On Monday, Nathan Zhang came to my Sustainability Core Seminar class (taught by the very knowledgable Carl Zimring, formerly the Sustainability Studies founder at Roosevelt University). I really had no idea what to expect– Carl had told us that there would be a fashion designer flying in from Beijing to speak with us.
Nathan’s form of sustainability is not one that we often post about here on our Envirolutions blog. Nathan oversees the sustaining of lives of migrant women in Beijing (you can read about the unfair poverty of these women here and here.) He does this through his space, Brand-Nu, which has the tagline “Do Good, Look Good, Feel Good.” Nu, is Chinese for woman, and a play on the English word “new.” Through his project, Nathan has allowed for these migrant women to take on new lives, ones they never dreamed they could have had.
Do good: Nathan sells up-cycled goods made by, or with help from, the migrant women’s community. He connects his artist and designer friends with these women, and they come up with fashion designs and other products that he sells at his store in the Wudaoying Hutong of Beijing. He is hesitant to use the term “fair trade” to describe the work, because of the current state of politics in China, but he agrees that this is what it really is. The women work for fair wages (and sometimes, things that they need more- like eggs, sewing machines, etc.) and the designers working with them also get payed fairly for their expertise.
Look good: One of the biggest hits they have had so far are cloaks made from the trash pile of clothing from the local consignment store- things that wealthier people have donated in the hopes of helping the less fortunate. However, how will a prom dress benefit a woman who can’t even put her children through school? (The situation is similar to TOMS, a company that gives shoes to the less fortunate- but do the less fortunate have a need for canvas shoes like TOMS? Wouldn’t they find more benefits from a pair of durable boots?) They take all of these unusable clothing and cut them up for the fabrics, making patches out of them. These patches are then put together by the designer into usable forms, such as cloaks and computer cases. These items are sold in Nathan’s shop.
Feel good: Nathan has ended up providing a space where different opportunities now exist for these women. They grew up thinking that they were only allowed to do certain jobs, based on society’s standards, but now their children will have a whole new set of possibilities. Each time they meet someone else of a different profession, whether it be a photographer to take their pictures for the newspaper, or a fashion designer to help them learn how to sew, they learn of new opportunities for their own lives. Nathan claims he didn’t wake up one day and think that he had to do charity work- his only goal was to not have to wear a suit to work. He suggests not to plan to go into sustainability, or charity, or anything for that matter, but instead to follow your passions and the “right thing” will happen along the way.
Nathan has completely inspired me because of the work he does and the hope he has generated for these women. He also gives me hope that one day, even if I do work that seems insignificant in comparison to the work of others, maybe I can make a difference in someone’s life the way he has.
if you have anything to say or share with Nathan, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org