The Rebels at Fed By Threads work to restore freedom to the clothing industry
By Aimee Welch
Remember how Darth Vader went around blowing up planets and generally getting in the way of anyone trying to put up any kind of resistance? The evil empire would leverage its big weapons and army of followers (whether they wanted to help or not) to maintain power at any cost. And Vader and Palpatine probably would have sailed through had it not been for the efforts and persistence of the Rebel Alliance. Now, imagine that fast fashion is the Galactic Empire and eco-corporate-apparel brand Fed by Threads represents the small-but-relentless group of rebels determined to restore freedom to the clothing industry and improve life for ordinary citizens throughout the galaxy (or Earth, in our more realistic case).
Fashion industry pollution
“Evil” may seem like a harsh descriptor, but the apparel industry rightfully earned it—globally, it ranks #2 for pollution (petroleum is first) and #1 in water usage (even more than farming!). The industry is rife with poor working conditions and overworked, underpaid workers, many of whom are children as young as 12 making clothes instead of going to school. Garments and accessories from overseas contain lead and other toxic chemicals which can end up in your body… and the list goes on.
The bigger problem is that, as long as there’s high demand for cheap, fast fashion, the industry will find a way to deliver. They’ll churn out more inexpensive, low-quality clothing than humanity could ever hope to wear and the vast majority will end up being incinerated or sent to a landfill. So if consumers aren’t paying the price, who is? Therein lies the problem, and the catalyst for Tucson-based corporate apparel company Fed By Thread’s continued efforts to change the industry (and the world) for the greater good.
Circular business model
Skya Nelson, president and partner of Fed By Threads (FBT) asks, “Who is being served when profitability becomes the lone goal?” In the U.S., FBT is leading the corporate apparel industry in sustainable, circular fashion and is spearheading the fast fashion resistance. From its innovative circular business model and philanthropic roots to its forward-thinking innovations and commitment to transparency, FBT is a leader sure to attract fashion rebels by the millions. “Profitability is in the sharing,” says Nelson. “You can’t say ‘I’m successful’ when you are forcing other people to be in poverty and your business is unsustainable.”
But the rebels can’t win the fight against the evil empire alone. As consumers, we all have the responsibility to join the fashion rebellion, and the power to become part of the solution. “To make circularity the norm, it is necessary to start creating products differently and start adopting a lifecycle thinking approach in which all the product’s impacts over its lifetime are considered,” says Nelson. “Shoppers need to read labels, vote with their dollars and buy from the companies that are doing the hard work of building the circular economy… enough little pebbles can divert a river.”
What is circular fashion anyway?
Circularity refers to a closed-loop business model that basically mimics the natural process, recycling a product essentially back into the same product. The process considers the restorative/regenerative flow of products, by-products and wastes between production and consumption, with the goal of keeping valuable, limited resources inside the loop. Translation: there’s no waste.
The concept has been around since the 1990s but gained momentum in 2016 when mainstream news began revealing statistics about the global plastic crisis. Circular fashion demanded that fashion products be designed for “high-longevity, resource efficiency, non-toxicity, biodegradability, and good ethics.”
In other words, says Nelson, it means you reduce a product’s resource use and emissions to the environment, as well as improving its socio-economic performance through its lifecycle. For FBT that means, in part, making new clothes from your old clothes, he says.
Fed By Threads recovery system
“When we sell 6,000 T-shirts to Tucson Electric Power, in one to two years when the company no longer wants to use those shirts, a Fed By Threads recovery system will collect and deliver all their old garments to our recycling center, and the old shirts will be ground up and made into new thread,” Nelson explains. “That thread will be milled into fabric and we will dye, cut and sew that fabric into new garments…TEP can re-order shirts made from their old shirts.”
FBT calls this process True Love Circularity (TLC) and it is the concept that drives the company.
“Our model in which the values of resources stay inside the system in a closed-loop relies on the fact that our resources are limited, and as we are depleting them, we should keep in mind the First Law of Ecology of Berry Commoner, which states: everything is connected to everything else (1971),” explains Nelson.
Take, make and dispose model
This is a vastly different process than the current “take, make and dispose” model of the fast-fashion industry. The literal definition of fast fashion in the Oxford dictionary is “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” Thanks to computers and the digital age, fast fashion became a juggernaut in the 2000s, designed to move quickly from the runway to the store to the consumer… and unfortunately, to the landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in 2015, the fashion industry generated 16 million tons of textile waste in the U.S. alone. Considering it takes 600 gallons of water to make one cotton t-shirt and 1200 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans, the waste of resources is staggering and, frankly, the stuff of an evil empire.
We don’t need more
“We need to stop consuming those raw goods to make new material,” says Nelson. “We already have enough clothes for everyone on Earth to wear for the rest of their lives, but we continue to make more.” The making more isn’t the real issue though… it’s the how we make more that needs to change. The industry’s current process simply produces too much waste, without enough opportunity to recycle or repurpose the excess.
Closed loop apparel
A circular supply chain would produce no waste, no pollution, and no harm. It would support fair wages and good working conditions using people-positive/earth-positive methods. “Closed loop apparel systems thrive through efficiencies,” says Nelson, adding that if the fast fashion industry adopted a truly circular method of manufacturing, new and current products could meet consumer demand every day, without doing any harm. Then, like Darth Vader himself, the “evil” empire of fast fashion could redeem itself.
Consumers (that’s all of us) are the key to change
So, if money is the top priority and the fashion industry’s self-imposed standards are unenforceable and have no impact, who’s going to sort this mess out?
We all are, says Nelson. “Customers have all the power!” The state of the industry is flawed but consumers can shift what is made and how by demanding a better product and being willing to pay for it. It’s not easy. Budgets are tight, and buying fast fashion is tempting. But by doing the right thing now, together we can effect change.
“Eventually, the prices will drop as demand increases to maximize production ratios,” Nelson says. “The awful truth is, as long as parents are willing to buy clothes for their children that were made by children, the system will not change, or it will change slowly.”
Chances are, many of us are perpetuating the problem without even knowing it. Donating clothes is good in theory, but the majority still ends up being tossed because no one wants or even needs it.
Google “companies that use sweatshop labor” and see what comes up. Yikes. You’ll recognize many mainstream retail brands that have been ignoring the issue. Why? Because of us.
“We have met with almost every big box store and they have said they believe in buying ethically made clothes and are willing to create a program to integrate circular clothing into the supply chain,” says Reagan Prefling, FBT’s vice president of product development, sourcing and design. “They know it is the right thing to do but they are not going to force the customers to buy our product until the demand makes it profitable… so they wait.”
Nelson says one of the biggest issues he sees is that moms simply can’t find trustworthy, affordable eco-apparel locally so they don’t feel like they have a choice. Nelson says corporate America needs to be convinced step up. “The budgets have to be planned to focus on circular apparel and they won’t do that until they hear from thousands of moms that are asking for clothes for their kids that are made without formaldehyde, arsenic or heavy metals, like lead,” he adds.
For real change to occur, consumers have to demand it.
Walking the walk
FBT has been leading by example since 2012 by practicing and preaching guilt-free, circular fashion, and in 2016 it transitioned from a retail model to focus more on its supply chain. All of FBT’s clothes are American-made, CO2 neutral and Supply Chain Aware (SCA). The company exclusively carries certified, responsibly-manufactured products and provides emergency meals through the purchase of their garments.
They pay employees and vendors a fair wage that promotes longevity and sustainability. FBT includes an Impact Report with every order to educate customers on the history of that garment. They operate with full transparency and require it from vendors. “The business operates in a totally Earth-positive way,” Nelson says. “Wages, social, emotional and physical (toxicity, supply chain, fuel source)… we look at everything with a keen eye on the impact of the planet. That’s transformed me personally and set the direction for the rest of my life.”
And FBT’s goals for the future are equally as impressive. The forward-thinking organization aspires to own its own mill, recycling center, shipping company, and chemical factory. They want to use Artificial Intelligence to grow organic cotton using low-water/zero soil practices in 20-story buildings located in urban centers. They are working to centralize all of their U.S. factories under one location to prepare for global expansion, and they have an 11-year plan to launch dozens of products and services.
Nelson says FTB doesn’t define its victories the same way as large corporations. “It’s not having big offices; it’s getting to a place where we are a fully sustainable, vertical, circular economy.” Nelson says that partnering with a larger organization that can help FBT achieve its long-term supply chain goals will likely be in the company’s future. “We have had two merger discussions in the past year and we are looking for the right partner,” Nelson says. “Until then, we are satisfied with the little victories.”
Technology paves the way
While FBT’s mission is unwavering, the company’s business model is continually evolving, and new technologies will definitely play a role in moving their cause and the industry forward.
Closed-loop textile recycling technology, using plant-based textiles and bacteria-based dyes, and implementing a blockchain-based supply chain to increase transparency are just a few ways the industry can make production and consumption more sustainable, and move away from the evil ways of fast fashion.
In true form, FBT intends to be at the forefront of this progress. Nelson says the company is working with Artificial Savant, an IBM think group, on a proposal for 100% recycled clothing for the Department of Defense and the US Army, as well as an Artificial Intelligence project with Microsoft to track plant growth, recycling, and manufacturing of apparel through the circular supply chain. And they are already working with other fashion rebels who share their vision. Long-time partner Swisstex Direct, LLC of Los Angeles provides FBT with guilt-free, circular knitted fabrics, and is home to one of the world’s most technologically-advanced dye and finishing facilities.
Will good prevail?
Things are moving in the right direction but we still have a long way to go. “There is a significant push toward sustainability, and while every step toward ‘green’ is a step in the right direction, the big companies could do more,” he says.
It’s probably no surprise that the reasons for the slow assimilation are rooted in money. In the world of corporate apparel, shoppers are typically buying last minute for an event or product launch, so whether or not T-shirts were made ethically or sustainably isn’t high on the priority list, says Nelson. And in the age of fast fashion, getting what you want, when you want it, for the price you want, has become the standard.
But good can still prevail. Nelson has seen a lot of positive change in the industry, from an increase in non-toxic alternative products and waterless printing systems and dyes, to more educated customers. “Each day I meet people who are trying to make the world a better place,” says Nelson.
Transparency on a large scale
Large organizations like General Mills and Cox are taking steps toward apparel transparency and ethical practices. Everyday heroes are choosing to buy and promote guilt-free clothing, just because it’s the right thing to do. A rise in corporate social responsibility initiatives has created more demand, and zero waste and recycling programs are becoming more common in large organizations. And Nelson says they’ve seen even small organizations like “purpose-driven” Ben’s Bells in Tucson have a major impact.
Imagine the impact if more large corporations, selling millions of dollars in merchandise, also get on board.
“They have an opportunity to do something positive for the world,” Nelson says. “We sit down and talk with these organizations and we watch them transform. So Fed By Threads has slowly been chiseling away at the bad system in place.”
As awareness increases about the unsustainable and negative aspects of the fashion industry, progress can be made, but it’s a long road. That road is one Skya Nelson will happily travel to the end.
“I was asked if I could have any career, what would I choose? That’s easy… Santa Claus. Travel the world and give presents, who wouldn’t want that job?” he says. “I have always been a nice guy who likes to help and have fun. Doing what I do, running Fed By Threads, is the best job in the world. I make T-shirts that make people happy and save the planet!”
Chalk one up for the rebels.
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Aimee Welch is a writer and editor based in Chandler, Arizona.