Consumers often talk about the importance of fair trade and sustainable goods. For many, that conversation stops at the tags on their clothing, but, for Special Studies student Liz Ricketts — a former fashion designer in New York City and London — those labels are just the start of a much larger and more important story of the life cycle of our clothes and the human beings behind the scenes.
Ricketts’ time in the fashion industry opened her eyes to unexpected ethical questions, particularly around the issue of modern day slavery, and how the demand for more goods at lower prices perpetuated such labor practices. Now she works to highlight those injustices for others.
“[Consumers] who do have a lot of choices in their life should be educated to really understand the weight of those choices,” Ricketts says.
The power of everyday objects, in this case clothing, says Ricketts, can help people to look at deep issues of fairness, and also work to connect people across the world. That’s where the OR Network — the nonprofit founded by Ricketts in 2011 — comes in.
“Our focus is ending modern-day slavery in product supply chains through education,” Ricketts says, noting that only 2 percent of the clothes bought in the United States are made here. “I think it is our responsibility to become aware of what we’ve pushed elsewhere.”
To that end, the OR Network (@theORispresent) has created a curriculum for grades 4–11 that helps students become more aware of who makes their everyday goods and at what cost. By investigating where their clothes come from — and sharing their journeys with international peers — the students are “pushed to really think about the story behind everything,” Ricketts says. By learning through this global lens, the OR curriculum allows students to “move forward into conversations around slavery.”
Students design and make objects, such as scarves. They learn how to sew, gathering recycled fabrics from local sources, and even create natural dyes for their scarves through food waste from the cafeteria. “The goal is that they are telling their story through this object,” Ricketts says.
The students then share their stories through video messages to their international peers across Collectofus.org, a proprietary online platform under the umbrella of the OR Network. They then give away the items they created, sending their scarves to their international peers. The hope is that this process instills an appreciation for where goods come from.
“It really makes them think about the value of their own time,” Ricketts says. “It shifts their perspective on storytelling, and the value of knowing who you are and being open to sharing that.”
With current school partners in Detroit; Cincinnati; New York City; Washington, D.C.; Honolulu; Accra, Ghana; and Vaalwater, South Africa, Ricketts came to HGSE with the hope of learning how to grow the OR Network. She is also working on learning what it means to be a leader and is excited to learn through the experiences of those around her.
“I’m here to be surrounded by teachers, people who have led schools, who have led much larger and sustainable groups than I have,” Ricketts says. “I want to listen and to question the assumptions I have about what learning is and what is worth teaching.”