Community Empowerment with Sewing, Recycling, and Textiles

GLOBAL IMPACT WITH NAJA

The woman-owned lingerie brand Naja reflects ideals of social responsibility and environmental sensitivity. Naja aims to foster a culture where women help and support each other. Naja established the Underwear for Hope Program, and supports an entrepreneurial sewing program that provides single women opportunities to earn an income to support their families in Colombia. A percentage of each Naja purchase supports the Golondrinas Foundation sewing program.

On the environmental side, Naja launched an Eco-Friendly line of bras and underwear made of recycled PET. Below are a few photographs from their line. Prints are designed by Naja and inspired by Pop Art and Mexican tiles. With the use of recycled PET, plastic bottles are processed into pellets, fibers, and fabrics. Naja makes use of existing materials, and diverts plastic from entering the waste stream. Naja’s eco-friendly line is unique in its material, style, and social impact.

LOCAL IMPACT WITH TEXTILE RECYCLING INITIATIVE

The social and environmental consciousness of Naja led me to think about the active role of women in community building and textile recycling. I’ve personally been very inspired by fellow grad student Autumn Newell, who I initially met in 2012 during her work in a local non-profit SewGreen. She led the Teen Apprentice after school program that empowered at-risk youth by helping them explore their creativity and gain confidence in their sewing skills.

Autumn became a Master’s student at Cornell in Fall 2014, and recently received a Master of Arts in Spring 2015. Her research focused on the textile recycling industry of New York State. This was in response to the 14.3 million tons of textiles entering landfills in the United States, and only 14% being reclaimed for reuse (EPA, 2014). Autumn interviewed leaders in the textile recycling effort, and visited several textile recycling centers to gain first-hand knowledge about the current progress and challenges of recycling on an industrial scale. This includes the availability and maintenance of bins for second-hand clothing, labor in sorting clothing, and machinery to re-process unusable excess materials for future use.

To reduce textile waste at the local level in our Apparel Design department, Autumn initiated a Textile Waste Recycling program. Students in fashion design studio classes could place their fabric scraps in Textile Recycling bins rather than throwing them in the trash.

By the the end of Fall 2014, Autumn collected 130 pounds of textiles from the studios, which suggests her huge impact! The collection of fabric scraps continued into Spring 2015. In May, twenty boxes full of fabric scraps were shipped to a fiber conversion company in Albany New York. Each weighed over 20 pounds, with a minimum of 400 pounds of textiles diverted from the waste stream. The fibers are going to be shredded and become insulation for future use. Her textile environmental activism is a true source of inspiration.

The availability of recycled textiles has also provided opportunities for her to address social needs. Prior to sending the fabrics to the fiber conversion company, Autumn gave some to the non-profit SewGreen, which uses the fabrics in classes and sells them for reuse. She is also sending some textiles to an outreach program for the Allendale Correctional Facility in South Carolina. Twenty pounds were also given to the non-profit Mayor Potencial, Greater Potential, to support women’s entrepreneurship with textiles in the rural community, El Rodeito in Honduras.

The work of Naja and Autumn provide solutions to local and global issues of waste while inherently empowering community members. Naja’s business model reflects how people, planet, and profit can be successfully intertwined in the 21st century global economy. Autumn’s textile environmental activism suggests how the huge issue of textile waste in clothing production can be addressed at local levels for environmental and social impact. The impact of Naja and Autumn is very inspirational, especially since they make positive contributions to the current clothing and textile industry. I look forward to learning about their future work in sustainability and social responsibility.

If you would like to reach Autumn, please email asn53@cornell.edu

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