In 2019, the founder of the “better spice” company Diaspora Co. reached out to us with a unique request. She needed a high-quality, roomy bag that could hold plenty of fresh veggies and groceries, along with their signature spices. But, she hadn’t found anything on the market that quite met her needs. That’s where WORK+SHELTER came in.

The Diaspora Co. Market Tote has been a staple of their catalog for years now.

We were thrilled to collaborate with Diaspora Co. to create the perfect Market Tote. Over the course of a year, we worked tirelessly to refine the shape and construction details of what has now become an iconic product. The Diaspora Co. team provided a digital mock-up of their ideal bag, and our talented India team took that vision to the next level. Through meticulous sewing and a detailed sampling process, we made the necessary tweaks to ensure the bag met all their expectations and more.

From concept to finished work.

But it wasn’t just about the design. We also worked closely with Diaspora Co. to identify a supply chain that matched their company values. This included using organic cotton, recycled plastic zippers, and ensuring a tough design that could be used year after year. Diaspora Co. was instrumental in this process, demonstrating their commitment to sustainability by being willing to purchase a higher volume of items. This ensured that we could access the right environmentally friendly materials and suppliers for them.

From Pantone Matching to Screenprinting and sewing labels. It’s all in the details.

This year we’ve also included our custom co-branded tags to the design. We even matched the thread used for the embroidery to the bag!

Co-branded tags are a Work+Shelter staple.


Our hard work paid off. Five years later, we’ve produced nearly 10,000 totes, with five reorders and three different limited edition prints. This ongoing success demonstrates the power of a well-crafted, thoughtfully designed product, supported by a values-driven supply chain.

Disapora Co & Work+Shelter through the years.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this collaboration is the consistency it provides for Diaspora Co. Whenever they have new artwork or a fresh creative vision, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They already have a staple product that their fans love and reorder time and again. The high quality and intentional artwork mean that some customers make a purchase every time a new color or design is launched, knowing they are getting a bag that is not only beautiful but also reliable.

Get on the waitlist for the Hella Spicy Disapora Co. Market tote.

The Market Tote has truly become a fan favorite, embodying the values of both Diaspora Co. and WORK+SHELTER. It’s a testament to what can be achieved through collaboration, dedication, and a shared commitment to quality and sustainability.

As we look back on the journey of creating the Market Tote, we are proud of the impact it has had and excited for the future. Here’s to many more years of collaboration and creativity!

Interested in working with us? Tell us about your design here!

rPET Dopp Kit for KINSHIP. Dopp Kit image © KINSHIP 

The Problem

Plastics get such a bad rap. They release microfibers into our waterways and when thrown away take up tons (literally, tons) of space.

We have seen that for ourselves. The WORK+SHELTER production center is located close to a landfill in New Delhi, one that is constantly burning. There are two reasons for that:

  1. The trash is purposefully incinerated, in part, because the city lacks infrastructure to manage the waste.
  2. It spontaneously combusts.

When the trash burns, smoke, and smog are created, polluting the air for all of the city’s inhabitants. 

With such negative externalities, why even use plastics at all? One reason is that they have immense utility. They are lightweight, affordable, and strong.

Quilted rPET Zip Pouch

Our Solution 

What can we, as folks in the promo/swag/merch/sewn goods world, do about this massive environmental issue?

Our answer: buy fabric made out of recycled plastics. By doing that we get the utility of poly fabrics and also keep waste out of the landfill.

The technical term is recycled polyethylene terephthalate, RPET for shorthand.

When we buy bags or shirts made out of RPET fabric, we provide a monetary incentive to recycle those plastics, instead of burn them. What’s more, individuals in parts of India can actually sell their waste to recyclers. In economic terms, we create “demand” for this type of fabric, resulting in building a supply chain of collectors, recyclers, and weavers who then make their living from doing something that actively improves the environment.

              Digitally printed woven RPET

Production Options

RPET is available in both knitted (think tees) and woven (think totes) fabrics.

For knits, RPET can be combined with organic cotton (GOTS certified), resulting in material that works well for athleisure apparel.  One of our clients, a yoga clothing brand decided on this mix because the RPET dries fast and is super durable, while the cotton makes the garment more comfortable, soft, and breathable. 

In woven form, RPET is strong, partially water resistant, and lightweight. Less weight results in an easier-to-carry and cheaper-to-ship than a cotton equivalent, making it a great option for make-up bags or foldable totes.

Knit rPET yoga pants for SAMVEGA. Image © SAMVEGA

Design Trade-Offs

As you may have heard, RPET is composed of microfibers that can shed into the water supply. This has given RPET somewhat of a bad rap in the environmental community. 

Despite the microfiber issue, using RPET is a huge upgrade from using virgin polyester, as its creation is taking post-consumer materials out of landfills, incinerators, and the oceans.

Designers should especially consider using RPET in items that can be wiped down and not machine-washed. Examples of products that fit these criteria:

  • Tote bags
  • Packing cubes
  • Packaging for other items
  • Wall hangings (pictured below)

If you’d like to consider giving plastics a second life and use RPET for your production, let us know and we can send you complimentary samples of various compositions and weights. We’re always reachable at [email protected].rPET Great Lakes Map Quilt

At WORK+SHELTER, we’re committed to sewing super high quality swag while making a difference in the world. We know that for small businesses, every dollar counts and purchasing has to be financially sustainable. On that note, it’s actually possible to leverage branded merchandise to not only generate revenue but also fund giveaways that amplify your brand’s reach. Let’s dive into how ordering swag from us can help you achieve your marketing goals while contributing to social impact.

Tote bag for Diaspora Co. Image © Diaspora Co.

Step 1: Sell Your Swag

Let’s say you are a growing small business – you have a loyal fan base but are looking to expand your reach. It’s possible to parlay the support of your current customers by adding complimentary categories of goods. For example:

  • A spice company that often vends at farmer’s markets offers a shopping bag
  • A restaurant that sells their own in-house brand of olive oil in glass bottles offers a gift bag the exact right size for the oil
  • A soap company that employs refugees in the making of the soap adds a t-shirt that drives home the impact

Organic custom-printed tees for Sitti Soap. Image © Sitti Co.

Now, on to the numbers:

  • To start, you could sell branded hoodies for $54 each to your existing fans, with a margin of $25 per hoodie.
  • Selling 100 hoodies would yield $2,500 in margin ($25 profit per hoodie × 100 hoodies sold).

And of course, by selling high quality swag, you’re not only generating revenue for your business and buidling your brand, but also creating positive change in the lives of others.

Work+Shelter can create product you can use for giveaways.

Step 2: Reinvest In Giveaways

As you sell branded merchandise made at WORK+SHELTER and generate revenue, you have the opportunity to fund giveaways that amplify your brand’s reach while making a positive impact. Let’s see how you can use the profits from selling hoodies to fund giveaways of bags that can be purchased at a lower price point:

  • With the $2,500 profit from selling hoodies, you now have funds to invest in other promotional items to giveaway.
  • Let’s say with those funds you decide to purchase handcrafted tote bags for $5 each. You can actually purchase and give away 500 bags, really expanding the brand reach of your business

In conclusion, WORK+SHELTER empowers businesses to maximize their promotional product ROI while making a meaningful difference in the world. By selling ethically sourced merchandise, funding giveaways that amplify brand reach, and reinvesting profits into sustainable growth, you can create positive impact at every step of the way. Ready to make a difference with your branded merchandise? Get started with WORK+SHELTER today and join us in our mission to create a better world, one product at a time.


In the dynamic world of non-profit organizations, effective promotion and fundraising are crucial for success. One innovative avenue that has gained traction in recent years is the use of custom-made sewn promotional products. These unique items not only serve as tangible symbols of support but also contribute significantly to the overall mission of non-profits. The Feeding American mask pictured above and distributed to speakers at a conference for the organization, is a great example. Let’s explore the ways in which sourcing these products from WORK+SHELTER can make a substantial difference in your promotional strategy.

1. Empowering Women Through Employment

WORK+SHELTER is not just a supplier; it’s a social enterprise committed to empowering women through employment opportunities. By sourcing custom-made sewn products from this organization, non-profits actively contribute to a cause that extends beyond their own mission. Every product purchased from WORK+SHELTER supports the training and employment of women, providing them with a sustainable source of income and helping break the cycle of poverty.

2. Ethical and Transparent Production Practices

WORK+SHELTER prioritizes ethical and transparent production practices. When non-profits choose to collaborate with this organization, they align themselves with a commitment to fair wages, safe working conditions, and responsible manufacturing processes. This not only enhances the ethical standing of the non-profit but also communicates a shared dedication to social responsibility.

These heavy-duty bags for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative were given to event attendees.

3. Customization with a Purpose

Custom-made give-away items like tees or tote bags from WORK+SHELTER are not just about slapping on a logo to an in-stock item; we are about purposeful creation. We work closely with non-profits to ensure that every product tells a meaningful story. Whether it’s a hand-embroidered logo or a custom-designed fabric, each item is crafted with care, reflecting the unique identity and mission of the non-profit. This level of customization adds authenticity to the promotional efforts. We want to collaborate with you to thoughtfully design items your stakeholders will be excited to use and wear again and again.


These cotton tote bags were used as general merch for The Humanity Share.

4. Positive Environmental Impact

In addition to their social impact, WORK+SHELTER is committed to minimizing our environmental footprint. Non-profits can benefit from knowing that the custom-made sewn products they source are produced with a focus on sustainability. From eco-friendly fabrics to responsible waste management, WORK+SHELTER takes steps to promote environmentally conscious practices, aligning with the values of non-profits that prioritize sustainability.


These silk scarves and screen printed bags were used by To The Market as an awareness initiative for women’s suffrage.

5. Showcasing a Collaborative Social Commitment

When non-profits choose to work with WORK+SHELTER, they are not just buying products; they are engaging in a collaborative social commitment. This partnership goes beyond a transactional relationship, emphasizing a shared dedication to making a positive impact in the world. This narrative of collaboration and commitment can resonate deeply with supporters, creating a compelling story around the non-profit’s use of custom-made sewn promotional products, as you can see demonstrated in the paper tags below that we made for Chicago Fair Trade.Conclusion

In the realm of non-profit success, the strategic use of custom-made sewn promotional products can be a game-changer. Sourcing these items from WORK+SHELTER takes this impact to the next level. By choosing a supplier that actively contributes to social empowerment, adheres to ethical production practices, and values environmental sustainability, non-profits not only enhance their promotional efforts but also become part of a broader movement towards positive change. As custom-made sewn products weave a tapestry of support, the inclusion of WORK+SHELTER in this narrative adds layers of purpose and impact that resonate beyond the realm of traditional promotional strategies.


At WORK+SHELTER, we understand that maintaining healthy profit margins is essential for business sustainability. On that note, we’re about finding the win-win, where we can work together on a product line that grows with you as your business scales. We know that by now if you’re reading this, it’s because you share our values and that you and your customers care about high-quality, ethically made goods that don’t break the bank.

Yet, with rising costs and competitive pressures, we all have to get creative about how we source, produce, and deliver products to market, especially if we want to continue to make an impact and build creative businesses for years to come.

Still, it’s not always as simple as sending over a picture of a product you’d like to make and asking for a rate. It’s actually a little bit of an art AND a science. Get ready to have a creative dialogue that takes into account these three main points:

1. Purchase Higher Volumes

One of the easiest ways to improve your margin is by purchasing a larger volume of items. For us, we really do get more efficient at making an item the more we make, so it’s a no-brainer for us to pass along those savings to you. Making one zip pouch could take 30 minutes. But if we are making 1,000 bags, the amount of time each bag takes to make could decrease by as much as 50%.

But what if you don’t need that many items now? You can:

  • Get a better piece rate by ordering a larger volume of units at once and then ship part of your order by air for immediate fulfillment and the rest by sea.
  • Produce 10+ styles to get a flat 15% multi-creative discount on top of volume discounts.
  • Request flexible payment terms on larger orders.


2. Collaborate With Us on Design

We love it when brands ask how they can design with both environmental and financial sustainability in mind. When we collaborate on product design and testing early on, we’re able to optimize our workflow and thus pass on the savings. A few tips:

  • Choose fabrics that we already source in bulk (like this incredible recycled cotton)
  • Consider using deadstock fabrics, offcuts, and zippers that we can offer at discounted rates
  • Ask us about the fabrics and customization options that are the most affordable (but still ethical, of course!)


3. Get Creative with Ocean Freight & Strategic Shipping

Global transport and logistics is another major cost factor for brands. But, it’s possible to realize HUGE savings by using ocean freight instead of air freight when shipping large quantities from India and by streamlining your shipment process.

Ocean shipping can cost 40-60% less than air shipping. The tradeoff is slower transit times – air shipments can arrive from India in less than a week, but ocean freight can take up to two months (plus time for production). However, ocean freight is ideal for large seasonal or reorders that don’t require quick turnaround. If you don’t need a whole container, it’s possible to:

  • Get in on our existing bulk shipments to the Midwest – Chicagoland shipments are always discounted.
  • Consider sourcing only your larger items by sea (hoodies, big bags, and blankets are a great fit).
  • Have us airship directly to your global clients for a flat $35 split fee and avoid double shipping costs (for example, if you’re a Canadian brand but want to ship to the US, we can handle that for you)

We hope this helps you bring your business to the next level. As always, please reach out to [email protected] with any specific questions.


Celebrating Diwali, November 2021.

WORK+SHELTER was founded in 2011. To celebrate, we compiled a timeline of highlights and turning points as we’ve grown our staff,  our expertise, and our reliance on more sustainable materials.

We couldn’t have gotten this far without our wonderful “clients who care.” Thank you!




  • W+S founder Theresa VanderMeer visits India for the first time, as part of a program at the University of Michigan funded by an Indian philanthropist team, to study how economic empowerment affects women’s well-being.

Quality control training in progress.


  • Following a successful crowdfunding effort, in December Theresa founds WORK+SHELTER in north Delhi as a not-for-profit center that pays women a fair trade wage. 
  • For the first several years, W+S makes hand-knitted items that are sold direct to consumer.
  • Relying solely on donations, the focus is providing support to local women at risk due to societal issues related to widowhood, divorce, abuse, and neglect by teaching them a trade.

“When a woman starts earning an income, it transforms her ability to care for her children and herself, and it gives her a status in the family that she might not have had before.”       

–Theresa VanderMeer

W+S takes delivery of its first industrial sewing machines.


  • W+S produces its first large-scale order, of hand-sewn Christmas ornaments.
  • W+S takes delivery of its first industrial sewing machines.
  • W+S produces an order for the South African consulate and has a fundraiser at the Dutch ambassador’s house in Delhi.


  • W+S produces its first tote bag order.
  • W+S buys its first industrial overlock sewing machines, allowing it to take t-shirt orders.
  • W+S develops a relationship with a local printing artisan and starts offering screen-printed products.

“I love how no one makes anyone feel like there’s a ‘boss’ or there’s a ‘worker.’ Everyone works like a team.” –Khushi,  who started at W+S as a stitcher but is now a member of the logistics team.


  • W+S ships its first woven apparel order.
  • W+S gets orders from its first fortune-500 clients.
  • After success at a global trade show, W+S makes the shift to becoming a hybrid model with both nonprofit and for-profit legal entities and moves to a new, larger center.
  • W+S starts vetting its vendors for sustainability by asking questions about the inks used in its printing process: “You cannot say you’re helping women if you’re not also actively working to protect the environment they’re living in.” –Theresa VanderMeer

Using the electric cutter.


  • W+S works with its first organic cotton vendor, as it starts to step up its commitment to environmental concerns.
  • W+S raises the bar by investing in a Pantone book and an electric cutting machine.
  • W+S expands its management team with new hires in both India and the U.S.

    2017: Fair trade brand World Finds visits.


  • W+S ships its first order to a big-box retailer.
  • W+S stops paying its seamstresses piece rates and starts paying them salaries.
  • W+S starts to formalize its training program.
  • W+S institutionalizes the use of tech packs and starts adopting other lean manufacturing principles.


  • In a year of increasing demand and growing capabilities, W+S increases its staff of stitchers and expands its space again.
  • W+S starts working with digital files and markers.
  • W+S starts incorporating B Corp standards into its processes.

Gathering in the new office, 2019.


  • W+S introduces rPET (recycled polyester, made from discarded plastic bottles) to its line of stock fabrics.
  • W+S pays women their full salaries during India’s national lockdown due to COVID-19. The women on staff in India spend their time in lockdown working on their English and leadership skills.
  • W+S starts producing face masks and leans into producing custom apparel for retail clients (like blazers for Xena Workwear) to get through the pandemic, with a newly beefed-up sampling department.


  • W+S pays women their full salaries during Delhi’s regional lockdown due to COVID-19.
  • W+S invests in additional machines so the women can make masks at home for distribution to the community.
  • W+S expands its factory, with beautiful new spaces for the line sewers and packing and QC staff.

“WORK+SHELTER saved me from quitting. I think I always had the courage but was lacking self-belief. That’s what I learned here. Now this is my happy place.” –Rita, a stitcher at W+S


  • W+S hires longtime associate Sunita Reginold as General Manager with deep experience in overseeing teams and vendor relationships.
  • W+S scales up training processes resulting in increased capacity for more complex stitching.
  • W+S develops a more sophisticated supply chain for digitally printed items.

Founder Theresa VanderMeer and General Manager Sunita Reginold “then and now”


  • W+S moves tech pack creation, invoicing, and additional management activities from the US to our junior managers in India with the help of training and AI.
  • W+S begins consistently shipping by sea due to increased volumes, desire for cost-savings, and sustainability initiatives



Want to help us continue to grow and provide support to local women at risk? You can donate to our nonprofit arm right here.

At WORK+SHELTER, our ethos is deeply rooted in ethical practices, sustainability, and empowerment, especially for women in need. This commitment extends to every facet of our operations, from fair-trade labor to sourcing materials. Today, we delve into the world of recycled cotton fabric – a choice that resonates with our values and offers numerous benefits for our planet, our customers, and our incredible women-lead team.

Recycled denim rovings

Sustainable Manufacturing: The WORK+SHELTER Way

Resource Conservation: Traditional cotton farming is resource-intensive, but by incorporating recycled cotton, we significantly reduce water usage and environmental strain. This aligns with our mission to minimize our impact on the earth, echoing our efforts to use over 95% of fabrics with an environmental qualifier.

Lower Carbon Footprint: Our commitment to eco-friendly equality involves reducing energy consumption. The process of recycling cotton aligns with this, ensuring a lower carbon footprint compared to new cotton production.

Chemical Usage Reduction: We choose recycled cotton (and organic for that matter) to avoid the heavy pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional cotton farming, safeguarding our environment and promoting healthier practices.

recycled cotton yarn

Benefits for Our Customers

Eco-Conscious Choices: Choosing products made from recycled cotton allows you, our customers, to support sustainable and ethical manufacturing. This choice is a testament to your commitment to a better planet.

Quality and Uniqueness: Recycled cotton doesn’t mean compromised quality. Our products maintain high standards of durability and offer unique aesthetics, embodying the unique spirit of WORK+SHELTER.

Cost-Effectiveness: We strive to make sustainable choices accessible. In manufacturing, reducing waste and being efficient is naturally lower cost, and our recycled cotton products are an example of that.


Benefits for Our Team

Healthier Work Environments: Avoiding the harmful chemicals in traditional cotton production means a safer, healthier workplace for our team. This aligns with our commitment to providing a clean, safe environment with regular health check-ups.

Ethical Production Practices: By using recycled cotton, we further our commitment to fair-trade labor practices. This choice is a step towards more ethical production, challenging the norms of the garment industry in India.

Waste Reduction: Our production team is based in New Delhi, which has some of the worst air quality in the world. For over a decade we have understood that it’s of little use to create jobs for women in need while participating in degrading the environment they live in. By reusing cotton, we contribute to less material ending up in landfills, which means less waste transport or incineration.

Conclusion: Ask for Recycled Cotton

At WORK+SHELTER, choosing recycled cotton is more than a manufacturing decision; it’s a reflection of our values. This choice intertwines our commitment to the environment, our dedication to empowering women, and our promise to deliver unique, quality products to our customers.

To support our mission of helping women-in-need by ordering recycled cotton totes, zip pouches, or other items, please connect with us at [email protected].

Photo Credit: Lotta Jansdotter

WORK+SHELTER exists to help women-in-need in India. This goal is accomplished in a number of different ways including meeting new team members or staff where they are on professional level, and providing them with opportunities, support, and tools along the way.

Our team members in New Delhi may have vastly different levels of educational or work experience. Some women have never been to school a day in their lives. Others have graduated from government schools but are still in need of foundational training. For our production team we have training initiatives on how to stitch, quality check, and finish garments. But we also have training initiatives for our junior level management staff. Junior level manager tends to be unmarried women in their early 20’s who need to work to support their parents or siblings. They may have basic education, but usually do not have any professional work opportunity or experience. Our recent trainings with them include the following:

  • Professional norms and standards coaching
  • Google Docs, Sheets, and Drive
    • Calendar invites, simple formulas, folder creation
  • English for emails
    • Writing basic emails, later refined by senior staff
  • Process document creation and refinement
    • Memorializing steps and tools

An excerpt from Khushi, who started off on the stitching team but is now overseeing logistics can be found here.


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An excerpt and self-assessment from the cultural homework of a junior level manager:

To support our mission of helping women-in-need by ordering custom-sewn goods, please connect with us at [email protected].

Behind every great product is a thorough product-development process, and WORK+SHELTER offers a range of development services to help get your custom design ready for production.

Our in-house team of can guide you through every step. Or we can work collaboratively with your design team to fill in any gaps between your developed materials and our production team’s needs.



WORK+SHELTER’s full menu of services includes the following:

  1. Sourcing
  2. Measurement charts
  3. Tech packs/spec sheets
  4. Patternmaking
  5. Grading
  6. Sample making

Technical designer + patternmaker, Xochil Herrera Scheer of The Chicago Patternmaker, working with clients on a technical specification sheet.


Our team is happy to give guidance on fabrications, trims, construction details, grade rules, and more as needed. We always review samples in house before sending them to you, to make sure they meet or exceed standards.

An important note: the pre-production process can take time, anywhere from 2-6 months, depending on the level of detail in the product, how many rounds of revision are necessary, and whether a custom textile needs to be created. 

Have a shorter timeline but a slightly flexible vision? Rapid development & prototyping can be achieved using in-stock materials and our retail-ready patterns for less complex products. Clients coming in with some materials in hand (production-ready patterns, for example) will also experience a shorter lead time.

Still not sure how much help you need? Read more about that here.



Our in-house merchandiser is responsible for going to the local markets to scout out what fabrics and trims are available

Typically the first step in product development is finding the right materials for your project. The fabrics and trims you choose help determine the price and quality of your product. What you choose to use can also make an impact on the environment, and a statement about your values. All of our stock fabrics have at least one eco qualifier, and we’ll always work to find you the most earth-friendly options for your product(s).

Sourcing depends not only on the product itself, but also on the size of the order. Small-batch production can pose challenges when it comes to sourcing, but we will work with our current stock and vendor connectionsand consider other customers that might have similar needsto find you a good fit for your product. Once we confirm fabric and trims, we can more accurately predict the cost of your project, and then move into sampling.

An important note about sourcing in India: working with fabric that is not manufactured in India is discouraged by the Indian government, which puts a large tariff on imported textiles. Luckily, India is full of beautiful, sustainable, high-quality fabrics.

Want more info on how we source our fabrics? Check out our post on sourcing, here.



By now you may be wondering, ‘Yes, but when will I get my completed production lot?” Once product development is completemeaning production-ready patterns and all fabrics and trims are in housebulk cutting and sewing can start. Production times depend on order size and complexity, but 6-12 weeks is typical.

We are always happy to talk through timelines with you at the outset, since every project is unique.


WORK+SHELTER meeting with our screen printer, Pratap Singh.


We think of our clients as our partners, and act accordinglyit takes effective teamwork to bring a custom product to life!

We pride ourselves on our timely communication, both with our close-knit team in India and with our client partners. Time zones are not a hindrance—we speak with our facility managers India most days, and are able to provide a quick response to any questions or problems that may arise.

If you have an apparel or accessory design you’re looking to develop, drop us a line at [email protected]. You can also find more information on our website here.


When someone offers you a glass of water, what’s your response? If you’re thirsty and it’s a hot day, satisfying your thirst, at least in the U.S., is a pleasure you don’t have to think much about.

Where we work in India, a glass of water is potentially dangerous. Simply put, water pollution occurs when unprocessed sewage or industrial waste ends up in the public water supply.

For us, in Delhi, where our production center is located, the issue is endemic. Delhi has been crowned the world’s 5th most polluted city. We’re a stone’s throw away from the Yamuna River, which according to a Google Maps review has “very poor water condition.” That’s an understatement. When WORK+SHELTER was founded over a decade ago, people would still bathe in the river. Now, the smell of sewage and industrial water is so pervasive it’s hard to even pass by in a moving vehicle. The river is technically “dead,” a painful term used when a river cannot sustain life.

A man looks for recyclable items on the banks of the Yamuna, on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

To add insult to injury, this situation is especially tough for the many folks in India who are already struggling to meet basic food needs. Baseline, to get clean water one has to either purchase it for a premium from local water vendors or invest in a water filtration system that in and of itself can cost more than what low-income folks earn in a month. Even then, these systems are not effective if the water is too dirty.

What’s the Deal with Water Pollution in the Fashion Industry?

Water is a key player in the supply chain. Water pollution can actually be the result of many different stages throughout the production process. Take a cotton t-shirt: a large part of the production process surrounds the harvesting of the cotton. However, if that cotton isn’t being sourced organically, there is a high probability it’s getting treated with harmful chemicals and pesticides that the rain ends up washing away, into the groundwater.

A textile manufacturing plant in Tianjin, China. Credit: Lu Guang/Greenpeace

Fast forward, and that cotton has been spun into yarns that will later become your new favorite t-shirt.  But first they need to be dyed. Workers have to mix a variety of different chemicals together to get that color just right, and as a result these dyes could contain toxins such as AZO dyes, which are so bad they have actually been banned in countries including China, Japan, India, Vietnam, and the European Union. Not only can these chemicals harm workers, but if they are not disposed of properly these toxins then go and wreak havoc in the environment. The garment dyeing process is no simple process, and sometimes means dyeing that yarn/fabric/t-shirt several times to get it just right.

Water pollution is the most notable impact of clothing production, with around 20 percent of global industrial water pollution traceable directly back to the textiles industry.

When you look at that finished garment, it’s impossible to know everything that went into creating it. What were the conditions like during production? How much water was used throughout the process? And most importantly…

How is Water Waste Discarded After Being Used in the Garment Production Process?

Where does it continue or end its lifespan? That water waste or “sludge” can be defined as all of the leftover chemicals and toxins extracted after producing a garment. Unfortunately, oftentimes the answer to that question is that it ends up getting dumped into nearby waterways, where some people see it as “out of sight, out of mind.” I cannot stress how common this is, with  75%-80% of waterways in India polluted.

One process we have observed in dyeing facilities several filtration or separating stages and then finally an evaporation stage where the sun was used to evaporate remaining water, leaving only the waste. The compacted waste then gets picked up by a waste management specialist and taken to a facility to be disposed of properly.

But the issue is complicated. Well-resourced factories have the best chance of accommodating regulations by investing into water waste management systems. Small scale factories can have a harder time investing in these systems. In low-income areas, this becomes more than an environmental problem, it becomes a case of ethics. These factory workers need their jobs in order to make an income to support themselves and their families, however if the factories are not disposing of their water waste properly then all of the employees are at risk, along with those living in nearby communities.

How Does WORK+SHELTER Cut Down on Water Pollution?

One option is to pressure mills to build proper water waste management infrastructure over time. This requires serious relationships in order for them to see that the downside of NOT building this infrastructure will cost them over time. It also requires the willingness to spend more on fabric upfront, since the mills have to cover the costs of this infrastructure somewhere, and accessing capital in developing markets can be especially tough.

Another more direct option is to only purchase certified materials. For us, over 70% of the fabrics we purchase are GOTS certified. GOTS, also known as the Global Organic Textile Standard, aims to define requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer. Basically, to be GOTS certified means that the clothing or textiles are made through a sustainable process, using organically grown fibers. 

Organic cotton is grown without toxic chemicals, but unless the clothes are certified under GOTS, bluesign®, or Oeko-Tex certifications, toxic chemicals may be added in the textile production process.

When being considered for a GOTS certification, mills undergo a heavy inspection to ensure that the fabrics are the real deal. Remember those scary AZO dyes we mentioned earlier? A large part of the GOTS certification process involves checking fabric production processes to ensure there are no AZO dyes or other harmful dyes being used.

Swaddles for our client This Feels Nice, made from GOTS-certified organic cotton.


While water pollution is a very serious issue in the broader fashion and promotional products industries, we are excited to be able to provide access to eco-friendly materials for our clients. If you’re curious about our in-stock GOTS-certified fabric offerings, drop us a line at [email protected].