Close your eyes for a second and imagine a world that cares about sustainability. While there, you can aimlessly walk through a clothing aisle and see where and how material goods are produced. You can even wear a jacket knowing that its creation didn’t deplete the environment or a person of its natural resources. It sounds nice, right? What a place to be.
While it may seem far-fetched, an ethically sourced and sustainable way of fashion is possible. It’s currently happening — at least in the LGBTQ+ community. And, yes, of course, we’re leading the way because our community has always pioneered new trends.
In an effort to support sustainability, we lean on thrift shops, clothing swaps and sometimes the closets of our support group to find garments that fit our identity expressions. For the LGBTQ+ community, the sustainability trend serves a dual purpose: contributing to the causes of sustainability and sourcing affordable fashion. It’s a must for many in the community.
According to a 2021 report conducted by the Institute for Research on Poverty, “people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) have higher rates of poverty compared to cisgender (cis) heterosexual people, about 22% to 16% respectively.”
For many people within our community, staying within a budget and finding sustainable ways of living is essential. So, clothes or materials with short shelf lives are not always viable options for our pockets. Simply put: sustainability within the LGBTQ+ community was established out of necessity.
As co-founders of upcycled, eco-friendly Ferndale shop Not Sorry Goods, Dy-min Johnson and Jess Minnick, both queer, know this reality all too well. Their brand focuses on eco-friendly production. The duo launched their brand after meeting in 2016 at a kickboxing class and bonding over their mutual interests in style and design.
Initially, Johnson and Minnick took a “cut and sew” approach that relied on a local manufacturer to cut and sew all products. Unfortunately, they began to notice a trend among their customers: “They liked the designs, but they weren’t really crazy about the high prices of a cut and sew,” explains Minnick.
As a result, they moved on to an economical alternative. Instead of outsourcing, they pivoted to thrifting, a natural switch for both owners.
Johnson, who’s Black, and Minnick, a Cuban-American, said their cultures inform the way they approach sustainably. Minnick says eco-friendly living was always around them. Their family’s move from Cuba to America was the driving force. When the family moved, it became customary to share resources with the larger Cuban community.
Johnson, who’s from Detroit, relates to Minnick. She, too, relied on sustainable options. However, thrifting and reusing within the Black community perpetuated a negative stereotype. “Coming from a Black family and Black culture, we were always doing these things,” Johnson says. “But they were seen as ghetto, or just not common, or just something poor people did.”
The negative connotations didn’t stop Johnson from thrifting. She made a career out of it.
The business partners took the feedback from their customers and their heritage and forged ahead in the sustainable market, learning as much as they could. Minnick says their research uncovered the fashion industry’s contribution to world pollution. They said the findings were enough for them “ to completely pivot over.”
Pollution within the fashion industry is a problem, but it’s often easily overlooked. Lack of concern mostly has to do with the fact that you can’t see emissions from a garment like you can from a car or an airplane. But, unfortunately, ignorance paired with the industry’s head-in-the-sand response to its part in environmental issues makes it even worse.
In reality, “fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams,” according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report.
But it’s not only production that’s to blame for the devastating environmental impact fashion manufacturing can create. It’s the disposal process. The report further explains that “85% of all textiles go to the dump each year” and that “…one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped” every second in a landfill big enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually.
WEF also references an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study on the industry’s effects on marine life. The WEF report revealed that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.
Driven by the grim statistics around mainstream fashion manufacturing, Johnson and Minnick made the decision to move away from destructive processes. What’s better, in addition to reducing their own waste, they’re also decreasing possible harmful practices by customizing clothes in-store.
At the back of their Woodward Avenue store is a production studio where they do all their embroidering, screen printing and production work. As a patron, you can also have apparel customized: simply choose the thread color and text, and you’ll have a custom-made upcycled, ethically-sourced look.
Upcycled linen quilt that became a Fancy Tee. Photo: Raffa Reuther
“As we’ve grown, we’ve changed our name from Not Sorry Apparel to Not Sorry Goods…because for us, sustainability is not just about eco-friendly products; it’s about doing good in your community and keeping dollars in your community,” Minnick says.
Raffa Reuther, a non-binary and self-identifying dyke, is an interdisciplinary artist and designer who has a similar take on sustainability. Their brand, Raffa, uses locally sourced or hand-dyed fabrics to produce their gender-neutral “wearables.”
“I make mostly things out of canvas, and I work with a small family out of Chicago,” they explain. “Otherwise, I’m getting stuff from Art and Scraps in Detroit. They have a fun fabric section, so if I’m working on patchwork or a commission piece, I go there.”
Reuther further added that they try to reduce their carbon footprint by not buying products from overseas companies or corporate fabric stores like Jo-Ann Stores. This is all done in an attempt to not “contribute to the world ending so quickly.”
A scroll through Raffa’s Instagram feed or website shows some of their reused work and patched apparel. Some pieces were commissioned and tailored to fit their clients’ bodies, while Raffa made others, but all highlight the idea of a gender-neutral body.
Not Sorry Goods considers gender identity, as well. In their store, you won’t find gendered sections because they don’t believe in the conformities and restrictions of gender roles. “We want people to feel comfortable shopping all the racks and wearing whatever they want,” Minnick says.
While the fashion industry has a long way to go regarding sustainability, the efforts of Not Sorry Goods and Raffa are a step in the right direction. They’re not only taking responsibility for their own waste, but they’re vocal about locally sourcing materials and reusing products.
“I would say the queer community and communities of color have always been focused on sustainability,” Johnson adds. “So, it’s nice to see that it’s catching on in a bigger way.”