Chicago co-op Blue Tin Production aims to transform the wasteful fashion industry through sustainable clothing

CHICAGO (WLS) – A Chicago-based cooperative is working to transform the fashion industry one step at a time.

It is made up entirely of women of color, mostly immigrants and refugees, who together have years of experience, talent and skill behind a sewing machine. And they also help to protect the environment.

Originally from Nigeria, Mercy Okuwedei is a co-owner of Blue Tin Production. It is the first garment manufacturing worker cooperative run by immigrants, refugees and women of color in the United States

“When I got that from Blue Tin that they help women, teach sewing and then make money,” Okuwedei said. “You won’t be exploited, you can take care of your family, I said that’s it.”

Their goal is to transform the fashion industry by demanding an end to sweatshops while promoting sustainability.

“Thinking about sustainability isn’t just important in the fashion industry, it’s one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and just waste, pollution, etc,” said Hoda Katebia, founding member of Blue Tin Productions. “But also because of who we are as black and brown women living in Chicago who are also disproportionately impacted by environmental racism at the urban level.”

The average fast fashion factory generates about 24% of fabric waste. The Blue Tin studio recently got 9%, breaking the international record of 10%. But sustainability was already second nature to the co-owners of Blue Tin. They were green from the start.

“If someone knows something about black and brown women, we don’t throw anything away,” Katebi said.

“When you make Nigerian clothing, most of the fabric comes in five meters. They tell you what they want and you have to make those five meters work,” Okuwedei explained. “If you’ve wasted it and run out of fabric, you’re in trouble with the owner of the outfit.”

Now Okuwedei makes high-fashion clothes — expensive, yes, but she says workers and shoppers can benefit.

“Luxury fashion and expensive fashion are very inaccessible, but we’re not trying to pin poor garment workers with poor people working in the United States. It’s not an equal fight,” Katebi said. “Instead, we try to keep our gaze up like someone’s making a profit?”

For Blue Tin, it’s the skilled and talented women who benefit.

“No one stands on your shoulder and tells you to do 10. You don’t do a 10, you don’t get paid. It’s your business and you give 110% and all the women here, they’re amazing, we’re coming in here, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s like family.”

Blue Tin’s studio is currently located in Beverly. Their permanent home is still being built. The plan is to eventually move into a state-of-the-art community facility on the Chicago Lawn.

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