In today’s episode, we are going to learn more about how the New York-based nonprofit Custom Collaborative, is changing the apparel industry economics for low and no-income and immigrant women and helping create a more just fashion industry.
In this interview, you’re going to hear Executive Director Ngozi Okaro talk about Custom Collaborative’s various programs, like their training institute, business incubator, cooperative development support work, and advocacy.
- EP11: Fashion Activism: It’s Time for Brands to #PayUp with Ayesha Barenblat
- Fashion That Works Production
- Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62)
- New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Accountability Act, (“The Fashion Act”)
- Garment Worker Center
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app
Or, read the transcript below.
Read the Transcript From This Interview:
So I guess, by way of background started Custom Collaborative, because I was having clothes made by a woman who’s an immigrant from Guinea. And she would make me really great clothes. Sometimes I would try to make some small alterations myself. And I realized that I wasn’t doing a great job.
There were some things that she could learn differently, but more important, there were so many potential clients for her. And for people like her who had skills that I really wanted to connect Mariama, my dressmaker, with people who could pay multiple times what I paid her for the clothes that she made.
I am trained as a lawyer; I practiced law for a few years, and then moved to nonprofit management. So I started Custom Collaborative, our program started in 2016.
And have been devoting myself basically full time from 2016 until now on this work.
Yeah. And can you tell us about the various programs like the training institute and the business incubator that Custom Collaborative has today?
Absolutely. The primary purpose of our work is to provide low and no-income and immigrant women with skills to have satisfying careers and businesses in the sustainable fashion industry. We go about our work three ways.
We have a 15 week, 30-hour per week training institute, that in April 2022, will start for the first time since our last class graduated in June 2020. So I’m really excited about that.
The second part of our work is a business incubator, where we support the women who have graduated from the training program, as well as other small and emerging businesses in the fashion industry.
We help the women who graduated from the training program, make their dreams happen by continuing to support them on the business plan that they created in the training program. By placing them in jobs, which could be also of apprenticeships or internships, we’ve actually just gotten funding from Chanel as the lead stakeholder in an apprenticeship program.So we’re super excited about that.
And then the third part of our work is worker cooperative development. So worker cooperative is like any other business, except for the people who work in the company, also own it and make all important decisions. We think that this is a really important way to not only provide people with ownership opportunities but to also spread values of democracy in collective work.
The cooperative development program, Fashion That Works, in the summer of 2020 launched and is incubating a cooperative fashion that worked production. So those are our three main programs and we do some occasional consultancy on anti-racism for other businesses.
Yeah, you do so much at Custom Collaborative, and we’re gonna dive deeper into all those areas. But first, I wanted to explore with you why does Custom Collaborative focus on career development and business development within fashion given fashion’s sort of reputation for not always providing very positive employment opportunities? You know, why does Custom Collaborative focus on this industry?
For me, it was the entryway that I saw, right? So like I had a particular problem, I am tall, it was better for me to have clothes made than to buy clothes off the rack and have been altered. And then I took some classes and did some research and realized that most women in America don’t fit clothes that are off the rack, right?
The clothes off the rack are made for a particular fit model, depending on the company. And that doesn’t fit any of us.
So that was my entry point. I mean, yes, there are many industries that have poor practices but I believe that the poor practices were created by people and people can change them.
So I don’t think that fashion is irredeemable. I think that there’s the opportunity to do something within fashion. And I also in creating Custom Collaborative thought about the cultural context, which in within which many women exist. And so for many folks sewing in fashion, almost wherever they come from, is an acceptable occupation for women, and it’s something that people are comfortable with, and it’s something that everybody needs. And that brings many of us joy. So that’s really the why of fashion.
Mm hmm. Yeah, totally agree that the system is fixable if enough of us engage with it and push for that change.
So at Custom Collaborative, you are creating a more positive future for fashion with your programs that you described to us. And we know that this space of fashion has so so so much greenwashing, especially as Big Fashion tries to co-opt sustainability.
So can you tell us what sustainable fashion means to you, and to Custom Collaborative and what you think that Big Fashion is missing from this conversation?
Sustainable fashion means that both the natural environment and people are prioritized in its creation. So sustainable fashion means environmentally friendly materials and processes that are put together by people who are paid living wages and work in decent conditions.
For many years, sustainable fashion, had been talked about only in the context of the environmental impacts. But that really, to me makes no sense because if we’re not talking about the lives and the conditions of the people who make clothes, then you really have an unsustainable future and unsustainable fashion.
Like, for me, if a garment whether it’s made of polyester, or linen, if the person who made it was not paid a decent wage, or if their labor was not willing, on their part, then I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want it on my body.
Mm hmm. Yeah, absolutely agreed. And something that I often say with that is, what type of world are we sustaining if exploitation and poor labor practices are still embedded in the systems?
So I love that Custom Collaborative is taking that approach to sustainability. And beyond your programs, I know that you are also an advocate for legislation, like SB 62, known as the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, as well as consumer activist campaigns like PayUp which was led by Remake.
And, by the way, for more context on the PayUp campaign, listeners can tune in to Episode 11 with Ayesha Barenblat of Remake.
But Ngozi, could you tell us more about your involvement with those campaigns?
Sure. Custom Collaborative was a signatory to the PayUp campaign, we were part of the coalition, which was actually many of the same groups in support of the Garment Worker Protection Act, which was really led by the Garment Worker Center in California.
We are part of a group that is pushing for amendments to the so-called Fashion Act that recently was introduced in New York. So we’re really part of a community of organizations that recognize that it is not just consumers, but also us as citizens who need to demand and push for protections for the planet and for people who clothe us.
Absolutely. And could you tell us a little bit more about the Fashion Act and the amendments that Custom Collaborative is advocating for?
Yes, so the Fashion Act is a different scope than the Garment Worker Protection Act. And what we’re looking for — the coalition of folks asking for amendments, we actually suggested some amendments — what we’re looking for is something more on the scope and scale of the Garment Worker Protection Act, or even legislation in some European countries.
The Fashion Act, as I read and understand it, is more about tracking and voluntary registration and reporting, where we’re looking for something that has a bit more teeth, something that really holds manufacturers and retailers to account.
So rather than just reporting on the supply chain, but doing a deeper dive, and when there’s recognition, when the government recognizes that companies have done something that’s illegal, or counter to the legislation, that the company will have to fix the harm where it occurred.
So right now, as the Fashion Act is written, if there was a harm that a company did overseas, then that money would come into a pool in New York and go to New York organizations. Whereas we feel if there is harm done anywhere, the harm needs to be remediated where it happened.
Yeah, that makes sense. So the Fashion Act is very close to home for you, as Custom Collaborative is based in New York.
And Custom Collaborative really believes in local manufacturing. You focus your programs on New York. So can you speak to why local production is important to you and to Custom Collaborative?
Yes and actually I want to expand it. I think that local production is important to all of us especially after we have gone through the pandemic, which there continued to be supply chain issues. But in the earlier days of the pandemic, there was a big issue because people couldn’t get enough protective equipment.
So that means hospital gowns and masks, all these things were sewn overseas, and not made and sold in the US. So one of the things that Custom Collaborative did was start making masks, primarily so the women in our programs could earn income, but also to serve a community need. So we donated thousands of masks and sold masks.
So it’s really important that in the case of a national emergency — which is what the pandemic was — that communities can support themselves and have access to the life-saving things that they need.
For Custom Collaborative, and I think, again, for the industry, it’s very important to have local production because that way you can actually see what’s going on.
So we know that in China that the Uighur people are being forced into labor. What is harder to know is what companies are benefiting from that forced labor, because it’s so far around the world and they’re so different countries have such different standards on labor and human rights.
So if production were more localized, we would be able to have answers to some of these questions and also have items in our supply chain that align with our values.
Then also, for Custom Collaborative, just to go more granular, it’s very important that we produce locally, because there are people in our communities who want to do this work, want to have good-paying jobs, and can have that. So if we can do it right here, to me, that seems like the best and most important thing to do is to support our own local communities.
Yeah, and localizing production is definitely a way to make supply chains more transparent, as you touched on, as well as more responsible with the added transparency and accountability. Though, unfortunately, these things are not always the case as the campaign for the Garment Worker Protection Act really brought to light some of the sweatshop-like conditions that were happening in Los Angeles.
So could you speak to why domestic manufacturing or made in the US doesn’t always equal ethical and then maybe how we can close that gap?
Sure. I mean, there’s no always, right? I think that there are situations where we can increase the probability of the outcomes that we want.
So just thinking about the Garment Workers Protection Act, before the Garment Workers Protection Act, companies would subcontract their work to factories who might then subcontract it to another factory.
And so the label might say, company XYZ, but it was put together by company A and B, and C. And it’s possible that none of those companies were paying a minimum wage, but company XYZ was really able to wash their hands of it because they had subcontracted. Now with the Garment Worker Protection law in California, SB 62, Company X, Y, Z can no longer absolve themselves of responsibility just because they subcontracted to A, B, and C.
So the closer we get to the people who are benefiting, being responsible, the better workers are and the better off consumers are, because they can walk around with clothing on that they understand, to be free of unjust labor practices. Right?
So again, there’s no guarantee but the closer we put the parties together and the more actual regulation that we have. In this instance, the better off it is for workers and for consumers.
Mhm, right. Yeah, subcontracting is such a huge, huge issue and it happens in local supply chains just as it happens with supply chains overseas. And fashion brands no matter where their supply chain is will take significant efforts to separate themselves from the actual production of their clothes to try to reduce their responsibility for what is happening.
And then they’ll push the prices down with factories and factories often have no choice but to pay less or require their workers to work more and then yet the brands profiting off of this entire system are not being held accountable for what is going on.
But legislation, like the Garment Worker Protection Act, can be used to help close that responsibility gap and ensure that brands are held to account for what is happening in their supply chains.
So, do you see the same issues of subcontracting, underpaid labor, and exploitative working conditions in New York’s Garment District that have been documented in Los Angeles?
Yes, I think that it happens, not just in the New York Garment District, but wherever there is the potential for exploiting people. I was on a panel recently with a woman who was sharing the experiences of people who were seamstresses in Queens, who suffered exploitation and were not paid minimum wage.
I think that is… it’s relatively widespread, obviously, not in the same way that it was decades ago, or that it is in some other countries today. But I think that when there’s opportunity for exploitation, especially if that exploitation leads to profit for a few people, then yes, it can happen. That said, I have not been in a factory in the garment district for the past two years. But I have seen it in prior years.
Mhm. And when we think about systems-level changes for shifting the power dynamics to try to address these issues, one possible business alternative business model is cooperatives. And as you mentioned in the beginning, something that Custom Collaborative is involved with is supporting the development of co-ops.
So can you explain to us the basics of what a fashion manufacturing co-op is, and how it might be an approach to a more equitable fashion ecosystem?
Absolutely. A cooperative is just like any other business as I talked about, except that it is owned by the workers. So the cooperative fashion that works production, which is owned by four Custom Collaborative participants, is incorporated as a private business.
And the four women decide what types of projects they’re going to take on, what they’re going to charge, how much of what they charge goes back into the business, if they’re going to hire other people, if they’re going to vote in other people, as member-owners.
One of the reasons that that is so important is because it gives people agency. They know that if they’re underpaying themselves, that’s their fault and it’s their responsibility to do something about it. They are also the experts at what they’re doing.
Whereas in a situation where it’s more hierarchical, and there’s one or two people making the decisions for a business that involves hundreds of people, though that type of business might not have the right information might not have the best inputs, because it’s not a cross-section of the people who are actually doing the work, who sometimes have greater and different insights.
Another reason that cooperative ownership is important is because it allows people who don’t have work authorization to legally work as long as they’re owners of the cooperative.
And I just see it as for one thing, something that is growing in New York, New York City has had a owner to owner program going that helps owners of existing businesses transfer the ownership to workers. And that’s like a great way to keep small businesses in New York if the owners are like, aging out, or they want to sell their business and they can’t find buyers, this way, they can have people buy the business who also know the business, and then people get to keep their jobs.
Another impact of workers actually owning the business is that they can make decisions that are less wasteful, and more in line with a planet that can continue to support human and diverse plant and animal life.
I believe that part of the problem with the fashion industry now is that there is overproduction and with exploited labor, or unsustainably low priced labor, there’s a greater incentive to produce. And so then it’s that much easier to have like overproduction of clothing, just like, you know, clothes in boxes and bins that get thrown away or burnt.
But part of the problem is, there was not a high enough cost for the manufacturer or the owner of the business, not to make the clothes. So they can just make a lot of things and say like, oh, somebody buys it, they buy it, and if not, we’ll just get rid of it, because it costs us hardly anything to make.
So when the people who are making those decisions are the owners, are the workers, there’s more at stake — they’re not going to just waste their labor.
So I think that the more again, we connect the people who are making decisions with the people who are living in communities with high rates of pollution, make the decision-makers also a larger community of owners, I believe that gets us to a place where we’re entering a more sustainable fashion industry.
Yeah, absolutely, there are so many areas where ethical and sustainable and slow fashion intersect and there is always a strong case to be made for when the fashion production is done more ethically and fairly, it also leads to more sustainable fashion.
Because, yeah, the low wages and lack of investment in manufacturing facilities, that is how we get such cheap fashion, which leads to such overproduction and overconsumption with little recourse because financially it was so cheap to make in the first place.
So in terms of talking about sustainable and ethical fashion, having these connections, how do you implement that in your training institute and business incubator? What sorts of sustainability initiatives do you have with those programs?
Sure. With our training institute, all of the materials that our participants learn on are repurposed, donated, upcycled. So, many fashion companies and some individuals will give us fabric and zippers and everything else that people need to learn to sew.
So from right there, we’re really diverting textiles from the waste stream. So our participants can learn and develop skills.
We also, in our programs, teach sustainability. It’s really important for us that the women who were training to go into industry, understand what’s going on in industry, and understand their place in it and how they can be more sustainable.
So as we look at it, we’re training the future fashion leaders and we want to make sure that they have the education about sustainability that they need so they can make good decisions when designing and producing their own collections.
Yeah, that’s amazing. So how can we all support Custom Collaborative’s work? And where can we find Custom Collaborative online?
Yes. So online, we are at CustomCollaborative.org. On Instagram, which is where we have a lot of our interaction we’re @customcolab — C O L, A, B, one L. And we’re on LinkedIn, Custom Collaborative, Facebook as well and Twitter @customcolab.
This is March Women’s History Month so we have a campaign to fund our programs.
We’re a nonprofit, and so we get our funding from people in corporations and foundations. And it’s because of this funding that we’re able to train women into living wage jobs. We’re able to provide mentorship and materials for women and even hold holiday marketplaces so they can sell their goods.
So I would be overjoyed if listeners would go to CustomCollaborative.org or even to our Instagram or Facebook page and made a donation or told other people about Custom Collaborative. So that’s something that’s really important.
And then if there are people who have specialized fashion industry skills, if they would like to volunteer with us, we have a volunteer application, they can email firstname.lastname@example.org. There may also be a place on our website, I just don’t remember right now, but we are always eager to have people come in and teach and share their knowledge.
We’ve had folks come in and teach a course on social media marketing, pants alteration, color theory. So any of these things would be great if they’re industry experts who want to support us.
Great. And we’ll make sure all of those links are in the show notes on consciouslifeandstyle.com for listeners to reference later.
I have one final question for you before we end this conversation that I ask all guests that come on to the podcast. And that is: what would a better future for fashion look like to you?
A better future for fashion. That’s a really good question. So I actually have two answers.
A better future for fashion would look like all people having access to sustainably sourced clothing that fits and affirms their bodies.
Right now, so many clothes are gendered or in a specific set of sizes that many people feel left out of wearing and owning clothes that make them happy.
The other thing is that I am looking toward the day where the people who produce fashion are treated as the important pieces of the fashion industry that they are. People many times overlook the seamstresses and the leather workers but really those are the folks who actually put the designers’ dreams out into the world. And so I look forward to a future where those people receive the recognition and the pay and working conditions that they deserve.[MUSIC FADES IN]
And that’s a wrap for this episode with Ngozi. I definitely recommend checking out and following Custom Collaborative’s work, as they are truly driving change in the fashion industry.
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About Ngozi Okaro
Ngozi Okaro advocates for a fashion industry that honors planet and people. Ngozi founded Custom Collaborative, to support immigrant & no/low-income women launching sustainable fashion businesses and careers. Custom Collaborative serves US designers who want to design and produce locally, fashion-industry workers, and consumers who want ethical fashion.
Among other distinctions, Ngozi is a 2021 AARP Purpose Prize Fellow, 2021 Crain’s Notable Woman in Business, 2020 “World-Changing Women in Conscious Business” winner, from Conscious Company Media and Kate Spade, 2019 NYC Fair Trade Coalition “Changemaker of the Year”, and 2019 New York Women’s Foundation “Spirit of Entrepreneurship” awardee.