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Innovation & Job News

Justice is manufactured here: Q&A with Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread


If you know Janay Brower, you know of her passion for people, community and justice. So it should be no surprise that her new business venture combines a very strong commitment to people, community and justice.
 
Public Thread is located is located at 906 South Division. The business produces quality cut and sew products for clients and provides pre-production services: design, sourcing of fabrics and notions, prototyping, sample making, and pattern-making.
 
Like many startups, Public Thread has a fascinating backstory. Unlike many startups, however, the vision is not as much about fast growth, profits and expansion; rather, it is about developing a sustainable business model, making quality products with a local workforce and creating living wage jobs.
 
In this interview with Rapid Growth, Brower dives into the story behind behind Public Thread.
 
RGM: When was your business officially started?
 
JB: I researched and worked on Public Thread for three and a half years before we launched. We started actually producing sewn goods for clients in June 2016.
 
RGM: How long were you thinking about this idea? What was your inspiration?
 
JB: Public Thread generates from many parts of my life. I grew up in Grand Rapids, went to GRPS and moved out to the suburbs in the middle of high school. I experienced two very different cities within the same geographic area -- one that had significantly more people of color and was under-resourced and one that was almost all white and highly resourced. This shift in location and culture opened my eyes to systemic inequalities and planted the seeds that opened up my world view to orient towards justice work.
 
After college, I worked for more than 11 years doing systems change and public policy work for vulnerable children and families at both the City of Grand Rapids and through the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. What I saw at a systems level, mirrored by experience as a young person, was that, similar to many cities in the U.S., there are two different communities operating simultaneously -- and they are not equal. As I navigated through my work in the public and nonprofit sectors, I was continually challenged as to how I could put my values into action in a concrete way. How could I utilize my life experiences and what I have learned in my profession and thread them together? A common theme I kept seeing was the incredible need for living wage jobs and getting away from secondary systems that are not addressing root causes.
 
I researched and talked with a lot of people, finding out that there are so many talented people in GR and across Michigan with skills to design, sew and make things, but those skills are underutilized. I found out that less than one percent of the clothes we wear were designed by a person of color. I found out that a lot of small businesses need assistance with production in order to grow, and that there is a significant movement to re-shore apparel production in the U.S. Along with all that, I and many others I know and have met want to buy clothes, accessories and gifts that were made locally. We want to support domestic production and living wages. We want to build a stronger connection to the people that make the garments we wear every day. We want to be part of the solution and not wait any longer for someone else to do it. And so from all this, Public Thread was born.
 
RGM: What is your 'elevator pitch' for Public Thread?
 
JB: Justice is manufactured here. Public Thread is a social enterprise that offers small-batch cut and sew product manufacturing in Grand Rapids. We believe that being able to live in our own supply chain is critically important. Therefore, we pay living wages for our employees to make high quality, quick turn-around, sewn products right here in Michigan. We assist designers and businesses with product design, sample making and production of their sewn products. We also produce our own Public Thread line of products made with non-traditional textiles. We work in partnership with area breweries and community organizations in order to prevent materials from ending up in our landfills (because textiles/apparel are third biggest input into our landfills in Kent County).
 
RGM
: On your website you speak of building community. How does your business fit into the growing West Michigan "social entrepreneurship" community?
 
JB: We are working with a number of apparel or sewn product businesses in order to create a functional system and foundation across the supply chain to be able to grow all of our ability to design and make sewn products here in West Michigan.
 
RGM: So, early on, what have your learned so far? Have you changed any of your original assumptions about this type of business?
 
JB: Seriously, what haven't I learned? It’s crazy hard! I have definitely learned that it takes a village to launch a business. One of many challenges is that I really like doing work that has a positive impact on people, the environment and hopefully on the larger systems involved. These elements are not how most businesses lead into their work since so many are only oriented towards how much money they can make. It has been challenging to navigate a system that has become so focused on one thing to the detriment of the other elements. In particular, in this industry (cut and sew, apparel), the profit is made by squeezing labor. In order to make that $5 t-shirt, someone in the supply chain had to take the hit. That means if we value other humans and the planet, it requires a shift in thinking and in our purchases.
 
Public Thread was created to be a different kind of manufacturer -- one based on the triple bottom line (humans, the earth and money all matter). But we cannot do our work alone. We need designers, small businesses and end consumers that use their precious resources to be part of the solution. And now, seven months in, we are incredibly thankful for the amazing partner businesses, organizations and people that believe in Public Thread and have continued to invest in it with their time and resources. They are part of our inspiration every day.

RGM: Thank you Janay! 
 
Check out more details at www.publicthread.co
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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