Manufacturing Justice with Public Thread

by Elyse Wild

At 906 Division Ave SE, a vibrant kaleidoscope of fabric and materials spill from shelves, splash across tabletops and drip from walls. Industrial sewing machines sit, taut with thread and poised to create. Whiteboards bearing patterns, charts and encouragement line the room. In the corner, a sewing machine taps a steady Morse code as a woman makes a prototype of a bag made out of upcycled billboard material.

It is here that Janay Brower is sowing the seeds of a quiet revolution in manufacturing with her company, Public Thread; the small batch cut and a sew manufacturer creates sewn products in partnership with designers, business and organizations, and is forging new ground with a socially conscious foundation that places the people behind the products at the very center.

As she begins describing the origins of her company, Brower is electric, emitting a level of passion that resides within few of us but has the potential to impact us all.

“I want to honor the people who are making our stuff,” Brower expressed emphatically. “I want to honor the labor and the process.”

The Thread

Prior to starting Public Thread in 2016, Brower, who graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, worked for several nonprofits and later launched a consulting service. She describes her past work as “navigating systems,” an experience that well prepared her to design a business model that would allow individuals and communities to thrive. While she enjoyed her work, she couldn’t help but feel that something was missing.

“Whenever I came up against the work I thought we were supposed to be doing, the real change work, it always ended up being outside of what I was supposed to be doing,” she reflected.

Additionally, Brower felt her career was lacking something vital: creativity. She needed her work to provide a creative outlet, and, having grown up with a love of fashion, she wanted it to involve textiles — and she wanted to make a lasting difference in her community. 

“I wanted to make clothes, here, in this community,” she said. “I wanted to pay people a living wage, and I wanted employees to be owners of the company. I wanted to be creative and sustainable in how we care for the earth and the people in the process.”

As Brower expressed her ambitions to her friends and family, she arrived at a startling conclusion: Her dream was to become a manufacturer. And so she began talking; for three years, she talked to textile buyers, apparel workers, sewers, designers, tailors and environmental groups such as the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

“It was just conversation after conversation, and I continually received messages that I was on the right path,” she expressed.

The Impact

The result of Brower’s determination to be guided by her principles is a company in which sustainability and human interest are not simply components, but the very essence. Her employees are paid a living wage, and she strives to work with local designers of color, creating economic equity and driving the area’s creative economy. Additionally, every item made at Public Thread is created from locally-sourced upcycled materials.

The impact of textile waste from manufacturing alone is staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 10.5 million tons of textiles flowed into landfills in 2015 alone, 84 percent of which came from manufacturers, and the number increases each year. Additionally, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, 97 percent of apparel sold in the United States is made overseas by workers earning devastatingly low wages.

“We want people to start to think and connect deeply to what they are buying,” Brower expressed.

She refers to a collection of recently produced bags by her desk. They range in vibrant hues, are made from upcycled 3D knit chair material and leather scraps from a locally-based global furniture company and seat belts cut from cars at a junkyard. The bags are stunning, and a single touch shows that they are made to last.

“This is upcycled,” she exclaimed. “All of this would have gone in the landfill, and instead we are making cool products that have amazing stories and support living wage jobs.”

Manufacturing tends toward monotonous, repetitive work. Brower’s upcycling model at Public Thread not only allows for creativity but makes it necessary for success.

“We have to work with what we have available,” she explained. “There are times when we have more of an assembly line, and times when [the sewers] make the entire piece themselves. It depends, and working this way is so much more fulfilling for all of us.”

Brower works with the Fashion Studies Department at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) and Grand Rapids Community College’s Workforce Development program to provide a low-threshold to burgeoning designers and help them launch their lines and careers right here in Grand Rapids.

Kelly Muschiana is an adjunct faculty member at KCAD’s Fashion Studies Department and initially approached Public Thread about working with them as a designer. She now acts as the company’s product development lead.

“I love the company and what it stands for,” Muschiana explained. “I love the sustainability piece and the human-centered piece. As a professor, I love the educational aspect that helps creatives in the community and keeps them here in Grand Rapids.”

Dominique McNeil is a KCAD fashion studies student and a design intern at Public Thread; she previously interned at a fashion house in New York and notes the vast difference between the fast, high-waste pace that is the industry norm and Public Thread.

“Fashion designing impacts not just the environment but people, too,” McNeil commented. “I love that those things are at the core of what we do here. It’s a lot different from my other internship.”

The Bottom Line

In July, Brower was one of the winners of 100 Ideas, a capital funding competition in which 100 startups vied for one of several $20,000 cash prizes. Joe Lampen, financial director of Wakestream Industries, was a judge at the competition and speaks to what made Public Thread stand out.

“I very quickly understood that this is a powerful model,” Lampen said. “Janay is someone who understands how to build a business. She understands profitability and growth relate to being truly sustainable.”

What Brower demonstrates with Public Thread is that one can, and should, integrate one’s values into one’s business, that a bottom line can be more than just dollar signs, and that people and the environment are a part of everything we do, and only by honoring both can we create a better world with better industries. Brower shares that in her experience sourcing upcycled materials from local manufacturers, some of whom are powerful players in international markets, she has found a common thread: “I have not met one person who works for a major company who doesn’t want to do business with us or support what we do,” she stated.

When she invoices clients, Brower includes how many living wage jobs were supported and how many pounds of textile waste were kept out of landfills by doing business with Public Thread.

“We are giving people opportunities to live their values with their business. I want to show that you can do this in the for-profit world, in this industry, in this city,
right now.”

For more information, visit publicthread.co

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