“There’s so much to a t-shirt,” Adila Cokar, founder of The Good Tee, says.
Maybe you’re wondering what more there is than a piece of cotton fabric but talking to Cokar for only a few minutes quickly answers that question.
“I've always been into fashion. I thought it was so cool,” she says, recalling her childhood in Canada and finding a passion for fashion from a young age. When her interest in business began to evolve, it was a perfect combination. “I love the creative element. I love thinking of an idea and making it happen.”
Cokar’s brand, The Good Tee, which offers sustainable fashion basics, was created in 2020 after she spent 15+ years working to source and manufacture sustainable clothing. Acting as a middleman between manufacturers and brands helped her recognize the disconnect between labor, brands, and consumers.
“My mission is to help people understand clothes are made by people, not machines,” she explains. And more importantly to understand the people who are making these clothes and what the conditions they work in are like.
Cokar sources from cotton farms in India and she frequently travels to the most populous country in the world, where her family traces their roots. On one of these trips, Cokar learned the alarming rates of suicide amongst Indian cotton farmers—more than 300,000 since 1995, according to The Guardian.
Researchers trace these staggering numbers to things like climate change, GMO seeds, and, above all, debt.
“It’s a family run business and they don’t necessarily know how to run a business,” Cokar says. “They’re buying Monsanto, now Bayer, seeds that aren’t natural that they must keep buying and they’re going into debt.”
Vikas Rawal, an economics professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University concurs, telling CBC: “It's a loss-making enterprise, but these farmers don't have anything else to do, so they just keep doing it. Your cost of production has gone up and then you've been made to compete with the world.”
He added farmers can’t afford the costs for basics, like fertilizer and equipment, to keep their cotton farms afloat and successful.
When Cokar learned the extent of this reality, everything changed.
She was inspired by Shiva Vandana, an Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalization author who has been speaking for decades about food crises and environmentalism.
Following in the footsteps of Vandana, Cokar wrote her own book, Source My Garment, to help spread the word about ethical and sustainable manufacturing.
“I initially wrote it for my clients, as a simple PDF,” she explains. “It snowballed into a book after I made a bet with my dad—who's going to write a book first?”
The book, which covers everything from how to prepare for production, plan effectively, lower costs, avoid manufacturing problems, design sustainably, and more, is now in trade schools.
All of this—her own experience, everything she’s learned, the people who have inspired and spurred her on—informed Cokar’s creation of The Good Tee and how her own clothing brand operates.
The Good Tee works with Fairtrade Canada to give 3% of products costs back to the cotton farmers in India.
“Fair trade is more than just being paid fairly,” Cokar says. “There’s an element of sustainability, there’s an element of justice for these farmers who are killing themselves.”
Running a well-intentioned small business, unfortunately, cannot sustain itself simply by making a positive impact on the world. And in the era of fast fashion, Cokar understands this intimately.
“It’s cheap, it’s dirty, it’s convenient, but who can blame them [consumers]? There’s inflation, I can barely afford to go out and eat,” she laments. “The best we can do is educate people, give them time, remind people we’re here, we exist. It’s hard for small businesses to compete but we have to do whatever we can.”
Cokar remains focused on her mission—using her business expertise to better people and planet, from Indian cotton farmers to consumers looking to spend their money ethically. She knows the uphill battles she faces, frustrated by the lack of people of color in more positions of power in her industry, but she wants to turn her attention to our similarities and trying to do good, one t-shirt at a time.