The Future Of Sustainable Fashion Should Look A Little Like My Family’s Basement

Two summers ago, I sat in the basement of my house writing “East Coast Demerara” in Sharpie on barrels waiting to be shipped. I’d only been to my  parents’ birthplace twice (once as an infant and again as a teenager), but despite the physical distance from Guyana, my Guyanese ancestry has been a close and powerful force throughout my life. Family conversations are peppered with vocal inflections and, between mouthfuls of peas and rice, puri, and chicken foot, we speak slanted English, patwa. My relationship with Guyana mirrors Guyana’s relationship with the Caribbean; though the country is technically a part of South America, culturally, it has more in common with Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. Even from afar, we remain close.

Without making annual trips to Guyana, I still have a constant connection with the country through an unexpected channel: hand-me-down clothing. Over the years, tall brown or blue cylinders with plastic covers have taken up space in my basement. We pack them to the brim with new and worn clothes, as well as toys, school supplies, and household items. Even my Grandma Ruby, at 82 years old, makes sure to send barrels back home to the Nabaclis village where she raised my uncles. In 1970, when she was 32 years old, Ruby left her children in Guyana to come to America to find work so she could earn enough money to send for her entire family, a labor trend that has contributed to the influx of Caribbean immigrants in New York City that now makes up at least two-fifths of the City’s population, according to a study referenced in Nancy Foner’s Islands In The City. 

My family, like many other immigrants, grew up in a country where the opportunities were scarce but the talent abundant. That ecosystem equipped them with frugality mindsets. They turn off lights behind their American-born children because, back home, they were lucky if they had a flambo, a kerosene lamp. They fret over their children’s needs to own more than two pairs of shoes because they remember what it was like to share shoes with their siblings. Sustainability is not a cute word used to describe the plastic bags balled up under sinks or the tomato sauce jars used to store green seasoning and achar. They are simply the patterns of necessity many families have grown up with, a flex of their creativity and ability to preserve. “Caribbean immigrant families are being sustainable without even knowing,” explained 20-year-old Kaliyah Bennett, whose family is from Jamaica. Bennett remembers her grandmother helping her and her cousins step on top of their barrel to shut it. 

Clever marketing and slick fashion campaigns can lead us to believe that sustainable fashion is new, luxurious, and justifiably overpriced. But Caribbean families and other immigrant groups in the States have been practicing it for generations. This “new age” of fashion sustainability is unfashionably late to the party. 

For many Caribbean families, practicing sustainability “the American way” has become a trap. Wear the “right” sustainable clothes and receive praise; wear the “wrong” ones, and be seen as pitiable.

When we treat sustainability as a luxury commodity, instead of a cultural practice, we make it less accessible. Visible displays of sustainability — and the moralistic high horse that comes with them — has become yet a status symbol. Compounded with the increasingly cheap prices of fast-fashion, sustainability becomes a practice that only the privileged can engage with. The message the industry sends is cynical: If you can’t afford to be sustainable, you are inconsiderate, even immoral.

For many Caribbean families, practicing sustainability “the American way” has become a trap. Wear the “right” sustainable clothes and receive praise; wear the “wrong” ones,  and be seen as pitiable.

For Imani A Islam whose family is originally from Trinidad, secondhand clothes came to represent an otherness to non-Caribbeans she couldn’t shake. Even though thrifting has become a fad for many who can afford to shop elsewhere, Islam still associated pre-worn clothes with being un-American. Being the child of immigrants is a balancing act: We teeter between embracing our parents’ cultural quirks and disavowing them for trends that obscure our otherness. Like many, she was more impressed with new clothes over “knock-offs” but her thoughts changed when she realized secondhand clothes came with a responsibility to treasure the memories woven into them. “Now, hand-me-down clothes make me feel that I’m receiving something that could potentially have been lost. I’m [not only] excited about how I’ll be able to add it to my wardrobe to enhance an outfit I plan on wearing, [but also about] passing it on later on when I have my own children,” she explained.  

To the diaspora, secondhand clothes are much more than an act of goodwill. They’re a tether to culture. “I always marveled at the urgency at home when we knew the ‘Barrel Man’ was coming to tape and pick up our barrel to send off to the DR,” said Delanisse Valdez, a 22-year-old Domincan who grew up in Brooklyn, who learned about sustainability from her family. “It felt like we were teleporting emotional parts of ourselves to another country.” Her grandmother, with her seamstress skills, reimagined old clothes into new styles.  Her consciousness regarding sustainability wasn’t just tied to ecological and economic reasons, but also cultural ones. Used clothes were an opportunity to sustain a connection with her family in the Dominican Republic.

“Growing up in Brooklyn was basically like growing up in a mini Caribbean. All of my friends at school were from St. Lucia, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Dominican Republic, and other islands. We’d always talk amongst each other about the intersection of our family experiences regardless of being from different islands in the Caribbean. I’d later come to understand what the Black Diaspora was and how these small interpersonal interactions like shipping barrels out to family, are happening on such a grand scale as well,” said Valdez.

When 27-year-old Mani Claxton, whose family is from St. Kitts, moved in with her boyfriend in 2016, whose family is from Haiti, she wanted to ingratiate herself to this new family. In Caribbean culture, it’s damn near sacrilegious to show up to someone’s house for the first time without a gift of some kind; you grow up knowing not to show up with your two long hands, and Claxton’s grandmother made sure her granddaughter didn’t arrive empty-handed. But when Claxton showed up with a trash bag full of clothes, it turned out that her boyfriend’s grandma already had four barrels to send back to Haiti. Claxton knew she was home.

[Secondhand clothes] is about knowing you are provided for; that there is always someone in your corner looking out for you to make sure that, at the bare minimum, you look your best — because, if nothing else, you’ll go out in the world looking like your people.

For some, receiving secondhand clothes and wearing them is a loud proclamation of what you lack, but for the Caribbean women who immigrate to the city, these clothes are a proclamation of all that they have — namely, their rich community. When Camryn Bruno, of Afro-Trinidadian descent, was growing up, she knew that before she went shopping at clothing stores like Rainbow and Dresses for Less on Merrick Boulevard and Jamaica Ave in Queens, her first destination for a new outfit would be her step-cousin’s closet. “It’s really a joy to repurpose clothes back into our communities so we can reduce waste. Thrifting is becoming the cool thing to do nowadays.” Barrel children like Bruno are also equipped to tap into the skill inherent in reusing clothes: “[It’s provided] youth with an option to create small businesses and get revenue,” she says. In her eyes, seeing Gen Z take an active part in this cultural experience is a big step in the direction of financial literacy and building community.

And the beauty of passing down clothes flows in both directions. It’s common for my aunt to rush me into her room to pull out a shirt, skirt, or shorts that don’t fit her anymore. The excitement on her face as she envisions the piece on me makes it clear that this practice, at its core, is about love and selflessness. It is about thinking of someone outside yourself and wanting to enrich their lives. It is about knowing you are provided for; that there is always someone in your corner looking out for you to make sure that, at the bare minimum, you look your best — because, if nothing else, you’ll go out in the world looking like your people. 

While Caribbean immigrants have been finessing their fashion on a budget, fashion should take notes from afar. Sustainability is not a “trend” or exclusive product. It should be an expected, accessible, community-based practice that feels good to participate in.

“People need to understand that everything you buy or eat is brought to you by centuries of colonization,” explained the writer Aja Barber, whose work exposes the many interconnected faults within the fashion industry that keeps people — especially poor Black women — on the margins. “For so long, sustainable fashion has been incredibly white. It has highlighted people with the most amount of privilege and power for seemingly good deeds while ignoring that people of color and those without funds are harmed the hardest by the system and not even doing the bulk of the damage.” 

Barber’s heritage also primed her for her work. “I have family in St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and [sending barrels home] was definitely a practice we engaged in. But it wasn’t just the Caribbean family, it was all of our family up and down the Eastern Seaboard.  We grew up wearing so many hand-me-down from cousins and family friends as well. A friend recently posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing pink shortalls and I remarked that I had the same ones — and they were hers! I generally think people with the least amount of privilege and power have always engaged in this practice, and nobody gave it a title. Unfortunately, throughout much of my life, secondhand clothing made you the butt of many jokes. I’m glad it’s becoming more of the norm, but we probably need to talk about how the world demonized so many marginalized people for this practice.”

Sustainable fashion should not be overpriced or marketed as a new phenomenon. My family proves it works when it’s not. When your community is taken care of by its members, there is incentive to look out for those growing up after you. The pride I have in my culture is evident in my speech, my mannerisms, and every pre-worn garment I put on. Sustainability, in homes like mine and the people I spoke to, was born out of necessity, appreciated as a sign of success, and nurtured through generations as a symbol of unlimited care and inventiveness. Sustainability works and sticks when it’s tied to real communities, real families, and real cultures instead of just an expensive badge of moral superiority. For sustainability to succeed — and we need it to succeed — we have to be real about the spaces where it’s already flourishing and where it has not.

After all, it’s my community, not the fashion establishment, who unequivocally sees a barrel of used clothing as a thing of beauty, because it truly is. 

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