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. I saw the meme below a few days ago, 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 follows 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 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."
I have been an animal lover as far back as I can remember, when I went to the San Diego zoo as a baby. I have also been a nature enthusiast ever since I joined the Girl Scouts as a second-grader. Whenever I am in nature I feel calm and at peace, while at the same time excited to learn and explore. There is a unique sense of immediate awe and profound happiness that I get from being around trees, plants, and animals even in cities like NYC. That spark of joy is something that I have always felt inspired to work with. As I got older and I began to learn that these things were being destroyed and ever-more at risk, I knew I was going to dedicate my life to trying to protect them.
2. How did you first become interested in sustainability and sustainable fashion? Was your gateway to becoming a sustainability advocate through your experiences in the fashion world or was it the reverse: did you learn about sustainability and from there become interested in sustainable fashion?
Definitely the latter… It was only after getting the unique opportunity to be an international fashion model that I felt a yearning to tie my day job in fashion with my lifelong dreams and love for nature. At first I was exploring veganism, and since many people in fashion are obsessed with health and looking young, I thought I would share what I had learned through the lens of sustainable nutrition. I did that initially on my blog, when I started it in 2014, until I saw the movie True Cost. Once I learned how horrible the fashion industry was for the environment, I decided to pivot and share more about that. In 2015, there were only a handful of sustainable fashion bloggers, so I wanted to help spread the word to my peers in fashion as well as my social media followers. If most of us creating and selling fashion didn’t understand the harm we were causing, it was likely to assume most of the public was unaware as well. I helped promote Fashion Revolution an their mission from the beginning, and shared as much as I could my journey away from fast-fashion. It is wonderful to see how, in only 3 years’ time, so many people are now on board with the sustainable fashion movement. I hope that it continues to shift more and more into the main stream.
I’m also wondering how your approach might have changed after the revelation that climate change is largely created by corporations and not through the decisions of consumers? I still feel like our decisions are important if only to help us envision the kind of sustainable communities we want to be living in, but I was wondering how you might articulate that?
I still live by the motto, “Buy less, choose well, and make it last.” We are fortunate to have such a broad range of sustainable products and brands available. So, for me, it is about making the best choice from the options I have. But as I have always said, living a sustainable lifestyle is a constant process. And one of the evolutions to my process, over the last year especially, has been to not be such a martyr for individual perfection. The sad truth is that even if 50% of individuals around the world (a steep goal given colonialism and the global, unequal distribution of wealth) went vegan, zero-waste, minimal, only bought second hand things and sustainable fashion, avoided cars, etc; there would still be 3.5 billion+ people and growing that couldn’t afford to live that way due to lack of time and resources, a lack of access, a lack of local waste management, health issues, etc. Yes, individual efforts can make a small impact, and if we are privileged enough to make better choices than we should… but the reality that most sustainability advocates (especially white, first-world advocates) need to wake up to is that most people are not privileged at all.
Therefore, by placing all of our attention on promoting sustainable fashion, avoiding plastic, avoiding animal products, and shopping ethically/ sustainably, is NOT going to solve the problem. It will however, take up and consume a lot of our time and resources, leaving us with little time to advocate for the real systematic changes that have to/ should have been implemented a long time ago. Not only that, it further alienates those who have been historically disenfranchised and are STILL held back due to our colonial, capitalistic culture. It points a finger at individuals who aren’t making the life choices we deem as “pure” and “earth-saving” because they can’t, while not actually forcing corporations to shift their extremely harmful/ exploitative practices.
I say all this with 100 percent transparency that I myself wrongly advocated, in the past, that everyone can make better choices, and that I still advocate to privileged folks that we can easily avoid a lot. The biggest difference in my personal and public work today is that I am constantly trying to learn about the systematic problems causing most of the damage, and how they can be fixed so this lifestyle is equally accessible and real positive change can be made. But even more so listening to people with different backgrounds than me, and sharing what I learn from them about the environmental injustices they experience and the barriers they face to living a better life. Individual actions can’t be the holy grail of sustainability if they aren’t accessible to everyone.
3. What are some of your favorite sustainable brands? I know you’ve worked with a few as a model as well. It was so great to stumble across your lovely face on Elizabeth Suzann’s site for example! If someone wanted to create a more sustainable wardrobe, where would you suggest they start?
If you have the money to invest, I do really like Elizabeth Suzann because they are incredibly sustainable, their pieces last forever, and they are size and diversity inclusive. My biggest tip isn’t about brands however, because our overarching problem on the planet today is too much consumption. The easiest and most affordable way to create a truly sustainable wardrobe is to buy secondhand, and when you wash your clothes, use a Guppy Bag to capture the polyester that is polluting our waterways. That way you aren’t using any new resources to build your wardrobe, and you’re also saving used fashion from going into a landfill or ruining a third world country’s local fashion economy.
4. What would you recommend to consumers interested in living a more sustainable lifestyle? I love your guide to sustainable gift-giving as well as your chat with Eco Cult, which in itself linked to a post of theirs called “50 Sustainable Resolutions for 2016” but which I think I could see implementing in 2019 as well! I know that you spent a month going zero waste for Earth Month. You wrote such an inspiring piece about that experience. I really think you could turn it into a book!
Be mindful of what you actually use and need, and try your best to find your personal style. If you know what you like and who you are, you are much less susceptible to marketing gimmicks and feeling left out if you aren’t wearing the latest of the constantly-changing fashion trends. I also suggest doing your research before buying a product, and making sure that what you buy can last you a long time. Then once you have the things you need and use, take care of them so they can last up to their full potential.
5. Speaking of books, which five books would you recommend on the topics of sustainability or activism or whatever you’d wish to recommend of course? You have such a great multi-media approach to activism, so I feel like I should ask if there any documentaries or blogs you would want to add to this list?
Project Drawdown is a wonderful book & guide to the future of our sustainable planet. I also recommend Eaarth by Bill McKibben, Folks this Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. Chasing Coral is a fantastic documentary explaining the dire problems our oceans are facing today. Other documentaries I suggest watching include: Inhabit, Terra, Before the Flood, River Blue, A Plastic Ocean, 13th , Feel Rich, Dirt!, Samsara, Planet Earth II, and Racing Extinction.
Thanks so much, Renee! I always love chatting with a fellow secondhand-shopping enthusiast, and I learned so much from this interview as well. Can't believe I've never heard of Guppy laundry bags! And they're only $7.99! You can purchase them here. Again, Renee's blog is Model4GreenLiving. You can also follow Renee on Instagram @renee.elizabethpeters. Did you guys learn anything new from this interview or something you think might work into your daily life from spreading the word about voting to washing polyester clothes in a Guppy bag?
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