Embrace fast fashion by taking it apart
“Growing up in Oklahoma, wearing the hijab, I had to come to terms with being visibly Muslim,” said the Iranian-American organizer and activist. “People would call me a terrorist or claim to crush me.” And when policymakers presented the hijab and women’s rights as part of the justification for military action in Afghanistan or economic sanctions against Iran, she said, “that’s when That’s when I started to really think about clothes”.
A decade and a half later, 27-year-old Katebi has become one of the leading critics of the global apparel industry, especially its fast fashion sector. Where many of us might avoid looking too closely at the uncertain provenance of our wardrobe, Katebi dedicated herself to this hidden world – and ultimately to tearing it down.
“Rather than just, say, campaigning for garment workers to be paid an extra dollar,” she said, “we’re calling for an end to the system that puts workers in these positions to begin with.”
The “we” over there is Blue Tin Production, a small clothing worker co-op in Chicago run by working-class women of color, which Katebi founded in 2019. Blue Tin runs clothing contracts from a way contrary to the contemporary sweatshop: full fairness and transparency, no exploitation, abuse or greenwashing (a term applied when a company exaggerates its ecological conscience). The goal is to produce high-quality, luxury clothing while highlighting systemic fashion issues.
In addition to running Blue Tin, Katebi works as a community organizer, speaker, and writer, while attending law school at the University of California, Berkeley. “I run with saffron ice cream and colonizer tears,” she said. (The following interview has been condensed and edited.)
Q: What does abolitionism mean in the context of your work?
A: Fast fashion is a very specific type of crafting, primarily focused on speed and performance. While the rest of the fashion industry typically works on a year of four seasons, fast fashion works on 52: there’s a new season every week. It is impossible for this amount of product to be created in an ethical or sustainable way. The system needs violence to work. Assaults on workers by managers are common, in addition to general subjugation and enforced poverty that leaves people with little choice but to do this work.
This violence cannot be reformed. An easy analogy is slavery – you can ask slave owners to be nicer, but the institution is inherently violent. So Blue Tin is an abolitionist response to the fast fashion industry.
Q: How did fashion become your focus?
A: I discovered fashion blogging right before college. It was a fun outlet. But some of my favorite people worked with brands on the BDS list (a list of companies and individuals that support Israel). They weren’t thinking about the politics behind the aesthetics. When I created my first website, it was to push people to think about their clothes in a more complex and nuanced way.
It’s all about fashion. Fashion is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, for example – it contributes more greenhouse gases than all shipping and air travel combined (according to figures from the United Nations Environment Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
Then there is the link between sustainability and policing, which maintains the ability of cheap labor to exist. This, in turn, allows certain neighborhoods to be disproportionately affected by, for example, a coal-fired power plant that pollutes the air, which in turn prevents the community from thriving. Any issue you care about, you can find it in fashion.
Moreover, 1 in 6 people in the world work in the fashion industry. Nobody knows because the majority of them are women of color workers and farmers.
Q: Can you give an example of how this system resists change?
A: In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, factories will intentionally hire undocumented workers and not pay them for months. When workers get angry, management calls (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and organizes a self-declared raid on their own factory. Some of our former Blue Tin members have gone through this process.
Q: What are your biggest challenges at Blue Tin?
A: Abolition means ending this industry, and it also means thinking about the world we want to create in its place. How can we create clothes in a way that is not violent? It sounds like a low bar, but it’s extremely complicated and stressful. I cry about once a week.
Q: How is it day to day?
A: At Blue Tin, we try to prioritize “unhireable” people by labor industry standards. It means people who may not speak English, or who need to babysit their children, or who may need to sit down and process the trauma that they’ve been through because they’re survivors of domestic violence. The people who our systems have harmed in different ways.
The year we started, one of our members received a call that his uncle and 8-year-old son had been killed in bombings in Damascus, Syria. We asked him, “What do you need right now? We stopped production to go for a walk with her and build care around her. So we were way behind on our production, and we lost that customer. Ultimately, we live in a capitalist world. We can’t create a utopia – so the question is how do we create the best it can be, even if it’s imperfect?
Q: I noticed that you tend not to use the word “refugees” to describe the Blue Tin team, unlike some others.
A: For me, the class part is more important than the identity part because I hate identity politics. And “immigrant” and “refugee” have become catchphrases in the fashion industry. People are like, “Aw, a nice sewing circle of immigrant women.”
The team didn’t want to be framed by their trauma. We are trying to completely rethink the fashion industry and empower garment workers. So brands should work with us because of these incredible skills and track records, not because they feel bad. Oh sure, go for the PR; I do not care. But it really is the beautiful clothes, and it brings fashionable arts and crafts back to where they belong.
Q: What is everyone working on now?
A: Right now, they’re in “panty purgatory,” as they call it. They make underwear all the time, for a big customer. I think it’s finally done, but we’re basically panty entrepreneurs now.
Q: How did your awareness around these issues take shape?
A: Many of my values come from the Islamic values of divine compassion and divine mercy. That doesn’t sound radical, but it’s actually a radical request that we instead live in a world of compassion and mercy.
So I am for an assault on empire and capitalism. But some education is also necessary. You have to hold both at the same time. I guess you’re throwing your Molotov, but you’re also hugging someone.
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)
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