Doing Together What Can’t Be Done AloneMay 05, 2021 08:15AM ● By Allie Arnold
By Allie Arnold | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
After spending 13 years working on systems change in the public and nonprofit sectors, Janay Brower launched Public Thread, a community-based, upcycling company that not only creates high-quality, hand-sewn products out of scrap material, but is also dedicated to disrupting the industry through its triple bottom line prioritizing people, planet and profit.
In Kent County alone, there’s an estimated 12,878 tons of textile waste per year and 308,000 tons across Michigan, according to Brower, and globally, the fashion, apparel and accessory industry is the largest polluter behind oil and gas.
Janay Brower and Lisa Knight
While it’s great to upcycle old clothing or take it to second hand shops, Brower says 85% of textile waste actually comes from manufacturing. It’s in this space that Public Thread has situated itself to build impact.
Since 2016, Public Thread has collected over 80,000 pounds of textile scraps and salvaged materials from partners such as Steelcase, Chaco and several breweries, utilizing items such as grain bags and billboards to create a variety of products from reusable shopping bags to leather totes, duffel bags and now, masks.
In 2019 Public Thread diverted 4.2 tons textiles from landfills.
Another way Public Thread is disrupting the industry is by supporting living wages.
“Our philosophy very much has always been, when we started and forever will be, how do we increasingly pay living wages, provide benefits, eventually become worker owned, so that everyone here is able to actually be an owner in the company and have equity in the company,” Brower says.
Looking at the global supply chain, a lot of production has gone overseas since the 1980s due to labor costs, and when it comes to products produced in the U.S., it’s often through prison labor, according to Brower. Data from the Prison Policy Initiative shows the average daily wage for non-industry prison jobs as 86 cents and labor for state-owned businesses averages between 33 cents to $1.41 per hour.
“How can we honor people to not just be cogs in the machine to just make the same thing over and over again,” Brower says. “But really try to counteract this entire system, which is truly quite wasteful and really unsustainable when you look at it from an idea of something that can continue over time, because this industry is very much based in low wage and slave labor.”
The reality that many communities and countries are reliant on this low wage labor, was even more evident with the onset of COVID-19.
“All of a sudden, everybody and their mother is in their kitchen, pulling out their Singer sewing machine, trying to make a mask out of whatever they may have and buying materials. It was difficult to get extra materials and get elastic and the things that you need to make the mask,” says Public Thread COO Lisa Knight. “Why? Because all of that stuff comes from overseas. We're not doing that here. Why did we have to be put in a situation like that, where we couldn't even provide for the safety and security of our frontline workers, because we couldn't get a product that's not even made here.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, when many were racing to find PPE, Brower and Knight switched gears to create masks. They consulted with friends, designers and those in the hospital system, trying to design a functional and protective mask. It was then that Brower recalled a filter-like material that she had received. “I don't even remember where I got it from, but I knew we would use it for something and I had, of course, no idea because it was months before.”
Within days they had designed and brought to market a new product, launched a new website, which had been in the works, and had over 200 people sign up to sew masks from their homes.
So far, they’ve produced over 70,000 masks.
“There are some positive impacts that came out of [COVID-19] because it's causing people to think very differently and this is the mindset of at least some of the consumers that you hear out there with buying things that are made here in America, with buying local, supporting small businesses to help them be sustainable, and help them to grow and thrive,” Knight says. “If we can begin to change that mindset, we can shift the way that things are done in our communities.”
Brower and Knight want Public Thread to serve as a model for how things can be done differently, in a sustainable and thoughtful way. And while systemic change won’t occur overnight, Public Thread proves that a sustainable model is possible.
“By buying our products, you're being an investor, too. You're investing in the future, you're investing in a different model for how these things can get made,” Brower says. “And that's really what we're hoping to do when we connect with our customers and our partners and suppliers.”
Janay Brower and Lisa Knight
Public Thread currently houses two additional businesses and in the future hopes to purchase the space to bring in more makers and entrepreneurs in order to support one another. Additionally, Brower and Knight are working with Grand Rapids Community College to restart its Industrial Sewing Training Program in partnership with ISAIC in Detroit, West Michigan Works! and The SOURCE. Brower says that they’ll be able to have training and educational opportunities that not only teach industrial sewing, but also how to bring a product to market, ultimately, helping people bring their creative ideas to life.
“Our mantra is ‘doing together what you can't do alone,’ and that's on purpose. Just like our name, ‘public’ is that concept of doing together,” Brower says. “It's a heavy lift for us trying to shift the entire system, but together with so many partners both in our community and across the country, we can actually have an impact. I truly believe it.”