The conversation around climate change has reached a new height of urgency in the past year. Last spring, the United Nations reported that we have 11 years left to mitigate the damage we’ve done to the environment before it’s irreparable. Though vegan eating and straws dominate debates on how to reduce our carbon footprint, where and how one purchases their clothes also has a significant impact on the Earth’s health. That is why socially conscious entrepreneur Andrea Reyes created A.Bernadette: a fair trade fashion brand she created after a six week trip to Uganda in 2007. There, she found talented designers and tailors who lacked a strong market to thrive in. Reyes wielded her privilege and access to larger markets to their benefit and has spent the past 10 years working with them to create the upcycled clothing and bags featured in her store today.
She’s also the Chair of the NYC Fair Trade Coalition, a network of ethical business owners and advocates dedicated to pushing companies to use better manufacturing ethics. She takes great pride in knowing her shop only uses sustainably-made fabrics, but emphasizes paying her tailors fairly. She and her colleagues think it’s paramount to spread awareness about the people who create your favorite clothes. It’s not just the earth that’s hurt by fast fashion. More times than less, the people who create these products (usually girls and women) for your favorite big brand are exploited and abused in shoddy factories as we unfortunately learned from the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. Reyes does her very best to empower her tailors.
“The last time I went [to Uganda] I had them write out their own invoices, and they could not write down a figure. I told them I can write down my own figure, but you might not like it, so advocate for yourself. It was a process, but it’s okay if it gets a little messy, its okay if we need to go back and forth a little bit, because that’s good business, and that’s giving them a voice.”
It’d be easy for Reyes to take on the attitude of other corporations and underpay her workers, but that’s not the type of business she wants to run. She says that if she wanted easy, she‘d work in the traditional fashion industry. While there are some similarities between her business and the conventional manufacturing model, the process that goes into making her products is anything but orthodox. Something as simple as a zipper or button can completely change the way a piece is made.
“You could be creating a collection and a jacket needs a zipper, zippers are the hardest thing to find that are sustainable right now. They’re usually still made of virgin materials, and anything recycled just isn’t as high quality. So you’re gonna have to compromise and find an alternative way to close it. You have to forgive yourself, because your collection may not turn out exactly how you intended.”
Being a business woman and activist who also teaches at colleges around New York City doesn’t afford her much down time, but she’s recently been allotting space in her schedule for self care and argues that taking care of yourself can also benefit the environment, "I think taking the time to not be productive with a set end goal in mind, and spending that time on self reflection is really important. My thing this past year was almost to be less productive is to be eco-friendly. How can we do things that do no harm to the environment or even to others?"
So she tries to have “Zero Dollar” days where she doesn’t spend any money, and fills her time doing more pleasurable activities, like reading and writing. Simple acts like these prove that going green doesn’t have to be some tedious self-righteous act of sacrifice. Some activists make the mistake of shaming others about their lifestyle choices, but Reyes prefers to demonstrate the benefits of living and buying sustainably, and trust that you’ll follow.
“No one likes that vegan who’s like ‘you’re eating meat?!?’ but we love that vegan who says, ‘Hey, I wanna go to this new restaurant do you want to come with me,’ and you go! Be the example, and it’s not just about your eating habits, it’s about inviting people and organizing with others. It’s about creating a full lifestyle for people, slowly bringing them along with you, and giving them actionable ways to change their life.”