Today I’m interviewing Jess Burt of rePURPOSE. Jess and I got in touch after my guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog and I’m so glad she reached out, because her company and its mission are awesome. rePURPOSE makes fabric accessories out of upcycled and domestically produced fabric with a mission to help trafficking survivors. Read on for more information.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I am a creative, sarcastic, extremely social and super active person. I don’t sleep much between raising my two girls, and owning a photography business and rePURPOSE. Last year, my husband and I renovated an old 1800s farmhouse in northern NY, one of the snowiest places in the country. I love dancing, thrifting, reading, tattoos, playing Catan, hunting and of course, Jesus.
Was there a particular moment or event that prompted you to consider where your clothes and accessories came from?
I read the book, “Passport through Darkness” by Kimberly Smith, founder of Make Way Partners. Which, by the way, is the most gut-wrenching and eye opening book I’ve ever read. It changed my life completely. The book mentions a woman from Sudan who made little handmade crosses. A visiting American Pastor brought the crosses back to his church and started selling them to raise money for the woman. This became her business and created sustainability for her. I had NO clue about fair trade until I tried getting online to find this woman’s business. Instead of finding her specific business, I found an entire network of fair trade companies and organizations. I also discovered the horrors of how our products are typically made in other countries. I watched documentary after documentary on slave labor, then I read every article I could find on it. I took a quiz that same week about my slavery footprint (take the quiz here), and discovered that the number one culprit in my house was children’s clothing! I decided I would stop buying new at all costs if it wasn’t made in the USA or another country with fair wages. Obviously I have to make an exception once in a while, but I try my hardest not to.
Why rePURPOSE in particular? What gave you the idea to reuse t-shirts?
I tried hosting events to raise money for organizations I was passionate about, until a friend said to me “If you had something to give people, they would spend more money” which is sad, but true. I wanted to create a small business to make a little money for these organizations. I am crafty and I love accessories, so I got on pinterest and found some great DIY ideas.
The problem I had was finding craft supplies or fabric that weren’t made in China. I didn’t feel right using materials made from people in terrible conditions, to basically turn around and donate it back. It would be completely contradictory. Trafficking and poverty go hand in hand, so by supporting unfair labor, I would be supporting the trafficking industry. I chose to use old t-shirts instead, which meant when I shopped at the local mission thrift stores, my money would go back into the community. After a couple of months my little “side” business took off. We have continued to come up with new and better ideas, and now I have this full-blown business which is taking over my life!
How are items produced?
We have a tiny workspace at my mother-in-law’s spa in Watertown, NY. I have a great group of about 20 women, some volunteers, some paid, who help me when I need it! We have shelves and shelves of used t-shirts, fabrics, lace, buttons, yarn, etc! We shop at thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets to find all of our materials. Some women make the products at home, while others join me in our little workshop.
Because we are now getting into wholesale, we had to create a way to produce larger quantities of some of our styles, so we use a fabric company out of North Carolina to make our newer prints. Everything else we create is still from used materials. All of the web design and processing is done by me, and thankfully, I was able to hire a marketing director last year!
Where do you see rePURPOSE headed over the next few years? What professional and ethical goals do you have for the brand?
I would like to see rePURPOSE grow into a large enough company where we can profit hundreds of thousands of dollars to just give away! My other goal is to eventually have women in need get paid to create the products, whether they are rescued from trafficking or living in poverty. We are in the VERY beginning stages of this right now by reaching out to some of our international contacts. I would love for every single part of this business to make a difference in someone’s life, from the production to the profits being donated.