Last May I was asked to speak at an Environmental Day that my old high school was hosting, and you can read about the event in a blog post here. I never posted the contents of the speech but I just came across it and better late than never. I know it's a bit lengthy and there are no photos but there is still some informative info and maybe some food for thought. I hope you enjoy reading and it and maybe learn a thing or two, I know I did when researching many topics that I spoke about. It also tells a bit about my background and how I came to be where I am today. As the speech was written almost a year ago some information about my work situation has changed, but the gist is the same. I am always happy to start a dialogue of how we can make getting dressed more eco friendly so please let me know if you have any questions. Enjoy!
My name is Nicole Lebreux and I am the owner of Fidget Finds, a small independent vintage clothing and accessories boutique. I currently sell my wares on the internet via fidgetfinds.com and in weekend markets in RI and MA. I also design and manufacture environmentally conscious clothing made from vintage and other green fabrics.
I am a 2001 graduate of Tiverton High School. With the help of my fantastic teachers and extracurricular activities I was accepted to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and proceeded to earn my Bachelor of Fine Arts in the Spring of 2005. I loved going to school in New York City; it was new and exciting, fast paced with new ideas and adventures around every corner. An internship during school led to a job at a Private Label fashion company where I was the assistant designer, although actually designing was at the bottom of the list of things that I actually did. My main tasks were choosing fabric and buttons, making sure samples were made correctly, making photocopies, and emailing, lots of emailing between different departments and other companies that we worked with. My company did nothing in regards to being environmentally conscious, even recycling. I used to take paper , which we used way too much of, and cans of soda from the kitchen waste basket home with me to recycle. It hurt my heart to see reusable items so carelessly thrown away. Even all this paper wasting and lack of basic concern for the environment wasn't enough for me to see the light. But I'll never forget the moment when I actually did. I was standing in front of the copy machine, photocopying reports on the factories in China that we used for production that were going to be sent to a big fashion house, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger big. My eyes started watering immediately when I saw the hours worked and wages earned by these poor people. These reports were being sent so this big fashion house could see that these factories met their manufacturing standards and could be used for production. I couldn't stand it any longer. I decided that enough was enough. I had to move home. I couldn't work for a company in an industry with such widespread and common disregard for the environment and basic human rights. I also couldn't live in a place so far removed from nature where it was necessary to take some sort of public transportation to sit on a patch of grass outside.
I think about a month or so later I packed up my outrageously overpriced one bedroom in Astoria and headed back to Little Rhody, my favorite place on earth. There's not much for eco friendly fashion jobs in these parts so I knew I was going to have to make something up on my own. In the fall of 2007 fidget finds was formed. At first she was just a little website skipping along until November 2008 when I opened a retail shop in Newport. After a successful year in business my little be bop shop closed this past December after much thought and consideration. I decided to spend the months of January and February traveling in Southeast Asia reflecting and learning many a valuable lesson. The first of which was gratitude. We all need to be thankful for everything and everyone that we have have every second of every day. You don't even realize everything that you take for granted until you see people living, happily I might add, with was we would call nothing. While they seem quite separate being thankful and environmentalism go hand in hand. When you appreciate this beautiful planet that we all get to live on, you are driven to care for it. This earth is very small and we share it with many people. Although China, Thailand, and Laos seem like a world away, we all swim in the same ocean and breathe the same air. Everything is connected. Our everyday decisions affect many people that we will never have the pleasure of knowing. I had originally thought that this trip would change my whole perspective on the universe and unlock these secret parts of my brain to answer all my questions to the mysteries of life. Well, it didn't. What it did do was make me glad to be me. Glad to be born an American, living in Rhode Island and pursuing my dream to be a self sufficient business owner and eco friendly fashion designer. I do it because I want to, and more importantly because I can.
Needless to say, my perspective was greatly altered during my time away. I thought to make a difference or to change the world I should become a social worker or volunteer for an NGO. You don't. You just need to be true to yourself and lead by positive example. Be the change you wish to see in the world, said Ghandi. So that is how I choose to live my life and run my business.
Fashion by nature is fickle, and therefore wasteful. New product is developed, produced, and distributed at least twice a year, while most big stores and designers bring out new inventory at least every few weeks. Fashion magazines and websites are always promoting items that "you need now" but it changes every month. Trends and "what's cool" is constantly changing, leaving all the newly "uncool" and "untrendy" items useless and without anyone who wants them, otherwise known as waste. Fast Fashion as it's dubbed in the fashion industry is categorized by trendy clothing that is made cheaply, sold cheaply, and is only meant to be worn for a short amount of time due to its trendiness or lack of quality in fabric or manufacturing. You all know what I mean by this; Target, Walmart, H&M, and Forever 21 are top contributors. According to the EPA, Americans throw away an average of 68 lbs of clothing every year. Sorry girls, but you're the main offenders. Teenage girls purchase and get rid of more clothing than any other group. They throw away seven times the amount of clothing as their male counterparts. The waste of this fast fashion phenomenon does not only include the trash of thrown away clothing but all of the environmental hazards that occur in producing the fabric for these garments. Cotton, one of the worlds most widely used fibers, while it is marketed as clean and fluffy white is actually one of the biggest pollutants. This crop accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the US, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the USDA. Huge amounts of water, chemicals, and detergents are needed to clean and prepare the fiber to be made into fabric. Another big problem with conventionally grown cotton is the dying of it. Most dyes contain chemicals, salts, and metals. When not treated or disposed of correctly these harmful components end up in waterways, which leads to problems in the soil and drinking water. Polyester is also a big offender as it is made from petroleum. As is true with other synthetic fibers, the production of polyester is a very energy intensive process that uses large amounts of crude oil and releases harmful emissions.
I just named some of the environmental hazards of clothing and textile production which undoubtedly affects peoples lives, but now I'd like to talk about the actual human beings that are producing your clothing. I will spare you the horrific photographs of sweatshop factories and child labor but know that they do exist. I wish I remembered the numbers on that sheet I was photocopying a few short years ago, but I don't. Either from shock or disbelief they didn't remain part of my memory. I can tell you however that China's minimum wage is under $1 an hour, and we can all presume that number isn't always enforced. According to figures from the US National Labor Committee, some Chinese workers make as little as 12-18 cents per hour working long hours in poor conditions. People working in these factories often develop respiratory problems from breathing in chemicals or dust from producing fabrics, many of which lead to death. There is also the problem of out of date machinery that can easily amputate limbs. Children also work long hours and for low wages in the production of clothing overseas. In 2007, Gap Inc. admitted to using child labor in the production of blouses for Gap Kids. If that isn't big corporations taking advantage, then I'm not sure what is. I also want to note that I'm aware of the controversies involving sweatshops and child labor. Many developing nations use cheap labor to improve the state of their country as a whole and to move toward being a first world nation. Indeed this was the state of America at the turn of the century. We had sweatshops and child labor in many of those old mill buildings you see in North Tiverton, Fall River, and New Bedford. Some people say it is just the nature of developing countries and that in time these crimes with dissipate. The decision of how much you choose to participate in this system is up to you.
I take steps every day in my business and personal life to limit my carbon footprint as much as possible. I have always admired vintage clothing for it's style, craftsmanship, and quality and have been shopping in thrift stores since middle school. It was a cheap way to dress uniquely and not look like everyone else. Buying vintage, thrift, and consignment store clothing is in itself recycling; using something that already exists for a new purpose. You are not buying something new, fresh from the production belt of China, Honduras, or Bangladesh that needs to be quickly replaced on the store shelf but rather something that has already been used and loved. You are giving it a new life rather than letting it rot in a landfill. I also do most of my business transactions over the internet, I hardly use paper for anything except for maybe notes or to do lists and for that I use the backs of junk mail. My headquarters is in one of those old mill buildings I mentioned previously. While many of these old buildings are becoming eye sores and safety hazards, a group of like minded artists decided to put one of these buildings to good use. Now it is the home of many small businesses, entrepreneurs, and artists. When making new clothing I use vintage fabrics or when I need to buy new fabrics I used environmentally friendly ones such as organic cotton, which doesn't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, bamboo which is a very fast growing renewable resource, hemp which doesn't need pesticides and can be grown very densely, and soy which is made from tofu manufacturing waste. I also produce all of my new clothing in Southeastern New England. This saves on fuel costs of transportation and provides jobs in the local economy.
We are all lucky enough to live in a country where we have something that many others around the world are not granted: choices. And as always, our decisions have consequences, specifically our decisions of what we are going to spend our money on. Manufacturers s aren't going to sell things that no one is buying. Sales in thrift, vintage, and consignment stores has grown tremendously over the past few years due to the economy but also to people's realization that we need to take care of this one planet we have. There are many simple things that you can do when it comes to clothing to help save the environment. Most of them save money too.
What you can do:
Fix garments that need mending. Don't just throw something away because the seam tore open or a button fell off.
Don't be tempted to buy things that you don't need or will only wear a few times.
Wash clothing not as often and in cold water.
Buy clothing made from organic or eco friendly fabrics.
Buy clothing produced locally or by small designers.
Buy used clothing, from thrift stores or vintage, consignment.
Buy fewer more expensive but better made garments rather than many cheaply made ones.
Most importantly, educate yourself
I just want to end by saying that we all need to do our part. Every little bit helps.