Cooperatives & the Next Clothing Industry

Text and photographs by Jess Daniels, unless otherwise credited.

Three simple words: Made In _________. This phrase, adorning nearly every item of clothing in our closets, is a frustratingly simple explanation of garment manufacturing. In fact, the sweater I’m wearing as I type this offers multilingual instructions for washing and drying, but offers nothing about the labor process save a single country of origin. For many, these tags are a source of concern – we wonder about the working conditions and wages of those who make the clothes on our backs, and what we can do to support better practices. But garment manufacturing doesn’t need to be synonymous with sweatshops, in fact, it’s a source of tremendous potential for creating just, sustainable livelihoods, and a thriving local economy. It’s important to consider the domino effect of this as it can have a large impact. For example, a provider of industrial keyboards would benefit from the need for equipment in the local area. This would surely be more preferable than contributing to an unfair practice occurring so far away.

Last October, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (the SELC) created an event to discuss the opportunities that our local clothing economy can create, and to problem-solve the legal obstacles facing many local designers. The mission of the SELC is to cultivate “a new legal landscape that supports community resilience and grassroots economic empowerment” by providing legal tools to communities. Who better to provide legal tools and information to the local clothing community than Myrrhia Resneck, a business lawyer, SELC volunteer, and Fibershed artisan maker with an award-winning Oakland-made knitwear line.

The discussion drew in a dozen participants with diverse backgrounds from independent fashion designers to custom tailors, and lawyers who sew on the side, each with their own knowledge of the garment landscape and understanding of the legal frameworks involved. Myrrhia began by touching on the major areas of law for the clothing industry: labor laws, compliance, and intellectual property, each of which involves complex language, paperwork, fees, and regulatory requirements. Geana, who designs her own line of business-to-business products called GDS Cloth Goods, said she is “intimidated by legality questions,” while Alice Wu, the co-founder of the Brooklyn and Oakland based fashion line Feral Childe, said that producing clothing in New York “is a cakewalk” compared to the legal barriers to entry in California.

Myrrhia detailed her own experience seeking a license for local manufacturing, which included a state-administered exam to test the applicant’s knowledge of occupational standards. While the process is frustrating, she explained that “the barrier for entry is high because the major operators are criminal” – referring to the garment industry corporations in Los Angeles, as well as locally in the Bay Area, whose domestic manufacturing practices don’t guarantee legal compliance for wages and worker treatment.

An example of a trademark: the Myrrhia Fine Knitwear logo and wordmark, seen here on a tag for Fibershed-certified garments.
An example of a trademark: the Myrrhia Fine Knitwear logo and wordmark, seen here on a tag for Fibershed-certified garments.

Intellectual property is another area where the “big guys” abuse the law again, often stealing designs from small-scale designers who lack the resources to stop them. For this Myrrhia recommends being proactive: utilize trademark, copyright, and design patent protections wherever possible. The attorneys in the room agreed that the strongest protection for a brand is a trademark, which should include a “wordmark” (such as a logo or monogram) and an image, and can be acquired by hiring an attorney or going DIY with a NOLO book and the U.S. Patent and Trade Office website. While a trademark will prevent others from using your brand, a copyright is another tool that will protect a particular fabric design from being knocked off.

To patent a particular design is expensive and incredibly specific. Nan Eastep, a custom tailor and Fibershed artisan member, described her experience obtaining a patent for her design of a “vest pack” – a super functional bag created with the cyclist in mind, which she happened to be wearing at the meeting. With pride and excitement, she provided a tour of the vest pack’s features, including easy-access pockets in a variety of sizes, and balanced weight distribution. After designing such a unique pack, Nan took it to Legal Services for Entrepreneurs in San Francisco, who helped her with the paperwork and diagrams necessary for the patent.

Nan Eastep describes her patent-pending vest pack to designers to the group
Nan Eastep describes her patent-pending vest pack to designers to the group

Beyond specific legal issues, the main concern for most designers in the group was how to connect with responsible local manufacturing that will accommodate smaller-scale production. One participant who has worked in the clothing industry for over a decade described a “panic because seamstresses are retiring” while “everyone is looking for a factory to work with,” and noted that labor is often underrepresented at meetings like this. The shared goal, expressed by established designers and newcomers alike, is to change manufacturing to value the workers.

Not just valuing, but empowering workers is something the SELC strives for by supporting and advising worker cooperatives. Throughout the discussion, the SELC founder Janelle Orsi weighed in on ways that worker cooperatives and sharing economy principles could support the local clothing industry. A worker cooperative can take many forms, but at its core is an employee-owned enterprise. From design to manufacturing to marketing there are opportunities to strengthen our local clothing supply by pooling resources and pushing for a new system.

When it comes to legal compliance, Myrrhia explained a joint venture idea, where a group of designers could hold a license for their business practices, and share physical space and equipment too, supporting each other to produce independent lines. This is what Janelle has dubbed a “freelancer-owned cooperative,” and is something she has seen grow in other industries. Another avenue would be to cooperativize each segment of the system and create a supply chain that moves each garment from the hands of one worker-owner to another – say, from a design collective, to a worker-owned production floor, to a tailoring cooperative.

Myrrhia Resneck with knitting machine
Myrrhia Resneck provides an inside look at the knitting machine that produces Oakland-based, fair labor clothing for Myrrhia Fine Knitwear

This model is already in motion, as in the case of London-based knitwear line Tengri. Michelle Chan, a young lawyer, connected with the designers as they were looking to legally form their new company. Inspired in part by her volunteer work with the SELC, Michelle suggested that they create a cooperative, and share not only the responsibilities of business ownership but the profits too. This made perfect sense for the brand because they source the yak fiber for their goods from a herder cooperative in Mongolia.

Another leading example is Opportunity Threads, a Morganton, North Carolina-based cut and sew factory worker cooperative (featured in an article here). As industry left the area, organizers wondered how to create alternative economic models that would generate living-wage primary incomes for the community. Building on the area’s strong textile history, the project launched on a volunteer basis in 2009, and has since scaled up to include 20 workers — 8 of whom are co-owners; the others are in a “vetting period” working toward ownership — and a 6,000 square-foot facility that specializes in upcycled and sustainable goods. Opportunity Threads is also a founding District Partner of the Carolina Textile District, a network of manufacturers and businesses working to re-shore the American textile supply chain.

The Bay Area has a lively cooperative economy, crossing sectors from food to service and retail (many are part of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives). If you’ve shopped at Rainbow Grocery, eaten a slice of Cheeseboard pizza, had your house cleaned by Home Green Home Natural Cleaning, or gotten a bike tune-up at the Missing Link, you’ve supported a worker cooperative. Co-ops are shedding the “kumbaya” image to be seen for what they are: practical businesses built upon a living wage and shared success. Certainly the clothing industry, with such globally disjointed supply chains and ill-distributed profits, could learn a thing or two from cooperatives.

A cartoon vision of a clothing cooperative by Janelle Orsi of the Sustainable Economies Law Center
A cartoon vision of a clothing cooperative by Janelle Orsi of the Sustainable Economies Law Center

Inspired by these ideas, the Legal Café discussion hatched into a working group to hypothesize the next clothing industry. In November, we met at Alchemy Collective, a cooperative coffee shop in Berkeley which is co-owned by designer Payam Imani. Familiar and new faces explored what each person could offer the collaboration, from patternmaking to professional contacts and networking, and what each individual envisioned. By the end of the evening, a rough schematic had been fleshed out: the group would review design proposals and select a limited range to produce using deadstock and leftover materials as available, producing and marketing in-house, with the goal of testing a model of cooperative business ownership and determining scalability.

Though the holiday season created scheduling issues for another meeting, 2015 offers renewed opportunities to pursue this prototype, and others. For example, a consumer cooperative could pledge financial backing for local clothing on a seasonal basis, like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Or an existing factory could cooperativize, setting their own wages, benefits, and practices. For the Fibershed community, this is an exciting field to be explored – perhaps a natural dye collective could provide dyed fiber at a medium scale to cut and sew designers, or a worker-owned business could bring cotton milling back to Northern California. With worker-owned cooperatives, that tag in your garment could denote not just the country of origin, but the economic resilience of the community who made it.

If you are interested in exploring and contributing to worker cooperatives for the clothing economy, let us know! Leave a comment below or email