Alumna-led startup brings denim full circle in social enterprise

blue circle bag from Make Fashion Clean
Sarah Bibbey (B.S.W., ’17) co-founded a social enterprise selling “Blue Circle Bags” made by Ghanaian artisans from discarded American jeans.

When Sarah Bibbey (B.S.W., ’17) wanted to create a financially sustainable business model for seamstresses in the community in Ghana where she had done research for four years, she found a problem with the way clothes are distributed.

“When people in the U.S. donate clothing, they assume these secondhand clothes will be re-used locally,” said Bibbey, who discovered that more than half of donated clothing items are shipped overseas and re-sold to consumers, primarily in West and East Africa.

“Not only do these textiles eventually go into the environment in Africa instead of the U.S.,” said Bibbey, “the import and resale of secondhand clothing in Africa puts women employed as artisans and seamstresses out of work, affecting their livelihoods and families.”

From the U.S. to Ghana and back

DL Lundberg and Sarah Bibbey
Lundberg and Bibbey recently completed a summer accelerator at Boston University to market test the Blue Circle Bag.

Bibbey is a co-founder and acting director of partnership operations for Make Fashion Clean, a nonprofit organization created to align the intentions of fashion consumers in the U.S. with the products of artisans in Ghana.

“We are raising awareness about the global impact of post-consumer textile waste by creating full-circle products,” Bibbey said. Through a Kickstarter campaign, the company is launching “Blue Circle Bags,” a product for the U.S. market made from discarded American jeans by Ghanaian artisans.

“Rather than helping people, the global secondhand clothing trade literally transports textile waste from more powerful to less powerful parts of the world,” said Bibbey. “West Africans have a rich tradition of creating textiles and have no need for the clothes Americans are finished with.”

The bags are supplied through a collaboration with the Matilda Flow Inclusion (MFI) Foundation, which employs women with disabilities, mothers of children with disabilities, and community members in Greater Accra, Ghana.

Matilda Lartey, co-founder and director of the MFI Foundation, experienced the impact of imported secondhand clothes on her livelihood as a Ghanaian seamstress.

The MFI Foundation was founded by Ghanaian artisan Matilda Lartey and American public health student DL Lundberg, and currently employs 10 workers in a transitional employment model with community partnerships. Lundberg is also a co-founder of Make Fashion Clean.

Finding support, resources, and opportunities at CSU

While she was still a student in Colorado State University’s School of Social Work, Bibbey was hatching her ideas about inclusion and inequality relative to social enterprise. As an undergraduate, she traveled to Ghana multiple times and helped establish a non-governmental organization, or NGO.

Bibbey wrote two theses related to Ghana, both of which placed in CSU’s annual Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity showcase. “One was for the University Honors Program and the other was for the President’s Leadership Program minor,” Bibbey said.

“Faculty involved with my research work include Dr. Caridad Souza from Women’s and Gender Studies, Dr. Eunhee Choi from Social Work, and Zach Mercurio from Leadership Studies,” Bibbey added. She joined Make Fashion Clean in 2016, five months before it was incorporated as a nonprofit.

Now in its second year, Make Fashion Clean is a model for using upcycled fashion in a social enterprise, and includes another CSU alumnus: Reuben Addo (Ph.D., Social Work, ’18), who “joined MFC’s advisory council in October as an advisor on social research and the Ghanaian context,” said Bibbey.

The “Blue Circle Bags” are designed to combine function and durability. “It’s a style that appeals to the ethical fashion consumer looking for a unique, hand-crafted product with a story,” Bibbey said. “The choices we make about the clothes we wear truly make a difference.”

More information about the Kickstarter is available at makefashionclean.org or @makefashionclean on Instagram.

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.