Earlier this summer, model and activist Cameron Russell and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson hosted an event that brought together activists, academics and fashion industry insiders to discuss how to make the fashion industry more sustainable, holistic, and fair, today. Here she shares her takeaways and inspiration from the evening.
What was the inspiration behind this event?
In January, I spoke at Nana Sarian’s Harvard Law School fashion law class and was inspired by the potential of bringing together people with different experiences and areas of expertise who are thinking about how to make fashion more sustainable and just. So, millennial that I am, I posted to my instagram stories that “one of my lofty 2019 goals is to make spaces where activists, academics, and fashion + cultural workers can come together. Often these spaces can feel exclusive and there is so much knowledge to share and work to do together. Fashion employes one in seven women in the formal economy (Anne Elizabeth Moore, Threadbare: Clothes, Sex and Trafficking) and will use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. We must take its impact as well as its potential for solutions and powerful leadership seriously.
Believe it or not, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson replied, and said: “Let’s make this happen at Pioneer Works!” In June, after planning and dreaming and working out all the finer details, we finally did the first dinner salon, re-imagining and celebrating a more holistic fashion sustainability. And now is perfect timing to give a BIG thank you to Pioneer Works and Science Sandbox of Simons Foundation for making this possible.
Who was there and what was the format?
Usually when we talk about fashion and sustainability in the same sentence, we’re talking critically about the enormous negative impact the industry has when it comes to sustaining people and planet. You’ve probably heard the stats: three-fifths of all clothes end up in a landfill or incinerator within a year of being produced; currently fashion accounts for 8% of all global emissions, placing it right after transportation. Although women make up 80% of the fashion workforce, the majority don’t recieve a living wage (Anne Elizabeth Moore). What can get lost in this conversation is that there are also many aspects of fashion and people working in fashion who are practicing sustainability right now.
That’s why my dream for this first event was rather than to talk about sustainable fashion as a far off future, as something we desire or aspire to, I wanted us to ground the conversation around sustainable fashion as a present reality. The whole event itself was an experiment in creating that sustainable space now.
Angel Chang walked us through her work “with fabric masters in the rural mountain villages of Guizhou Province, China, where ethnic minority families have maintained 1000-year old ancient handweaving and all-natural processes. She learned how to live according to the cycles of nature, off-the-grid and without electricity, and produced a womenswear collection with a nearly zero carbon footprint. [Her atelier] aims to bring global appreciation for indigenous craftsmanship and to revive traditional fabric-making practices in need of urgent safeguarding.” Ayana then asked the group to experiment with applying Angel’s methodology of slow, cyclical production lead by indigenous craftsman, to their own work.
Then Linda Patentas, program director at BRAC, talked to us about their three year long project to map all the garment factories in Bangladesh and provide services to workers, especially as Accord and Alliance work comes to a close. She talked about the power of the women she works with across Bangladesh, the world’s second largest producer of ready made garments, as well as the challenges they face. I asked the group to experiment with rethinking who has the power to make positive change, and how to make sure we are listening and resourcing them.
Everyone who came is doing the work of sustaining, albeit in very different ways. All told there were 32 guests who all deserve a special mention and a follow on social media if you’re curious about what this work really looks like. You can find links to their Instagram accounts in this Instagram story.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the fashion industry when it comes to sustainability?
The structure of the industry. Currently fashion is dominated by a few conglomerates who own most of the brands and media outlets. We face the same issues within the industry that we face globally, where just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions. The solutions exist, a just sustainable fashion industry is possible, and while few bear the brunt of responsibility for the harm done, the opportunity to blaze a path forward belongs to all of us. I think those of us who can, need to shift some of the economic and media resources towards the smaller players, the independent voices, who see a path forward.
And what do you see as the solutions?
Some of the biggest most public efforts have been limited by only addressing natural resource impacts (like working to use recycled plastics or organic fibers). These solutions often ignore the multitude of systemic factors that make fashion’s extractive business model so possible and so profitable. Some examples of what I’m talking about can be found in the work of Céline Semaan of Slow Factory, who mapped fashion trade routes to colonial routes and found they were the same. We must ask how colonialism and imperialism are making this extractive system possible.
The vast majority of the women who power our industry are young, immigrant, and Asian, the majority don’t make a living wage and are more likely to be harassed/abused, and more likely to be located in countries on the frontline of climate change. We must ask: how are sexism and racism making this system possible. Without careful attention to the systems that make the highly extractive parts of our industry flourish, fashion sustainability will come to mean nothing more than finding ways to sustain business models, and little to do with sustaining people and planet.
You spoke about taking a more holistic response to fashion sustainability – how do you see this working?
(1) Rethinking who has the power to make change, and make sure we are listening and resourcing hem. Did you know the Lowell Mill Girls organized the very first labor union in the United States? They were young immigrant garment workers (mostly teens!) Or, that the organizing by garment workers and their allies in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire led to the New Deal labor protections? Fashion has played a major role in so many struggles for social justice, from the fights for lgbtqia* rights, to women’s rights, to black power, to name just a few…
(2) Rethinking how fashion IS sustaining. As Adrienne Maree Brown (the brilliant writer, social justice facilitator, pleasure activist, healer and doula) says: “What we give our attention to grows.” Fashion is culture and community first, rampant consumerism came much later.
(3) Interrogating what drives excess consumerism. Where does the desire to buy, buy, buy come from? Can we address that through fashion? When the messaging reinforces hierarchy and tells women and femmes they are only valuable IF rather than telling us we ARE valuable. I believe we can remove the lack and move toward abundance.
What were your biggest takeaways from the event?
Community! Community! We need each other, we change each other, we sustain each other, we evolve together. The more we can make space to slow down and recognise that we have abundance because we have each other the less insurmountable and distant a just sustainable future will feel. The more we create it now together, the more real it can become for all of us.