My friend, Professor Hakan Karaosman always says that sustainability is such a multi-faceted issue it is impossible to condense it into one topic. Yet today, this is what keeps happening: we read about an initiative that is supposed to “solve it all,” or a commitment from a brand about one side of the story (oft en climate) without ever mentioning the other (often social). We need to have honest conversations that tie all the threads of sustainability together. That is why, last month in Los Angeles, in the wake of announcing the Green Carpet Fashion Awards (GCFA) moving there, we hosted the first of The GCFA Talks with actor, model, and activist Amber Valletta; sustainable fashion content creator, photojournalist, National Geographic storytelling fellow, academic, and labor rights activist Aditi Mayer; and designer, tech genius, and creative director of Eddie Bauer, Christopher Bevans. What came out of that was nothing short of inspiring.
“When I was modeling in the 90s, I felt a discrepancy,” Valletta said. “I didn’t know what it was, but my internal compass was saying something isn’t right. When I stepped away in 2000 for about a decade, I started getting into environmental activism, which is why, when I decided to get back into fashion, I knew I couldn’t do it the way I was before. I also started seeing how many problems there were through the supply chain, on every level, whether it be worker rights, human rights, diversity issues, climate issues, or animal rights. I was shocked at how little everyone knew about this 12 years ago. No one was talking about sustainability apart from a small group of us. And every time we mentioned it, people were like, ‘What?’ Investors would look at us like we were speaking another language. They’d never heard it. I kept saying, ‘This is how business will go. And it won’t just be about fashion, it will be every industry, because this is the biggest change we’ll need to make in our lives.’”
I remember those times myself, as I also started 12 years ago — and then something terrible happened that exposed the dark side of fashion. Mayer recalls the same. “My genesis in this world started in 2014. It was a few months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 garment workers,” Mayer shares. “What Rana Plaza did for me, as a young South Asian woman and daughter of immigrants, was unpack the politics of labor, the disproportionate impact on people, especially women of color, globally, and the environmental impact of fashion. I wanted to know the conditions that set the reality for Rana Plaza: how do we have a system predicated on speed and scale at all costs, even human lives? There is a role we have as consumers, but there’s an even bigger role we have as citizens.”
If you are a citizen with power on social media, you should use it in the right way. Why we create, and what we aspire to, are two big themes that need to be addressed and reimagined. Mayer refers to the “attention economy” of social media. “It is one of the biggest drivers of fast fashion. The sheer rate of information we’re consuming; the sponsored ads that are tied to an aspirational image.” Therefore, we should call for a more critical look at algorithms, how even creators who are focusing on sustainability and slowness are still put at odds with the platform that always wants us to create. “The future for me is decentralization in every facet possible,” Mayer concluded. “Fast fashion is rooted in mass production, and we need less mass production and more production by the masses. This decentralization is what will allow us to have more ethical supply chains.” Valletta also noted that the idea of celebrity is tied to centralization of power. “How do we convert a culture of influencers that live a lifestyle of consumption, versus a culture of thought leaders that push critical thinking?”
No one knows more about this side of technology and algorithms than Chris Bevans, who has turned his incredible designer’s skills into tech knowledge. “I grew up in a house where we made just about everything we wore,” he shared. “My grandmother was a dressmaker from Jamaica. We didn’t talk about sustainability. We talked about survival; being crafty and handy. As an adult, I found myself at Nike in corporate design, seeing the amount of fabric wasted just for sampling. I started thinking that there had to be a better way. I also wanted to figure out how to bring emerging creatives together to support their ideas and help them navigate supply chains and share resources. That’s why I started The Hallway, where designers could have access to a database of sustainable factories around the world. We wanted to open source it, hack the system, basically. Because for me, it’s all about communication and sharing. That’s what is going to destabilize the titans that are corroding the system. Technology is a tool that we can use to take down the juggernauts. We can take down these giants using the same technology they use on us.”
For someone like me, who recently spent sleepless nights wondering how on earth we let an ultra-fast fashion brand like Shein brainwash us (and then realizing it happened exactly in the way Mayer, Valetta, and Bevans talked about: influencers and algorithms), I left this conversation with a euphoric new mission. Hack the system. That is where the new battleground of sustainable fashion will be.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia