for the rights of workers, especially those in poverty.

COLLECTION is committed to changing that model through community-based industry.

“When you’re coming from a place where your rights have been violated, as a leader you have a choice — do the same things that were done to you or do better," says Lopez.

Molly Hemstreet (second from left) started Opportunity Threads with one sewing machine (Courtesy of The Industrial Commons).

“We’re looking to help people — not just create wealth but use it for the benefits of families and the community,” says Hemstreet, who also founded Opportunity Threads.

Workers here are paid a living wage, and at the end of the year, they all receive a dividend from the factory’s surplus profit (provided there is a surplus). If they meet certain criteria, workers are invited to become part of the ownership structure. As owners, they invest about $25 of each paycheck into the factory until their buy-in amount is met, and through seats on the factory’s board, they steer key business decisions. This model benefits all workers, through a culture of shared profitability in the business, strong benefits and open space for voicing concerns and ideas. Currently, Opportunity Threads has six owner-workers.

“It is incredible that [we] have gathered many companies together and have put many people back to work,” Lopez says of COLLECTION’s response to the pandemic. “Maybe at the beginning the difficult part was figuring out how to do it. But, we are now well on the road where we need to be. It gives such satisfaction that...we are able to help people who are working in the hospitals and we know that they are our superheroes right now.”

Ethical Labor in the Textile Industry

Part of what makes COLLECTION-affiliated mills radical is how they reject industry norms. Globally, textile companies operate with precarious and destructive business models that prioritize profit over people. For most clothing brands, a worker's wage only accounts for 1 to 3 percent of the total cost of the garment. Workers are routinely paid under the local living wage and forced to work grueling hours in unsafe factories. The rise of fast fashion—the rapid, cheap mass production of clothes—has increased demand but decreased wages, and it has encouraged a global “throwaway culture” that sees clothes and the people who make them as disposable.

Clothing purchases have skyrocketed in the last two decades. So has clothing waste.

“In the era of globalization, consumer goods have become shrouded in dubious mystery,” says Cardozo. “The big clothing brands, for example, spend far more energy marketing their social-responsibility programs than on the programs themselves. As a result, consumers don't get to know where the raw materials come from or who manufactures the goods or under what conditions. COLLECTION turns this model on its head with total supply-chain transparency to back up their claims about sustainability and worker rights. This brings storytelling back to production, making commodities into ‘crafts’ again.”

Step 2: Build a Sustainable 'Circular Economy'

COLLECTION-affiliated manufacturers aim to transform the textile industry into a local “circular” economy. Circular economies are designed to build healthy economic, social and natural systems.

In many ways, the concept of a circular economy is a direct answer to integral ecology and its call for social and ecological conversion. For Opportunity Threads and its sister textile factories in North Carolina, a circular economy both upholds the dignity of workers and prioritizes environmental sustainability.

Historically, North Carolina was a hub for furniture and textile production — due to the local Appalachian craft tradition and industrialization. In the last 40 years, many of those jobs moved overseas, leaving skilled workers without gainful economic opportunities.

"We want to build up a real, revolutionary alternative to the current fashion industry."
A worker at Opportunity Threads sews tee-shirt quilts. The scraps will be upcycled into new yarn (Courtesy of The Industrial Commons).

Industrial Commons and COLLECTION are revitalizing this small, mountainous corner of Appalachia with a radically different approach to the industry. Their circular economy operates through a collective business model: sharing resources among factories, empowering workers through co-ownership, educating the community on craft-making, and recycling and reusing materials.

According to Hemstreet, the COLLECTION is about “creating a movement. The products are just one part of what we see as a cultural change in consumption patterns. We want to build up real revolutionary alternative to the current fashion industry.”

A circular economy in the textile industry is a closed loop of collaboration between firms that constantly recycles and recreates fibers for different purposes.

This system is a prime model of integral ecology. Every level of its organization is informed by a desire to create a healthy and prosperous community — economically, socially and ecologically.

Get involved

Before Covid-19, Jesuit organizations, including Boston College High School, Creighton University’s Center for Service and Justice, Georgetown University Alternative Breaks Program and Scranton Prep, sourced merchandise through Ethix Merch and the Collection. Now, Ethix Merch hopes to expand these partnerships with Jesuit-branded face masks.

Learn more about how your institution can support the work of Ethix Merch and COLLECTION by ordering face masks here.

Schools and institutions can use their purchasing power to support ethical and sustainable practices by contacting: to justmarkets@ethixventures.com. To keep up with the COLLECTION and this thriving ecosystem follow @createthecollection on Instagram.

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MegAnne Liebsch
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