In the Dominican Republic, Edgar Alejandro Garrido and Stephanie Bazzarae Rodrigues run a garment business using the discarded textiles of a country overwhelmed with rubbish
In July 2018 a tropical storm saw the beaches of Santo Domingo become inundated with rubbish. «That was when everything changed for us» says Stephanie Rodrigues, who moved to the Dominican Republic’s capital from New York with Edgar Garrido in 2017. The pair, both 32, also relocated their company Tiempo De Zafra, launched a year prior, and together have been working to raise awareness and combat the global issue of waste management and landfill.
Edgar Garrido, originally from The Dominican Republic but who migrated to America at eight years old, developed the brand with his father in Harlem, New York. His grandfather was a tailor, and his motivation was to learn the family craft. Since his teenage years, Garrido relied on thrift shops like Goodwill, or the city’s dollar stores, to source second-hand clothing to deconstruct and then rework, giving discarded items new life. They started selling through the business in 2016, the same year Garrido met Stephanie Rodrigues, who is Brazilian, and was born in Florida.
Edgar Garrido was first enticed back to Santo Domingo for an industrial pattern making and tailoring course. A year later, as he and Stephanie Rodrigues documented the density of waste unloaded onto the shore after the 2018 storm — Ocean protection charity, Parley recorded clearing one thousand tonnes of debris in eleven days — they reached a turning point.
«There were car parts, jugs, cleaning products, glass bottles, wood, refrigerators» Stephanie Rodrigues remembers. «That was when we realized we should stay here after Edgar finished school. We thought, let’s build our business here so we can bring further awareness to these issues. Let’s hold ourselves accountable».
A lack of transparency Edgar Garrido and Stephanie Rodrigues offer in terms of production or brand practices has caused public issues for far larger clothing companies. Recently, fast-fashion retailer Boohoo’s underpayment of factory workers in Leicester, Britain, surfaced after an investigation was published by The Sunday Times in July 2020. It acted as a reminder of untrustworthy and unregulated supply chains. With waste disposal, the September 2018 discovery that luxury British retailer Burberry burnt their excess stock highlighted another issue of over manufacturing. The New York Times reported that it had destroyed thirty-seven million US dollars of clothing and cosmetics to maintain brand value.
For Garrido, this kind of irresponsible production and mismanagement of products is what needs to change. «The main questions brands need to ask is how much are we creating? How much of this is actually going to an intended client or customer? And if they don’t sell, what happens to them?». The World Bank reported in 2019 the global consumption of apparel was sixty-two million metric tons with a predicted growth to one hundred and two million tonnes in the next decade.
That same year, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated less than one percent of used clothing is recycled into new garments, a loss of five hundred billion US dollars. Tiempo De Zafra’s business model capitalizes on this, and in working only to order, eliminates overstocking. It does, however, function on a different scale. «These ideas work very well with smaller businesses», Rodrigues recognizes, but hopes that changing customer opinions will force leaders higher up to listen. «Companies and brands will have no choice but to conform to what the buyer wants at the end of the day».
Having set out to answer the question «where is this waste coming from?», they discovered a series of problems on the island. «There is not a proper waste system here, and people dump things into the Ozama river. Out of sight out of mind. And in neighbouring towns when it rains, water rises out of the river and takes the waste with it» Rodrigues says. «All of that funnels into the Caribbean Ocean». While clearing the beach is good, it is not a solution. There must be structural change and a cultural shift to understanding, and caring, about these complications. «There is a problem here, and it’s not going to change if we only focus on the surface of the issue».
Since then, Tiempo De Zafra, ‘time of harvest’ in Spanish, has been a two-person in-house design and production team, working on a made-to-order basis using only excess fabrics sourced pre- or post-consumption. This involves textiles found either before they are made into clothes, such as offcuts from tailors in their local Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, or secondhand garments sourced from ‘La Pulga’ flea market nearby.
The latter is another strain on the island’s waste capacity, as Rodrigues says plastic-wrapped cubes of old clothing, called bales, are shipped in from abroad. «These are things someone has donated and no longer wants. It’s likely not all will be sold and it ends up in the trash once again». This time, in the Dominican Republic. The USA and China are the biggest exporters, says Garrido, and items like «t-shirts that were once made for events, charities, marathon runs, and even different business», end up clogging the system further, entering landfill or are dumped to one day wash up on the beach.
«What we make is dictated by our finds» says Garrido, explaining the production of the Pre-Consumer Turismo Hat. The tall accessory made from bright strips of colorful fabric is their most recent item, released 10th July. «We were walking and found a factory that specializes in these tourist shirts with a tropical print, and we found a lot of their fabric. Whatever they don’t need, they throw out with the notion that someone’s going to pick it up. Here, there is a big culture of people waiting to collect these discarded things».
When back in the studio, the pair work together in all aspects of the design development until the sewing stage, which Garrido completes. A long process of experimentation takes place to discover the new subject’s qualities — durability, size, response to techniques. Then the decision is made on whether the final product will be a one-off, or a permanent design sold on their website. The Turismo hat will now be on sale, priced at one hundred and fifteen US dollars until the floral shirt cuttings run out.
In all of their outputs the focus is craft. «For me craftmanship is something that is human. A craftsman is a person, a human being, and they put their touch into the piece they are creating» says Garrido. They hope customers appreciate this, as each gets the opportunity to discuss their order, choose colours or fitting, and be a part of the two-week process. Their current pieces include a large shopping tote named ‘re-use this’ bag in contrasting, pleated fabric, selling for one hundred and fifty-five US dollars, and the ‘excess pocket pant’, costing two hundred US dollars, which sees second-hand trouser pockets stitched together into a sort of collage.
«Our clients are people like us, who love fashion but want to stand for something that is more responsible» says Garrido. «It’s for those who are intentional about what they have in their wardrobe and also want to be part of the creative experience». Collaborating with customers is one way they believe Tiempo De Zafra is fulfilling the aim to educate others on what they are consuming, in the hope it generates more respect for the product. «It opens their eyes to how long everything takes when making a garment, and how they should value it because they have been a part of it as well».
Has it been a struggle to promote less consumption whilst being a clothing brand that relies on people buying more? «We want people to buy with intention», says Rodrigues. «They are getting a one-on-one developed piece that they should feel connected to, and think of differently to a garment they just buy off the rack». Garrido agrees. «We are aware that someone has to buy it. And there is the question, why do they need another shirt? But the point is, there is a message in how we make them as well». For Tiempo De Zafra, storytelling is key.
Aside from altering demand, Garrido believes legislative action is important in enforcing a shift. «In terms of production there needs to be some kind of mandate regarding the lifecycle of objects», with the aim of stopping garments designed for minimal wears, then landfill, being created at all. But, in the pair’s position as a newer company with narrower profits, there is only so much they can do. «I think that us, being the small guys, are setting a precedent,» Garrido says, «but we need someone in politics who is willing to push this further. And people in fashion too».
Why have they chosen not to progress their cause through legal work? «Not everyone is as open to the structured, political standpoint» says Rodrigues. «Being more fluid, and taking the creative route, allows people to connect with us in a way they might not have otherwise». It is also what they do best, says Garrido. «That’s what our skills are. They are the tools we have available to us. And I think for everyone else, whatever tools you have available you should use as well».
It is not that they are restricted only to selling and promoting garments, though. Tiempo De Zafra runs free workshops teaching local people to craft their own waste, events that have taken place in the Dominican Republic and New York so far. «With these workshops, we are trying to show people that you can do this yourself», says Rodrigues. «We ask people to bring an article of clothing, and take them through how to make a bag out of it. Either with a shopping bag pattern or we take your garment and see how we can arrange it». It is part of a plan to open up and reach more people. Rodrigues recalls one in Santo Domingo, «Not only everybody left with a bag, but people were talking about how they could change their consumption habits».
Looking forwards, the pair are working towards their first capsule collection to present a full set of designs. «We want to show a little bit more versatility. We do sell garments, but we tend to have more accessories» Rodrigues says, of the project which is planned to be finished this year. The other goal is expansion, and with it the opportunity of broadening their team. «We want to get to the point where we can hire people locally, and pay them more than what they are paid now» Garrido says.
Four years later, and after three in the Caribbean, Edgar Garrido and Stephanie Rodrigues are not faltering in their mission to expose what blind consumerism is doing to the environment, the effect shipping off used items has on less developed countries, and offering new perspectives on dealing with waste.
«We still live by the beach and still we see a lot of this stuff wash back up» Garrido says of today. But they are continuing to push. «If we make a dollar, we put it right back into what we are doing. It’s our money, our time, our energy, our thoughts. We believe in it and we are sticking with it. We are seeing what happens next».