This article is from the February 2019 Grand Rapids Magazine. Available on newsstands now or via subscription.
Social justice and passion have always been a part of Janay Brower’s work. Before starting Public Thread, she worked for the city of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, doing systems change and public policy work. But despite the work she was doing, Brower wanted to find a way to foster deeper systemic change.
So, in 2016, she launched Public Thread, a sustainable business producing small-batch cut and sew products with a multifaceted mission in mind.
The apparel industry is the second-largest industrial polluter behind oil, Brower said, and it represents the third-largest group of materials in Kent County landfills. In an effort to divert textiles from landfills, Public Thread uses materials that would otherwise be headed for the landfill and re-imagines their use, repurposing them into one-of-a-kind handmade items such as laptop cases, travel bags, purses and wristlets.
Public Thread started by working with breweries, collecting grain bags and repurposing them into tote bags. “It kept evolving and allowed us to continue to explore,” Brower said.
Public Thread began to form partnerships with other businesses such as Steelcase and Padnos, using leftover materials such as textiles, banners and seatbelts (which she said make great bag handles).
“I want to build a system that can support a number of businesses and build those partnerships,” Brower said. Public Thread works with a number of businesses, not only repurposing scrap material but creating products for companies, as well. Through the company’s Banners to Bags program, for example, businesses can submit their banners and billboards to Public Thread to be turned into bags for future use.
But Brower’s mission didn’t stop with the environment; rather, she aims to support the community and “disrupt the current textile industry with creativity and collaboration,” paying her employees a living wage — something that’s often hard to find in the clothing industry. Plus, she operates on a worker-owned business model.
While it seems like a no-brainer that more businesses would adopt a similar business model centered on people, the environment and justice, it’s more difficult than it may seem. When companies can send manufacturing overseas and pay extremely low wages, they can not only charge less for products but can produce more and make more profit. Paying living wages and operating on a sustainable business model doesn’t always fit this mentality.
“I’m trying to compete on value,” Brower said, explaining she can’t compete with the traditional apparel industry based on price alone. Brower is focused on honoring employees, which means competing with large companies by creating high-quality products while cutting production costs, rather than wages.
Brower has thought about the idea of becoming a nonprofit but said she realized Public Thread needs to be a for-profit business in order to create systemic change. “In the end, it’s not about charity, it’s about justice,” she said. As a business owner, Brower is able to employ local talent, pay living wages and keep thousands of pounds of material out of the landfill, all while disrupting the current industry and setting an example for what is possible.
“We need models, places that show us how to do these things,” Brower said. As people begin to realize the impact they have as consumers, and businesses begin to realize that a sustainable business model is possible, she hopes the system will start to change.
Public Thread’s commitment to justice is evident on every level, from its business model and partnerships to its focus on the environment and people, and even down to its packaging. Don’t expect your newly purchased wristlet to be wrapped in a bag with tissue paper, although Brower said she’ll wrap it in a scrap piece of material if you really want.
Photos by Johnny Quirin: Top: Public Thread founder Janay Brower sorts through donated material. Middle: Public Thread products.