Chicago co-op Blue Tin Production aims to change fashion industry through sustainable clothing

Co-op owned by women of color, immigrants and refugees

ByCheryl Scott and Blanca Rios via WLS logo
Thursday, June 30, 2022
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Blue Tin Production is a co-op in Chicago working to change the fashion industry by calling for an end to sweatshops and making sustainable clothing.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A Chicago-based co-op is working to change the fashion industry one stitch at a time.

It's made up solely of women of color, mostly immigrants and refugees, who collectively have years of experience, talent and skills behind a sewing machine. And they're also helping to save the environment.

Originally from Nigeria, Mercy Okuwedei is a co-owner of Blue Tin Production. It's the first apparel manufacturing workers co-operative run by immigrants, refugees and woman of color in the U.S.

"When I got that from Blue Tin, that they were going to be helping women, teaching sewing and then you're earning money," said Okuwedei. "You're not being exploited you can take care of your family, I said this is it."

Their goal is to change the fashion industry by calling for an end to sweatshops, all while promoting sustainability.

"Thinking about sustainability is not just important within the fashion industry, that's one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the world and to just waste, pollution, etc.," said Hoda Katebia, Blue Tin Production founding member. "But also by virtue of who we are as Black and Brown women living in Chicago, also disproportionately affected by environmental racism at the city level."

The average fast-fashion factory creates about 24% of fabric waste. Blue Tin's studio recently came in at 9%, breaking the international record of 10%. But sustainability was already second nature for the co-owners of Blue Tin. They were green from the get go.

"If anyone knows anything about Black and Brown women, we don't throw anything away," said Katebi.

"When you're making Nigerian clothes most of the fabric comes in five yards. They tell you what they want and you've got to make those five yards work," explained Okuwedei. "By the time you've wasted it and you don't have any more fabric, you're in trouble with the owner of the outfit."

Now, Okuwedei makes high-fashion clothing- expensive yes, but she says workers and buyers can benefit.

"Luxury fashion and expensive fashion is very inaccessible But we're not trying to pin poor garment workers with poor people working in the United States. That's not an equal fight," Katebi said. "Instead we are trying to raise our gaze upward, like who is making profit?"

For Blue Tin, it's the skilled and talented women who are profiting.

"Nobody is standing on your shoulder and telling you, you have to make 10. You don't make 10, you don't get paid. This is your business and you give it 110% and all the women here, they are amazing, we come in here, it doesn't feel like work. This is like family."

Blue Tin's studio is currently in Beverly. Their permanent home is still being built. The plan is to eventually move in to a state-of-the-art community facility in Chicago Lawn.