Abby Rose Weglarz ’08 will be the first to tell you that the fashion industry is the second most destructive industry in the world, next to big oil. Fashion designer Eileen Fisher has said the same over and again.
She’ll also be the first to tell you that the industry can do better by delivering clothing that is comfortable, ethical, environmental, and marketable.
Abby Rose was awarded the Environmentalist of the Year in business this past spring by the Northern Michigan Environmental Council, for her work at Yana Dee Ethical Apparel in Traverse City, Michigan, a clothing line started by her sister, Yana Dee.
“It’s been a huge shift for me to think about how fashion is function and that fashion needs to change,” said Weglarz, who majored in environmental studies and community organizing. “Not just the materials that are used but how we shop. Closets are too full because we’re chasing trends.”
Abby Rose did not take a direct path from Northland College to Yana Dee Ethical Apparel.
After graduation, she worked with AmeriCorps in West Virginia and then in California, where she oversaw volunteers and a gardening program at a nonprofit with eight gardens, a food bank, and thousands of volunteers.
In college and between jobs and on long weekends, she returned home to help out her sister, Yana Dee, and her sister’s growing clothing line.
“I was convinced my next step was graduate school. I wanted to merge environmental studies with business, but I didn’t have a vision of what kind of business,” she said. “Finally, I realized Yana Dee needed more help. Why would I go back to school to get a job I could have right now?”
In contrast to the current trend of “fast fashion,”—more clothes at a faster rate, for less money—the Weglarz sisters have embraced a slow foods kind-of sustainable business model where little is wasted, the emphasis is on quality and comfort so the clothing lasts longer, local people are employed to sew and paid a living wage, and impact to the Earth is minimized in every business decision.
“Fast fashion relies on extractive and toxic methods at each stage in the garment’s life—from the water and pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing, the amount of waste from discarded raw materials and clothing, to the social costs of cheap labor,” Weglarz said.
The Weglarz sisters make decisions based on their triple bottom line of economics, environmentalism, and social justice. They use the best quality materials—like hemp—with the littlest environmental impact, and pay their seamstresses above the living wage for the Traverse City region.
“I think back to my Northland College years when local and organic food was a newer, niche thing; that’s changed a lot,” she said. “The same thing is happening with fashion because people are caring more about social justice, the environment, and personal health.”
In conventional clothing production, about half of the fabric is thrown away because the fabric is so cheap, so thin. In contrast, Yana Dee Ethical Apparel utilizes nearly every scrap.
All of the unusable pieces fit into a standard residential trash bin each week. The usable scraps are bagged up for the Weglarz’s’ mom, “our primary waste reduction specialist,” Abby Rose said.
When Mom visits from the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, she picks up a load of scrap material, takes it home, and chops it into the right sizes for re-use.
The small pieces of material then get turned into Peace by Piece patchwork headbands, scarves, and even new clothes.
“My mom taught me that whatever you do, bring environmentalism into it,” Abby Rose said. “It’s what brought me to Northland College.”
Photo above: Yana Dee, left, and Abby Rose, at their storefront in Traverse City, Michigan.