• Dayna Tohidi

Hoda Katebi: People over profit

Writer, author and abolitionist, Hoda Katebi, wants to overhaul the exploitative fast-fashion manufacturing model that's dominated the industry since the late 1980s. She tells Plaster how

Determined to set the bar for labour and sustainability in the fashion industry, Hoda Katebi launched Blue Tin Production – America's first clothing manufacturing co-operative run and owned by refugee, immigrant, and working-class women – in 2019. She may be the founder, but members own an equal share of the business and collectively negotiate salaries, working hours, and benefits. That might seem groundbreaking when you consider that over 90% of garment workers in the global fashion industry don't get a say on their wages and working conditions. However, as the 26-year-old emphasises, it's not a new business model – the fashion industry is simply behind.

For Katebi, who was brought up in Oklahoma by Iranian immigrant parents, Blue Tin was born out of frustration for her unsuccessful attempt to find an ethical manufacturer to produce her clothing line. "Even some family-owned factories operated like sweatshops," she says over Zoom in Chicago. After having no luck, Katebi's friend and owner of the slow fashion label Production Mode, Jamie Hayes, suggested that she start a sewing co-operative to fill the gap in the market. As she didn’t have a background in manufacturing, Katebi spent the next couple of years researching the business model and having meetings with Hayes and other brand owners in their studios.

"Working class, immigrant and refugee women don't throw anything away, so sustainability is inherently built into our model by virtue of who is leading our business"

Convinced by the prospect, Katebi used the savings she had allocated for law school and raised over $40,000 in crowdsourcing donations to launch Blue Tin at the American Islamic College in Chicago. The co-op's name is inspired by the Royal Dansk's blue cookie tin that immigrant mothers use to store their sewing kit. "I used to forget that there weren't cookies inside and pricked my fingers with needles far too many times to count," she laughs, revealing her endearing smile. Conscious not to mislead people into thinking that Blue Tin is a new concept, the name serves as a reminder of the tradition of sewing co-operatives within communities of colour and immigrants.

Sewing materials stored inside the namesake Royal Dansk cookie container at Blue Tin Production's studio, based in Chicago's American Islamic College, February 2019. © Hannah Steinkopf-Frank/Block Club Chicago

The next challenge was to recruit a team of highly skilled and experienced seamstresses. Aside from the fact that Chicago isn't a thriving garment manufacturing hub, globalisation has made it increasingly difficult to find a domestic, trained workforce. Nevertheless, Katebi and a couple of her multilingual friends visited refugee resettlement agencies, domestic violence shelters, and women's spaces across Chicagoland to spread the word about Blue Tin. Following the positive response to the co-op, Katebi organised a testing day to assess the sewing skills of potential members. She expected around 30 women to show up, but more than 100 women came through that day. “It was quite chaotic; all of our sewing machines broke down, except for one," she tells Plaster.

Trade unions are supposed to give garment workers collective bargaining power on fair pay and safe working conditions, but corrupt factory owners are known to retaliate. As Human Rights Watch's investigation of Dhaka clothing factories in 2014 revealed, many union organisers endure intimidation, abuse, job and death threats. Blue Tin's co-operative business model provides its members with the same benefits of a trade union and then some, but without the risk of punishment. "All of our decisions – including those relating to our salary, hours, benefits and the clients we work with – are made collectively," says Katebi. Although, members don't always reach a unanimous decision. "Inevitably, we're going to disagree, but it's important that we create a culture where everybody's opinions are voiced and heard," she explains. For this reason, Blue Tin has a dedicated restorative practitioner to facilitate decisions and resolve conflict.

As all of Blue Tin's members have experienced intense trauma, the co-op aims to provide them with thriving salaries, dignified work and a supportive community. "Blue Tin is an attempt to make the place where you work also a place where you can heal," says Katebi. Members have access to mental and physical health services, paid overtime, on-site childcare and wellness training, among other benefits. When asked about the positive impact that Blue Tin has had on their lives, she is quick to point out that members are just as valuable to the business. "Working class, immigrant and refugee women don't throw anything away, so sustainability is inherently built into our model by virtue of who is leading our business," she explains. It's not surprising then that Blue Tin leads the global record for the total percentage of fabric waste created in a year. The industry average stands at 22 percent and experts say it is impossible to reach less than 10 percent waste production. "We produced nine percent in 2019, so there you go fashion experts!"

Two of Blue Tin Production's members cut out pattern pieces in the studio, March 2021. © Blue Tin Production

At the co-op, sustainability is embedded at every stage of the manufacturing process. Limited to the fabrics provided by clients, Blue Tin prioritises designers and brands that use natural and sustainable materials. Rather than throw large pieces of fabric waste in the bin, the team works with clients to develop them into new products. When that's not possible, scraps are kept aside for use during one of the co-op's free community sewing classes. Waste facilities are always the last resort.

However, Blue Tin's efforts don't stop there."We want to be an open space where people can learn, watch and be part of the process rather than be detached from their clothing," says Katebi. For this reason, Blue Tin hosted various community initiatives, such as studio tours for local schools, youth groups and adults, up until the pandemic. As part of its ongoing involvement with the non-profit organisation Plant Chicago, it also collaborates with other local businesses to cultivate a community-driven, circular economy. "Rather than deal with waste for the sake of it, we ask if there are local artisans that want to use our scraps for packaging, or if there is a local farmer who could use our biodegradable fabrics as compost," she explains.

"We want this information to be accessible so that garment workers can start their own sewing co-operatives and overthrow their tyrannical, sexist bosses!"

Since launching the co-op, Katebi has noticed that most designers who inquire about orders don't understand the true cost of production. "They're used to paying $5.00 for a shirt, but that's not realistic!" she squeals. Even worse, Katebi has discovered that designers whose entire business model is centred around helping refugees and immigrants are the “most stingy when it comes to paying our team.” Past experience has also taught her not to work with designers who operate on a short, strict timeline. In 2019, a couple of days before the team was wrapping up production for a New York-based designer, a member was informed that her uncle and his son were killed during a bombing in Damascus, Syria. She immediately stopped production, which meant that they failed to meet the designer’s deadline. “We lost her as a client, but good riddance because we need people to understand the lived realities and experiences of the people who make their clothes," she says frustratedly.

Making profit has been the name of the fashion game since the industrial revolution. Before then, clothes were made by communities of rural people in their home workshops, known as cottage industries. This history is important to Katebi, who is passionate about galvanising the fashion industry into putting skilled people over profit again. She's not alone; last February, California state senator, María Elena Durazo, introduced the Garment Worker Protection Act. Known as SB-62, the bill seeks to replace the piece pay-rate system – where garment workers are paid by the pieces produced rather than by the hour – with a fair minimum wage. If passed, Durazo hopes that other manufacturing hotspots across the country will catch on. "Our long term goal with Blue Tin is to build a business model that can be replicable on a global scale," she tells Plaster. "We want this information to be accessible so that garment workers can start their own sewing co-operatives and overthrow their tyrannical, sexist bosses!"

What makes Katebi a genuine force for change is that she works for the change she wants to see in the world. It's no easy feat to change the status quo of fashion manufacturing, but she won't let that stop her.