How did you first get into sustainable fashion?
My catalyst to enter the sustainable fashion world was the 2013 Rana Plaza Factory Collapse– which was an 8-story garment factory that killed over 1,134 people; one of the largest industrial disasters of our time. The day before the collapse, deep cracks had appeared in the eight-story building, but there was so much pressure from upper management to have workers finish orders, facilitating this mass industrial homicide.
So my entry into the world of sustainable fashion was rooted in looking at the industry through a lens of social justice. After the 2012 Rana Plaza Factory collapse, my eyes were opened to the intersection between labor rights and marginalized communities.
I was just about starting college at the time, and concurrently started my blog. At the time, my understanding of sustainable fashion was quite elementary– I always describe my blog as a platform that grew alongside me and my nuanced understanding of sustainability.
As I entered the space, I quickly realized that the sustainable fashion scene was dominated by well-off white women and a narrative of luxury sustainable fashion markets. There was a huge gap in terms folks not understanding the systemic and structural underpinnings of fashion– conversations rooted in colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and more– and I decided that was the gap that I wanted to address through my work.
You have been in this work for over six years, when for some people, these conversations are new. What is one big take away you want people who are new to sustainability to keep in mind or do? And for people who have been part of the sustainability movement for a while, what is something you want them to think about or do?
For folks that are new to the sustainability fashion scene, I feel like the knee-jerk reaction is to feel like we need to revamp our closets completely to become ethical. The Western narrative around sustainability is largely rooted in consumption, which I believe is quite damaging. Although conscious consumerism is important, the idea of “Voting with your dollar” often fuels problematic notions of not only how one holds power, but who holds power (considering the inherently class and racial dynamics of the industry).
The biggest thing is consuming less, after all.
For those that are more seasoned sustainable fashion participants, I would urge them to understand that this movement is way more than bamboo straws, vegan materials, and organic t-shirts. Our lens in this work must be one that also centers understanding of colonialism, environmental racism, indigenous rights, and more.
You speak at many events, you write, you take incredible photographs– what can we look forward to as you plan your 2020?
Thank you 🙂 In 2020, one small goal was to begin creating more off-the-cuff videos on IGTV– ones that break down terms, complicate our understanding of sustainability, and just take my audience alongside my journey.
I’m also expanding to more journalistic work, rather than just my blog as the key platform to disseminate my work.
You speak unapologetically about the impact of colonialism on the fashion industry; why is this an important history and context for sustainable fashion community members to be mindful of?
As noted by Céline Semaan, many major supply chains are mirroring colonial trade routes during the height of European colonization. Taking a look at fast fashion from a macro perspective reveals that supply chains for most major clothing and apparel manufacturers have the same world trade routes as 150 years ago– during the height of European colonial exploitation. That’s to say, the fast fashion industry is simply recreating, or continuing, upon exploitative systems.
This is important when we understand how the fashion industry profits off of the (exploited) labor of predominantly Black and Brown communities globally, especially in countries that are still reeling from the impacts of colonization.
The sustainable fashion movement must center BIPOC voices as leading actors– communities that have been historically sustainable. If we don’t, we will continue to legitimize neo-colonial domination in the power dynamics that frame sustainable fashion.
How do your heritage/s inform your work in sustainability?
A few different ways. For one, coming from a country and culture that is still reeling from the impacts of colonization, a colonial hangover you can say, positions me to see the ways that colonial values became capitalistic values– ideologies rooted in exploitation and extraction, whether we are talking about the extraction of natural resources or of labor. With that said, so much of the fashion supply chain exists in South Asia. South Asia has always had an amazing fashion industry– one defined by artisan craft and regional identity, natural fibers and dyes, supporting local tailors etc.
The presence of the British Raj was a big hit to this; in fact, some of the first models of fast fashion we see (one of mass production and exploited labor), happening during colonization. During the fight for independence against the British Raj, a major form of resistance was spinning our cloth, or khadi, which is like a rough textured fabric made of cotton and is usually hand spooled. Khadi became a literal tool and symbol of resistance; as to not support the colonial beast on an economic level, but also serving as a symbol for indigenous production and regeneration. However, today, South Asia is still home to the fashion industry’s race to bottom, which is the idea of producing as much as you can, as fast as you can, for as cheap as you can. Again, the supply chains of major brands today are mirroring colonial trade routes from 150 years ago.
Decolonization is the core of my work. I often say that my work cannot be removed from identity as it’s precisely my South Asian identity that informs my understanding of community, my connection to the Earth, and self.