“I don’t understand why everyone isn’t juicing, it’s just so easy,” I once overheard a waifish juice bar owner declare to her perfectly coiffed dog, or maybe it was her friend. Does it really matter? I don’t think anyone (save for me) was really listening. The point being, ethical eaters often fail to realize that most people don’t have access to luxuries like liquid diets and organic produce that costs multiple times the pesticide-coated stuff, but the founder of Boerum Apparel, a Williamsburg-based sustainable clothing company that invokes foodie language like “small batch” and “farm to closet,” has a better attitude about these things.
“I’m not wearing anything that I have any information about because it’s almost impossible to get that information,” Teel Lidow said, looking down at his Oxford shirt and jeans. And that’s not because he’s a cynical banker boy just trying to make his millions and get out of the sustainable fashion biz. “People need to be clothed and no one needs to be a martyr about this, basically.”
I met with Teel last week at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA), an impressive operation run by Pratt that helps small apparel and accessories companies get off their feet. BF+DA is located inside the massive Pfizer Building— 660,000 square feet of remarkably clean factory space the drug company left behind in 2008 when it ceased operations here. Developers bought and remade over this behemoth and packed it full of various things that make Brooklyn such a desirable brand— brewers, distillers, bakers, artists, production companies, etc. Since 2013, people have been calling this place the “creative epicenter of Brooklyn’s food scene,” and it really feels like a giant test kitchen.
Outside, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in this neighborhood (save for a vicious dispute over affordable housing), but inside the place is churning with activity: the smell of artisanal bread and fine cheeses appeared out of nowhere in separate corners of BF+DA. Teel asked if I’d happened to have run into an air duct that blows out delicious “cookie dough fumes.” Roberta’s– a little pizza place perhaps you’ve heard of– has a secret outpost here, while various looking hip kids of a certain age roam the soulless hallways.
And last November, the Pfizer Building became a place of fashion innovation as well. As soon as I heard about BF+DA, the words “3D printed shoes” flashed in my head. I wasn’t wrong. The design incubator, which prioritizes young companies and individuals that are committed to “ethical fashion,” has something called a “whole garment” machine, which can knit an entire sweater in about 45 minutes or so– no linking or additional stitching required. “It pops out of the machine ready to pull on,” Teel explained.
Originally, his company pitched a “3D printed sweater,” as their attention-grabbing product of note for a Kickstarter campaign, but Teel found that the “blousey” look of a panel-less garment doesn’t do much for him, so he’s back to using a “zero-waste” technique of sewing different panels together to make his sweaters (for now, t-shirts are on their way). It’s an old way of doing things, actually. “The zero-waste stuff that I’m doing, you could have done that on a human-powered machine 50 years ago if you’d wanted to,” he said.
But it’s not clothes-making techniques Teel is interested in transforming. Instead, he’s set out to shake up the existing garment supply chains and dig in fresh roots, a seedling for a new kind of clothing infrastructure. His sweaters are made from single-source materials and roll off the line in small-batches– nothing goes to waste, and quality control is superb.
What inspired Teel to get this place going in the first place was his frustration with the complete lack of information about where his clothes came from. “Like a lot of people, I was really interested in where my food came from– the sources, the ethics behind it, how it affected the environment, how it affected people,” he recalled. “There are a lot of issues surrounding food that I think consumers are becoming aware of these days, and I was part of that movement.”
He began contacting garment manufacturers to see where they sourced their materials. Teel wanted to go all the way back through the supply chain to where the actual fiber itself came from and find out what happened to this stuff along the way. “I’d call them up and ask them where they got their materials and what their standards were and just no one had any answers to any of my questions, so there was this real lack of transparency in the apparel industry.”
It seemed like a deeply screwy situation– that not even the people who were making the garments knew exactly where the materials came from– one that the food industry (after 40-something years since the organic food movement got started in this country) seems to have solved. “You can go to Whole Foods and read the back of a container and odds are you can figure out exactly geographically where something came from, exactly who made it, under what conditions, how the animals were treated in the process, how the land was treated in the process,” Teel explained. “You go into any clothing store or talk to the CEO of any clothing brand, and odds are they don’t even have that information. It’s not like they’re withholding it from you, it’s just not even gathered in the apparel industry.”
At first, Teel said, he reasoned he could make his own clothes according to ethical standards. But things didn’t go quite as he planned. “You quickly learn it’s almost impossible to do on a small scale,” he laughed. “I was kind of ready to leave my job, I’d already saved up money— I was just like fuck it, I’m going to try and do this on a larger scale.”
After leaving behind his career as a lawyer to found a sustainable clothing line, he realized the task at hand was a huge undertaking. He was actually going to have to build a supply chain from the sheep herds and cotton crops up, and learn about everything else that happened along the way.
“I think you have these concentric circles of people who are aware of issues in the apparel industry. At the core there are a bunch of real nerds and that’s where I exist, in that nerd core, these are people who have read everything– all about climate change to the chemicals used in dyeing, all the social issues,” Teel explained.
Outside of that “nerd core” are people who are generally interested in ethical fashion. “Of those people, the vast majority of them equate ethical fashion with not using sweatshops,” he continued. “I think that wider range has kept the attention on one level of the supply chain, the garment factory. Because that’s where you get these photos of, like, people hunched over sewing machines by the hundreds in terrible conditions, that’s where all these terrible fires have happened– it’s a picture of human misery and hard work. People have really grabbed onto that.” When consumers demand “good behavior” from clothing companies, this is what they want to see disappear.
In the 1990s American consumers were first made aware of the industry’s widespread use of manufacturers abroad who maintain awful workplace conditions and treat their workers– many of them children, more of them slaves– like human garbage. The media barrage was so effective, I remember kids on the playground giving each other crap for wearing Nikes.
Though many mall-fashion brands like Forever 21 and Gap have reportedly utilized sweatshops somewhere along the supply chain and despite continued media coverage of workplace injustice and the proliferation of sweatshops in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia, profits for “fast-fashion” brands like H&M (also guilty of patronizing sweatshops) continue to soar. And while protests and boycotts have been effective in the past, encouraging brands to eliminate their use of individual badly-behaving manufacturers, Teel argues sweatshops are only a “tiny fraction” of the problem.
“The truth is that’s the last stop on a very long road from the seed all the way to the piece of apparel in your closet. Walking backwards, before the garment factory you have the fabric finisher, then you have a fabric mill and sometimes a dye house between the two; before that you have a yarn mill, a fiber producer and, depending on what that fiber is, you can have as many as five steps before you actually get to the first person involved in the process.”
The worst conditions and where the “biggest issues” lie, according to Teel and labor rights networks, are the fiber farms and fiber mills located in places like India, West Africa, and Uzbekistan. “Slavery and child are pretty rampant in those industries,” he said. “Cotton growing and cotton cleaning is this huge human slavery area in our economy, and that’s not ‘sweatshop.'”
For his first batch of sweaters, Teel found a sheep farmer in New Zealand “who has spectacular practices” for merino wool. But if Teel’s company was going to be “radically transparent,” or 100 percent ethically-sourced, he was going to have to follow his source materials every step of the way and ensure things were being done right. “I worked it all the way through the production process to finished sweaters, walking it each step of the way, knowing whose hands it passed through, where it came from, where everything was done, meeting in-person,” he recalled.
It took him eight months of traveling from New Zealand to Los Angeles and back to New York City before he finally had a supply chain that he could not only feel good about, but one that he could say with certainty was ethical. “I started selling [those wool sweaters] about a year ago, then I started doing similar things with cotton.” In keeping with “radical transparency,” Boerum Apparel lets customers in on the “story” behind their fibers.
Take, for example, the explanation of their cotton supply chain: the cotton comes from a co-op of 16 farms in Northwest Texas (the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative) and is grown alongside food crops (which is comforting, particularly since cotton is widely regarded as the “world’s dirtiest crop” because it “outstrips all other major crops in terms of insecticide applications”). Boerum also lists the mills– there are four of them spread across North and South Carolina with names like Hill Spinning and Clover Knits– and the factories where the fabric is cut and sewn, one is BF+DA and the other is FPS Sample, a “multi-generational” family business located in the Garment District.
One perk of using farms, mills, and knitting factories located within the US is that Teel can reasonably assume they’re following labor standards (though he’s not– assuming, that is– Teel’s been physically present to check up at every stop along the way of his supply chain). And others following this model as well might agree it’s reasonable to assume the same thing, that is until they’re wrong, see: in 2012, the US Department of Labor found “sweatshop-like” conditions at some LA-based garment factories that had contracts with Urban Outfitters, among other major retailers.
I asked Teel how much the various workers along the supply chain earned, just to be sure. “I don’t track everyone’s pay so I can’t give you a specific answer, but I only work in countries with strong labor standards including minimum wages. I do know that farmhands on our [New Zealand] farm make close to minimum wage, but that’s significantly higher than the U.S. minimum wage,” — it’s $14.75 in New Zealand dollars, which is a little more than $10 USD in a country that has a comparable cost of living– “Some of our knitting staff are on annual salaries (which is pretty high actually) with benefits including subsidized college for dependents.” Those workers are compensated through BF+DA which is run by Pratt. So in short, pay ranges from OK to pretty damn good.
Teel will be launching an all cotton t-shirt line (starting at $24 a pop) within the next six weeks. An important part of ethical sourcing– or at least something that makes it easier to track where fibers and materials come from– is by using a single source whenever possible. We’ve been conditioned to equate clothing that is super soft and flawless in its consistency with quality, when actually that’s not necessarily the case. In order to achieve that meticulous flatness and make fabric on the cheap, manufacturers source fibers often from hundreds of different places (natural and synthetic) and mix it all together. Boerum Apparel on the other hand, is committed to using “single-source raw materials,” in order to narrow down the number of random contributors.
“Part of what we think of as high quality when it comes to apparel is actually over simplistic and really boring,” Teel explained. “You know, when you’re using a system like that you lose all information about where things come from, you’re pulling from too many different places at once– it’s not really deliberate in any way.”
Each of Boerum’s products have a source tag, a comically exaggerated take on the simple “Made in USA” label. Three dotted lines indicate where the various parts of a deceptively simple sweater come from: “The fabric was knit here,” “the cotton was grown here,” and “the garment was sewn here.” Can you imagine what a label like this would look like for something from Urban Outfitters? It’d be pretty confusing.
Building a supply chain from scratch is impressive, but Teel is realistic about the implications. “I don’t even think it’s an option for most apparel companies to do things responsibly [right now], until there’s consumer demand for it,” he admitted. “And the infrastructure’s not even there to feed consumer demand. I think you need this really subtle step up: create a little demand, show people this is possible, create the infrastructure to feed that demand, in small increments, because you can’t make a big jump like that, it’s too hard to do.”
He added: “The demand and the means of producing in a responsible way, they kind of have to grow together.”
But creating awareness that ethically-sourced clothing is even possible, if companies are willing to put in the effort, at least offers the framework for a food industry-like revolution. What initially caught my eye about Boerum Apparel was their strange use of organic food-speak. “There are a lot of big differences between food and clothing that I don’t think I fully appreciated when I first got into this– people interact with them in totally different ways,” Teel admitted. “But if you use food language, I think it draws, in a very simple and straightforward way, the necessary connections in people’s minds and they’re already familiar with a lot of these concepts in food. It’s not just about avoiding bad stuff, but I think people know how rewarding it is to have this deeper relationship with the sources of the food you eat. When you plug in that language, people realize they can have that same relationship with the things that they wear.”
This might sound like a strange way to talk about products. At first insinuating that we can have a “relationship” with the things we buy struck me as the ultimate realization of consumerism: the idea that by buying things, we can become lazy activists and check off our political engagement for the year. But Teel convinced me that having “relationships” with products doesn’t necessarily have to do with the object itself, it’s more about the people that touched that product before hand. It’s about assigning these people and places that sustain our rabid appetite for material consumption more than just a number or a monetary value.
“I think that’s really the key because you’re not going to guilt people into making better environmental decisions, or animal welfare decisions about the things that they wear, that’s just not a productive thing to do– but if you open people’s eyes to being passionate about where things come from, realizing that there’s value in knowing the stories behind the things that you’re buying, that you’re wearing, it turns this whole thing into a positive experience,” he said.
Still, what makes me uncomfortable is the underlying “vote with your dollar” attitude– it’s frighteningly classist and implies that if people must spend money to have a political voice, an increasing number of people with less money will be silenced.
Teel’s sweaters are expensive, let’s be real– $89 for a cotton sweatshirt and a whopping $220 for a merino wool sweater. They’re high quality, to be sure– I felt the wool fisherman one with my own hands and it’s super well-made– and will definitely last you many, many years. Their classic design also attests to their longevity. But ethically-made clothing doesn’t have to be expensive.
I asked Teel if ethically sourced clothing could be cheap and, if so, how cheap. “Really cheap,” he said. Case in point is a t-shirt company called Loomstate (“They make Chipotle’s t-shirts,” Teel said) that produces sustainable, morally-sound cotton shirts for a cost of just $5-$6 a pop. “If they were wholesaling that shirt they could sell it for $10 and the eventual end-consumer would get it for $20-$25– that’s cheaper than most t-shirts you can get out there right now,” Teel argued. “If it were scaled up and if we took advantage of certain efficiencies we already have like direct-to-consumer sales, marketing costs can be low for this stuff, you could sell it for prices that are pretty comparable to what people are paying at other mass market places.”
You don’t say.
Of course, this challenges a major assumption about ethically-sourced anything, that it’s going to be more expensive than whatever you can buy at those mass market places. The next hurdle, however, is getting beyond basics– in other words, catering towards trends and fast-fashion. Otherwise the future looks either very expensive or something like an Orwellian nightmare: everyone is perfect and clean (morally and aesthetically), but eye-numbingly dull. The streets are filled with throngs of people in beige jumpsuits reminiscent of burlap sacks. Yikes. Everyone dressed in the same puke-worthy slouch boots and butt cheek grazing jeans made by child slave hands is hardly better, but I wondered, could such sourcing practices ever be a thing for mass-producing clothing companies like H&M?
“I think it could be adopted,” Teel said without hesitation. “When you talk to people who are really thinking hard about this stuff– I think a lot of people [at BF+DA] would disagree with me here– but I think if you actually look at the net environmental footprint of the fashion industry, the rate at which we’re consuming things is actually not the biggest problem. It’s the way in which we make them that’s really the problem. We can produce similar quantities and similar qualities in a responsible way that would have an acceptable environmental and social footprint in the world.”
Though he admitted that a number of things need to change “before we can produce what we’re producing now in a responsible way.” This includes how companies are making things and who they are trusting to make all the things that go into make their things, but consumers also need to change the way they think about clothing. “We’re talking about overhauling all of the infrastructure,” Teel explained. “It’ll be very expensive and the cost of clothes will go up, which I think will naturally push down the rate that people are buying them.”
If Boerum Apparel and other 100 percent ethically-sourced clothing makers are the start of a garment industry revolution, Teel believes that widespread availability of this kind of clothing can’t be too far off. “I think in ten years, there will be this expectation that companies will be able to answer a lot of these questions that right now only my company and a few other companies out there can answer,” he guessed. “I think that’s just going to put more money into the infrastructure and you’re going to see more and more companies buying from the same sources, building up the farmers who have good practices and it will parallel what we’ve seen in the food industry.”
The key to such change is sharing information and educating consumers, manufacturers, and designers about how they can help. Thankfully, Teel’s not about trade secrets. BF+DA is filled with other burgeoning companies and young designers just starting out and Teel says many of them are taking a note from Boerum Apparel. “Other people are interested in piggy backing off the supply chain that I’ve built,” he said. “The fact that I’ve done this gives other people an opportunity to use what I’ve done in their work, which I’m really happy about. Like I’m not protective about it at all– I want as many people pouring into this sort of stuff as possible. As I get further and further into this work, I see more and more people doing similar things that I can plug into. I think that what you get is this bulking up of the network that allows you trace things and monitor things in this fuller way.”
And thankfully, Teel says people don’t necessarily have to buy things, there are other ways to help out.
“Right now it’s just not possible to have a perfect wardrobe– we all have guilty wardrobes– but we do have a responsibly, insofar as we’re aware of this stuff and we care about it and it’s in line with our personal ethics, we do have an obligation to create demand for it,” he said. “We have an obligation to ask companies where they’re getting their stuff from, to get angry when some journalist uncovers something really abhorrent in a supply chain somewhere, to demand information and reward good behavior.” And “creating demand” for ethical fashion doesn’t necessitate spending a dime. “Talk about it, use your social media, tell your friends, read articles about it, support it in some director or indirect way,” Teel added. “I think that’s all we can do for the next 10 to 15 years before there’s really an infrastructure to make stuff responsibly.”