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Finding Sustainability Through Fast Fashion

Finding Sustainability Through Fast Fashion

The “slow movement,” rising popularity of National Parks, and buzzwords such as sustainability and ethical responsibility aim to draw us outwards and upwards. While generally positive movements, they can easily fall into the pits of consumerism and politicised fads. People occasionally tell me I’m at risk of acting pretentious when using the word “sustainable.” While I understand their arguments, protecting our environment is a passion and necessity for me to feel fulfillment. But no matter where you stand on the eco-friendly discussion, the goal should simply be finding what works for you and owning your authenticity.

Discovering sustainability is worth fighting (and changing) for.

Looking back, protecting wild land and nature had always been important to me, though I never classified my love of the outdoors as “sustainable.” As a little girl, I would spend hours a day in a nearby meadow, alone with my books and the swooping sparrows and tall stalks of grass, until one day my precious sacred ground was mowed over for a sub-standard Florida strip mall. I never once linked the products I purchased or the demand I created through buying to the protection of the lands I love. They seemed so distant from each other.

That all recently changed when I noticed an Instagram post by Emma Watson, highlighting fast fashion and her decision to turn away from brands that mis-aligned with her values. Intrigued I started researching, exploring the impacts of the fashion world and the resulting destruction of nature. I found a documentary on Neflix, called The True Cost that highlighting the complexity of the fashion world and our planet. Thinking of that precious meadow many years ago, I vowed to take action.

Photo by  Georgia de Lotz

I began researching. I may be an oddball here but I see change and new movements not as fearful disruptions to my life, but ways to continually learn and improve. To stay the same, for me, is to be bored. And fast fashion and the push towards ethically-sourced replacements were fascinating!

Educating myself on what it takes to produce an item was both interesting (did you know bamboo is used to make more sustainable shirts?) and opened up questions deep inside that required some reflection. One thought that kept resurfacing: if I am in charge of where I spend my money, then I’m directly influencing what happens to our resources and the people producing them. Even without diving deep into the details, we all know buying a lot of “crap” isn’t the smartest choice. It’s clear me purchasing a new $5 dress every weekend isn’t great for 1) my bank account, 2) the earth and 3) the people making my clothes who can barely survive. 

Knowledge alone isn’t enough. Once I empowered myself with facts, I did what I thought I had to. I wanted to be sustainable ASAP!

To do better was to tailor my purchasing habits. I had to examine where I came from.

If you’re like me, college was my first experience in budgeting and spending. As I paid my way through university, working two jobs to get by, I felt for the first time, strength and empowerment in receiving a pay check, no matter how small. After expenses, I had ~$100 a month to spend on miscellaneous items. For the first time I felt equal to my rich friends (well, friends with rich parents) or maybe even better, because I earned it myself. That money was for me to consume and I was hungry with that power.

So I did what all my friends were doing and bought items like a celebrity in the making. Where was I almost every weekend? Forever 21, Old Navy, H&M, you name it. Did I need a new dress? I had a date on Thursday, so absolutely yes! Did I need that ankle bracelet? Why not, it looked cute! With my limited money, I felt powerful and free - I could buy what I wanted. I continued this way through my mid-twenties.

It wasn’t until I hit my late-twenties, when two things happened:

  1. I saved enough money over the years to not enjoy watching my bank account dwindle

  2. I began researching fast fashion and the impacts of my consumption on nature and people

Those two new notions were a perfect potion. For the first time, I became aware of the control I had over my money and resources. I am free to use my money as a tool or a weapon. If I spend money on wasteful items that don’t align with my values (e.g. destroys our beautiful planet), that’s 100% on me. I have the option to put my money in organizations I align with. Bottom line: I say when and where I put my money.

If I am 100% in control of where I spend my money, then I’m 100% in control of ensuring my values are reflected in those purchases. It suddenly became so transparent: we have the power to influence where, and with whom, we spend our money.

Photo by  Charles Etoroma

So now I'm acting more “sustainable” with my clothing purchases but what does that look like in real life?

First, let’s break down sustainable fashion specifically, because it’s extremely interesting and the ethical consequences touch many aspects of our world. Fast fashion is the movement in the fashion world that implies clothes must be produced at a rapid pace from catwalk to store - no longer once a season, many stores now have new clothes on the shelf once a week. Think H&M, Banana Republic, Forever 21, etc. This fast-cycle “inspires” people to constantly update their wardrobe, for as soon as they buy an outfit, it’s no longer the latest and greatest. There are a ton of implications here impacting the world, from wasteful products to pesticide usage to the forcing down of prices causing farms and employers to cut corners.

Immediately I altered my buying habits and promised myself to purchase only quality, ethically made products that last seasons and multiple use. Realizing my wardrobe was full of items that didn’t qualify as sustainable, I donated ALL of my eco-unfriendly shirts and went out and bought brand new “sustainable” blouses. 

Intentions sometimes are more powerful than actions. Photo by  Jack Antal

Intentions sometimes are more powerful than actions. Photo by Jack Antal

Is buying “ethical” labels what sustainability is all about? Maybe it’s something more… a lifestyle.

Let’s pause here and evaluate that life decision. Was buying all new clothes, and dumping the old, “sustainable?” My original shirts weren’t in bad shape nor at the end of their life. Did I need to donate them, probably banning them to a life in a landfill, and immediately replace them with look-a-likes? No. Did I feel better after purchasing the new sustainable shirts? Maybe a little, like a classic millennial, because now I could say “my shirt was made out of bamboo - I’m trendy and sustainable.” But I definitely didn’t feel more whole or fulfilled.

In hindsight, I probably failed my first test in sustainability. What I should have done is this: wear out the shirts I had already purchased until their lives were complete. Then slowly, and consciously, rebuild my wardrobe item by item, where needed, with ethically responsible replacements.

In my pursuit to do better, my mind was geared to fulfill demands and needs through purchasing. I missed the true messaging of sustainability and ethical fashion: empower yourself so you can consciously live your life.

Now I ask myself before every new purchase one question: will buying this item do more harm to the environment or the people who made this than any fulfilment I’ll receive?

To me, sustainability is a consequence of empowerment and the resulting lifestyle we chose. If we empower ourselves to make decisions that align with our values, we become more self-aware and better consumers.

Only ~10% of the items we donate get re-used or sold in the US. Photo by  Bas Emmen

Only ~10% of the items we donate get re-used or sold in the US. Photo by Bas Emmen

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