A couple months back, an eco-activist friend posted a link to a piece about sustainability in Rwanda that astonished me. Peeling back the layers of a piece that felt overall negative judging by the title alone--
"Public Shaming and Even Prison for Plastic Bag Use in Rwanda"
-- instead I felt presented with a gift of hope. Here was a totally different approach to sustainability from the elitist and exclusive one I'd observed in Philadelphia and New York City. However, the piece also felt like it was written from a critical outsider's perspective, one wary of larger political implications and less concerned with sustainability as a movement.
I longed to see and judge the situation for myself, but, these days, with a home that doubles as a children's petting zoo, a trip to Africa is not possible. At 18, when I took off a year before college, I did visit Northern Africa for three glorious weeks while working and backpacking around the Middle East. That trip gave me a small sense of the vastness of Africa-- not only in the 19 hour train ride from Cairo to Aswan but in the unforgettable vision of a night sky blanketed by blistering constellations of stars. Skies undiluted by city lights and a sight I'd never see the like of again anywhere else in the world. However, since that kind of exploratory, aimless wandering isn't in the stars (pun intended sorry) at the moment, it occurred to me I could devote the next few entries of Vintage Tea, my blog's interview section, to chatting about sustainability with the online friends that I've been lucky enough to connect with in different parts of Africa and who have seen or experienced those sustainable developments for themselves.
To prepare for these chats, I also tried to read up on Africa, but even that presented a challenge. Africa, I learned, is an even bigger continent than I had imagined it to be that night on a felucca ride in Egypt when I slept out in the open under blistering starlight. Did you know over 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa? Or that the continent is so large it's the only continent to span the northern temperate to the southern temperate zones?
Trying to get a grasp on sustainability in Africa has proved both more fascinating and more elusive than I expected. From a burgeoning eco-tourism industry in Botswana to Rwanda's nationwide ban on plastic bags, Africa is currently dealing with the consequences of climate change in more immediate, tangible terms than people in the U.S. and facing those challenges with exciting and innovative responses. Too often, Westerners still mischaracterize Africa as being undeveloped. In college, I remember my Nigerian suitemate often and insultingly being asked whether her childhood home had a bathroom or electricity, whereas the truth is that even with sometimes smaller economies or fewer resources to face greater climate change challenges, some African countries are actually leading the way. For example, the Seychelles GDP might be 170th in the world, but it also ranks among the best in the world for the most protected areas not to mention its inspiring success stories about lowering the threat level for its endangered species. Or take Nigeria, Togo, Tanzania, and Zambia: all actually way ahead of the U.S. if you measure the rankings by countries belching out the least CO2 per capita vs. one of the most per capita.
I hope to continue this sustainability in Africa series with more responses and to learn even more about this incredibly diverse continent. (There are over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria alone!) I'm so delighted to start off this series chatting with the beautiful sustainable fashion blogger Paula Mugabi @mspaulapresents.
Here's a glimpse into sustainable developments in Uganda from an insider's perspective.
1. Thank you again for taking the time to chat with me! Where are you from in Africa?
2. What are some of your observations about the sustainability movement in Africa?
Uganda, like most of sub Saharan Africa, has suffered significant devastation from the negative effects of climate change. The problems are exacerbated by population pressures, while family size grows exponentially but yet remain reliant on subsistence farming. There is a growing consciousness by the central and local governments, the education system and the population generally that living sustainably is an imperative now. For example, businesses like Eco Fuel Africa, which converts farm and municipal waste into briquettes used as a substitute for charcoal, are introducing transformative changes.
There are also some passionate youth activists like Vanessa Nakate and some up-cycling designers, but I would not say there is a groundswell like it’s here in the United States. But it is also just a fact that Ugandans have a much lower carbon footprint than the average American, because of way they live. They consume less because they generally are not wealthy and daily lives are lived more sustainably. The average Ugandan likely does not use paper towels and eats locally grown organic whole foods. There is some plastic use in households; some of which is repurposed for other uses like storing leftovers but cheap plastic has proliferated in last couple of years, although the Ugandan government introduced a ban on single-use plastics.
3. What are you most hopeful about for the future of sustainability?
At the macro level, the government should be doing more to embrace the clear science on climate change. Steps like banning single-use plastic bags and fully embracing the science are all encouraging signs. It also helps that Ugandans can be quite innovative: I see up-cycling projects like using used plastics for jewelry, bags, toys and even housewares. Uganda is sunny throughout the year so it’s my hope that solar power continues to pick up.
There are, however, some serious challenges. There is rapid urbanization and motorization which is affecting air quality, increasing incidence of respiratory diseases. While there have been attempts to ban the import of used cars, there are still too many on the roads, contributing to poor air quality.
Also western countries dump used clothes to our second hand markets but many such clothes are in such poor state that they end up not being sold and end up in landfills.
Paula is a Ugandan American mom and sustainable fashion blogger currently living in New York City. She can be found on Instagram @mspaulapresents.
Thank you again, Paula!
Here are some articles I linked above and a few more for further reading below. Please keep your eye out for more in this series as well.
Africa is Leading the World in Plastic Bag Bans
An Amazing Conservation Success Story in the Seychelles
Tanzania to Ban Single Use Plastics, Joining Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda
How Botswana is Shaping the Future of Sustainable Travel
It's 2019. Trends have never been cheaper or more accessible, yet we all still share a complicated, if not tortured, relationship with shopping and our closet. Evidence A of the ubiquitous unhealthy relationship linked to shopping: a few days ago, I saw the meme below, laughed with a friend, and would have forgotten it, but, to my surprise, the joke went deeper and struck a chord with many. On the popular meme account @mytherapistsays, it's racked up 150,000 likes as of the writing of this blog post with many laugh emoji responses but also many sad or shame-faced emojis posted as well. One of the sustainable fashion journalists on Instagram that I follow used the meme in her stories to conduct an impromptu poll and was shocked enough to try to start a conversation about our collective sadness on her page here.
As accessible as fashion has become these days, have you still ever felt dissatisfied with your closet? *Raises hand.* Do you tend to shop when you're sad and often feel like you have nothing to wear? *Raises other hand in a gesture of surrender.*
Joking aside, I used to feel that way ALL THE TIME. And now I still do, sure, but much less frequently, although I still do tend to browse or thrift when I'm feeling a little down. Scoring an Ulla Johnson dress for $50 or a pair of 3X1 denim jeans in my size secondhand is a quick pick-me-up. However, I've recently learned that it's just as satisfying (and MUCH better for my budget) to shop my own closet and put together new looks with old pieces. For the first time in my life, I finally really love what I already own. The big change for me was learning to fully embrace my passion for the art of fashion. That impulse was also born around the same time as the Fashion Revolution spurred by the tragedy of the Rana Plaza disaster. That was about six years ago now, and since then my relationship with fashion has changed not only my closet but my life.
Those lessons were hard-learned over the past six years, so I wish I'd encountered a guidebook like Elizabeth L. Cline's The Conscious Closet to help me articulate and sum up the struggle earlier on. The Conscious Closet is not only a book that will teach you the ins and outs of sustainable fashion, it's also a handy guidebook for how to appreciate and care for what you have as well as a how to guide to help you curate a sustainable fashion closet that you actually enjoy. In the past six years, I've grown to love caring for my garments as much as wearing them, because they've become a collection of beautiful and useful things instead of a major source of frustration and even shame over my fast fashion habit. From new slow fashion brands to check out to new ways to help reduce my footprint to the names of the stitches that help make my Rouje garments so special that my tailor LITERALLY gasps in joy when he sees them-- seriously!-- Elizabeth's book enriched my understanding of why I find fashion so compelling.
Whether you are a sustainable fashionista yourself or you are feeling overwhelmed hearing terms like sustainable vs. slow vs. conscious fashion often used interchangeably, this is the book for you. Click to pre-order Elizabeth's latest book here or read on below for a fascinating glimpse behind the writing scenes!
1. I’d love to hear about your writing environment! What are the essentials you need around you, if any? A favorite place to write? How long did you spend writing “The Conscious Closet”?
I love talking about the writing process! To write a book, I have to be able to concentrate without any distractions, meaning no sounds, emails or phone calls, and limited social engagements, which as you might imagine meant putting my life on hold and leaving New York City as often as possible. I tried to write in the City and couldn’t get a flow going. I was at my local co-working space in Brooklyn one day, trying to finish a chapter, and a children's party came in and started carving pumpkins while I was writing. A kid popped a balloon right by my face. My downstairs neighbors also liked to play dubstep when I was working. Eventually, I took off to my mom’s house in rural South Georgia to write. There, I can work at a table that looks out over a pond. It’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. I also rented an AirBnB in an old house with a big yard and porch in Atlanta for a few weeks. I only had about eight months to write the book, which isn’t enough time, but I knew I needed to get the book out ASAP. I also read constantly when I write, as reading helps cultivate the ability to focus and think deeply. This time, I read a slew of how-to books on totally unrelated subjects, like Dale Carnegie’s 1948 bestseller How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. It gave me great ideas for how to structure The Conscious Closet. Unfortunately, it did not help me stop worrying about my book deadline.
2. I believe you’re originally from Georgia, but do you consider yourself a New Yorker now? Also, I loved how much travel featured in the book, too! Were you always interested in traveling as part of your writing process? What’s your favorite place you’ve visited for work or for fun?
I don’t consider myself a New Yorker most of the time, although I should after 17 years here. I’m very attached to the South, and to the rural place where I grew up. If you've seen Friday Night Lights, that was my childhood, but crossed with The Decline of Western Civilization. I did end up with a Southern partner. My boyfriend Joe is from Little Rock. Anyway, I’ve been lucky to travel to almost a dozen countries to research and promote sustainable and ethical fashion. I don’t have a favorite place, I just love getting to see behind the scenes and deep into the fashion supply chain.
Traveling the world certainly shapes the way you craft a message or think about a social problem like sustainable and ethical fashion. I’ll give you a couple of examples. There is a lot of emphasis on innovation in sustainable fashion right now, where people seem to think we’re going to be wearing lab-grown textiles in a few years. But, I’ve also spent time in a lot of textile mills, including Italian textile mills, where they’re crafting wool and leather and other ancient materials, but in very high-tech, sustainable factories. What’s more, anyone who studies the petrochemical industry knows that the world is going to be wearing lots and lots of plastic-basic fabrics moving forward, not less, so as advocates we have to face that reality head on rather than pretend that it’s going to go away.
My on-the-ground experiences have changed how I think about innovation and what the future is going to look like. Secondly, my experiences in Nairobi, Kenya, researching the secondhand clothing industry, shaped so much of The Conscious Closet. Sustainable fashion is rushing forward with this message that recycling textiles is going to save us. But in my perspective, you can’t have that conversation without including the traders in Nairobi and across the global secondhand trade in the developing world. Garbage is political and so is donating clothes. Plus, if you look at the problems with the plastic recycling market, we know that recycling is no panacea.
3. How did the idea occur to you to write such a complete handbook on sustainable fashion? There’s definitely such confusion, even mystification around terms like slow fashion, conscious fashion, and sustainable fashion. I myself didn’t realize I’d been misusing the term “slow fashion” until I read the book. And I’ve read a lot of books on sustainable fashion. There’s definitely nothing else as comprehensive and helpful out there.
Thank you! Perhaps I’ve been misusing the term slow fashion, too? Ha! I definitely wanted to avoid sustainable fashion jargon with this book and just put everything under the umbrella of conscious fashion. I’m not advocating for “conscious fashion” being the word we use; I just needed one simple word to keep the book streamlined and focused, an umbrella to put our cause and all of this information under. The whole point of the book was to reach the widest possible audience, from the hardcore labor activists, of which I am one, to the minimalist dressers to those people who really love fashion and just don’t want to feel bad when they get dressed every day. That meant the book had to have some breadth.
But, that said, I was shocked at how comprehensive the book ended up being. That wasn’t really the plan. The original idea was more about slow fashion, shopping for quality, and building a beautiful wardrobe, but that message only reaches so many people. If I’d stopped there, I’d leave out all the influencers whose livelihoods depend on wearing something different every day, for example.
As a journalist, I found myself wanting to go further once I sat down to write. I want people to have all of the information they need at their fingertips. Not all of it is applicable to everyone, but there’s certainly something for everyone in that book. There’s so much to know and to learn about clothing, and currently that information is spread across the Internet or is hidden from consumers. I wanted to put it all in one place and back it up with sources. I found myself adding the chapters on toxic chemicals in fashion, the impact of different materials, and the importance of labor organizing to the future of ethical fashion without really planning to. Now I can’t imagine the book any other way!
4. What are some of your favorite sustainable brands for fashion or otherwise? I learned from your book that Patagonia is an even greater company than I’d realized, so I recently purchased this guppybag from them for #PlasticFreeJuly. (FYI in the book, Elizabeth states that changing your laundry habits is the best way to change your fashion footprint!)
"If you are looking to change one single set of habits that will slash your fashion footprint and keep your clothes looking better longer, look no further than your laundry room."
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