Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the Free the Slaves Fashion for Freedom event in New York City with my dear friend Cait of Cait Shea Designs. I’ve covered her previously on the blog if you’d like to check out her fantastic designs! We spent the entire day in the city leading up to the event, eating vegan food and chatting about our thoughts on slow fashion, as well as shopping for some fabrics for her upcoming Fall collection. It was so fun! The downside was it was really hot out so we didn’t quiiiite abide by the event’s cocktail-casual dress code. But that’s ok! At least I was wearing my effortless and ethically-made Soleil dress from Tradlands (provided c/o by the kind and wonderful team there.)
We arrived to the event (hosted at The Mezzanine, a beautiful new event space in the Financial District) around 5:45 pm, and were greeted with such a warm welcome from the Free the Slaves team. Upstairs in the event space, the room was filled with natural light, refreshments and ethical fashion pop-ups – I have to say, I can’t even begin to imagine how much work it was to put together this event, and it was absolutely wonderful.
We floated around the room for a bit, chatting with the ethical fashion vendors, guests and Free the Slaves team.
Around 7 p.m., after the sun had mostly set and we could look out the Mezzanine’s floor-to-ceiling windows without sunglasses, the program began.
Vendors set up their beautiful, ethically-made wares.
Could not get enough of this beautiful industrial space.
The event opened with welcoming remarks and a keynote by Safia Minney. I’m sure that if you read here you’re familiar with her, but, if you aren’t, she is an incredible ethical fashion and human rights advocate, author of several books on ethical fashion, the founder of People Tree and the Managing Director at Po-Zu ethical footwear.
She began her keynote with the trailer of The True Cost, and then we all had a good laugh because she realized the majority of the audience had seen the film. It’s indicative of the way she delivers her presentations- warm, welcoming and with a sense of community and humor.
She went on to walk through her journey to founding People Tree, and where she sees the ethical fashion industry heading. She also discussed some of the content in her latest book, Slave to Fashion, particularly the stories of some of the garment workers she met with and interviewed.
Following her keynote, there was an engaging and informative panel discussion featuring Safia, Rebecca Ballard (the founder of Maven Women) and Aaron Halegua, an expert on labor rights and human trafficking who recently helped more than 2,400 trafficked workers in Saipan to recover $14 million in backpay. Maurice Middleberg of Free the Slaves moderated.
By far, the most moving moment of the panel was when Rebecca discussed what we, as consumers, can do to fight human trafficking and forced labor in the fashion supply chain. She remarked that “Fashion is a women’s industry” through and through, from the consumers to the workers. While men aren’t off the hook in seeking fairer fashion, women need to understand that we have immense power to speak up and change what is happening. She commented that it is interesting that fashion is an industry with so many mixed messages about the worth of women, when it is truly our industry, and we do have the power to implement change. Cue audience applause.
I also found one of Safia’s comments about the complexity of supply chains really insightful. She said that companies (in general) tend to say their supply chains are too complex and too deep to trace – yet they can make products that require components from multiple suppliers, from multiple countries, assembled elsewhere and shipped into the U.S. that work when they reach the end consumer. If companies wanted to invest the time and funds in tracing their supply chains, you bet they could.
Lastly, another comment worth noting from the panel, from Rebecca, was around the role of government in promoting ethical fashion. She said Maven Women was looking to use alpaca in some of its products, and found a women’s cooperative in Bolivia that they wanted to work with. There are, however, different tariffs on alpaca in Bolivia versus Peru, so most brands get their alpaca yarn from Peru – and that is damaging to women working in Bolivia. I had no idea that this was an issue, and it was really enlightening to see how government can, unfortunately, limit our access to ethical wares.
Some beautiful ethical products for sale from Tonlé.
The event closed with the Fashion for Freedom award and a speech by Flor Molina, which had me moved to tears. Flor recounted being trafficked from Mexico to the United States in 2001, where she was forced to work 18-hour days in a garment factory in Los Angeles. She discussed, with heartbreaking detail, that her trafficker forced her to live in the factory and did not even allow her to shower, and how we all need to fight for the dignity of the people who manufacture our clothing. She eventually escaped and has worked as a trafficking advocate ever since, and was appointed by President Obama to the first-ever U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
After the official program ended, people milled around for a bit and Cait and I had the opportunity to meet Safia. I can honestly say I have never been starstruck in my life (and having the PR background I have, have certainly met some celebrities) but I DEFINITELY was starstruck meeting her. It was the first time I had really met someone who has had an immense impact on social justice in the world. Of course, I was totally lame and was like “Your books have changed my life!” but they really have. I wouldn’t know half of what I know about ethical fashion if it weren’t for the work she does.
My last observation on the event, and this isn’t meant with any pretension, is that I was surprised by the sheer amount of fast/ conventional fashion I saw in the room (I mean, myself included, I did wear my Nikes). It makes you realize the enormity of the challenge – if you can be in a room full of ethical fashion advocates, who want to eradicate modern slavery, but are still wearing exploitative clothing – it can feel like a huge mountain to climb.
But we are making progress. We will get there. With the passionate ethical fashion community and leaders like Free the Slaves and the honored guests – we can change fashion for good.