Hoda Katebi at her home in the East Bay of Northern California. Ms. Katebi, 27, has become a leading critic of the global garment industry, particularly its fast fashion sector.Credit...Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

By Chris Colin

The New York Times

The bitter complexities of fashion found Hoda Katebi long before she found them.

“Growing up in Oklahoma, wearing the hijab, I had to come to terms with being visibly Muslim,” the Iranian American organizer and activist said. “People would call me a terrorist, or pretend to run me over.” And when policymakers held up the hijab and women’s rights as part of the rationale for military action in Afghanistan, or economic sanctions on Iran, she said, “that’s when I started really thinking about clothes.”

A decade and a half later, Ms. Katebi, 27, has become a leading critic of the global garment industry, particularly its fast-fashion sector. Where many of us might avoid peering too closely at our wardrobe’s iffy provenance, Ms. Katebi has devoted herself to that hidden world — and to ultimately tearing it down.

“Rather than just, say, campaigning to get garment workers paid a dollar more,” she said, “we’re calling for an end to the system that puts workers in these positions to begin with.”

The “we” there is Blue Tin Production, a small apparel manufacturing workers’ cooperative in Chicago run by working-class women of color, which Ms. Katebi founded in 2019. Blue Tin executes clothing contracts in ways that are antithetical to the contemporary sweatshop: full equity and transparency, no exploitation, abuse or greenwashing (a term applied when a company exaggerates its eco-consciousness). The goal is to produce high-quality luxury apparel while shining a light on systemic issues stitched into fashion.

In addition to running Blue Tin, Ms. Katebi works as a community organizer, speaker and writer, all while attending law school at the University of California, Berkeley. “I run on saffron ice cream and colonizer tears,” she said. (The following interview has been condensed and edited.)

What does abolitionism mean in the context of your work?

Fast fashion is a very specific type of manufacturing, basically focused on speed and output. While the rest of the fashion industry usually works on a four-season year, fast fashion works on 52: There’s a new season every week. There’s no way that amount of product can be created in a way that’s ethical or sustainable. The system requires violence in order to function. Assaults on workers by managers are common, on top of the general subjugation and enforced poverty that give people little choice but to do this work.

That violence can’t be reformed away. An easy analogy is slavery — you can ask slave owners to be nicer, but the institution is inherently violent. So Blue Tin is an abolitionist response to the fast-fashion industry.

How did fashion become your focus?

I discovered fashion blogs just before college. It was a fun outlet. But some of my favorite people were working with brands on the BDS list, [a list of companies and individuals that support Israel]. They weren’t thinking about the politics behind the aesthetics. When I created my first website, it was to push people to think about their clothes in a more complex and nuanced way.

Everything relates to fashion. Fashion is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, for example — it contributes more greenhouse gases than all of maritime shipping and air travel combined, [according to figures from the United Nations Environment Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation].

Then there’s the connection between sustainability and policing, which upholds the ability for cheap labor to exist. That, in turn, allows certain neighborhoods to be disproportionately impacted by, say, a coal power plant that pollutes the air, which in turn keeps the community there from thriving. Any issue that you care about, you can find in fashion >>>