Photo by Tori Mumtaz.

we need to change the way we think about sustainable fashion

Activist Céline Semaan explains why we can't just buy into sustainability, we have to change the way we live.

by Sara Radin
17 April 2019, 3:49pm

Photo by Tori Mumtaz.

As the realities of climate change become more and more real, fashion brands are increasingly using sustainability as a marketing tool to sell their products. While some companies may be approaching fashion in a smart and eco-friendly way, the grim reality remains that we need to be rethinking not just what we buy but also, how we live.

In the last few years, fashion activist Céline Semaan has become one of the strongest voices in the movement for sustainable fashion. She’s focused her efforts on building accessible and collaborative spaces such as Slow Factory and The Library Study Hall, where people can engage in impactful dialogues about what needs to change, while also bringing together the individuals who are already paving the way. Working in collaboration with the United Nations and brands such as adidas, Semaan will now bring the conversation to London with an event on April 27 at Central Saint Martins, which will specifically explore the culture surrounding conscious consumerism.

Ahead of the event, Semaan spoke with i-D about why you shouldn’t buy your way into sustainability, environmental racism, and the mission behind her Study Hall series.

How do you respond when someone asks you what they should buy in order to be more sustainable?
The first thing I say, is to remind them that one cannot buy their way into sustainability, that in fact, overconsumption has led us to an unsustainable ecosystem where offer (and even demand!) is far greater than any need. I encourage everyone to define what "more sustainable" means to them. For some it is using less or no animal products, for some it is [using less] plastic. What kind of impact do you wish to make? And can you sustain your commitment for another 10 years?

What kinds of fabrics and products specifically promote longevity in the fashion industry
Fashion is a utilitarian form of art, is how I perceive it. It is accessible in a sense, thanks to fast fashion, everyone can dress however they please. What outlives these trends or the moments past an instagram post, is what I would like to focus on. Natural fibers are best if possible, because they are often less destructive to produce (when one takes into account petroleum extraction for most synthetic fibers), and have a higher chance of being reused or recycled, and creating a second or third life for the same product. Items that are made of polyester will outlive ones with natural fibers, however they will release microfibers into the oceans. One must understand how to wash their polyester items. Investing in a bag like this to wash your garment to collect said microfibers before they reach the ocean.

What is circularity and why is it key?
Circularity is the idea that "everything you make returns to Earth as either food or poison," which is our manifesto at Slow Factory. It is about thinking about the end of life of a product at the beginning of its inception and creation, designing that the end of life is actually a new beginning for another life; either recycling, upcycling, or at least downcycling. It is imagining how many life-cycles items and materials can have before going into a mass grave such as a landfill, and questioning whether we can divert landfill end of life all together? I like this quote by Carl Sagan: “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” With this idea in mind, we can create circularity in everything that we do.

When it comes to shopping sustainably, why is it important to refrain from endorsing specific brands and instead shift how we live?
Brands react to markets and fads which come and go; educating oneself and acting consciously is important beyond any single simple answer. Here are two simple questions you can ask yourself when shopping for something you need: one, how will this [item] end its life? And two, how long am I going to use this product for?

With question one ask yourself things like: How am I going to dispose of this item, is it biodegradable or compostable? If yes, am I disposing of it in a way that facilitates its end of life? If you are throwing away into the regular garbage things that are marked as biodegradable, then these products will not biodegrade, they will be thrown into a landfill, in an environment that will not allow them to return to Earth as food, instead they will become toxic waste.

And expanding on question two: How long am I going to wear or use this item for? And when I am done with it, will someone else need it? Will its value grow or decrease? With this question, I encourage you all to think of resell/reuse vs. donate/recycle. The sharing economy or the circular economy translates very well in how we purchase, not what we purchase.

Are there any fashion brands you do think are approaching sustainability in the right way?
Yes, a lot actually. The brands that are making continuous long-term commitments to sustainability are the ones to engage in a relationship with. That is mainly why we started the platform The Library Study Hall, through collaborations, long-term engagement and a partnership with the United Nations, we are able to guide, encourage, and lead companies into a long-term plan and commitment to sustainable decisions. Sustainability is a long-term continuous effort. A lot of brands are afraid of it because they imagine it as a big commitment, but it is in every single step we decide to consciously take toward a process that is “Good for the Earth, Good for the People” — the theme of our previous summit at the United Nations.

The idea is to use our voices to demand from our brands to follow through on sustainable practices. That is why Fashion Revolution, our partner for the next Study Hall in London, has been able to leverage our voices and demands. For example, over 3 million actions were taken last year during Fash Rev Week (Earth Day week).

What's your mission with the Study Hall series and specifically, the London iteration?
Our mission is to create access to sustainability through an open education platform that aims to focus on sustainability literacy for both people and industry. Each Study Hall Conference is built around a theme, with sustainability as the base of everything we explore. The upcoming event in London at Central Saint Martins is about "Sustainability as a Culture" — in this event we will explore racial justice, indigenous knowledge, cultural appropriation, authenticity and design, circularity and how effective are certifications.

Why did you decide to focus on the culture around sustainability?
Most of the discourse around sustainability is one-sided, often times excludes people of color, and other perspectives besides the Western mindset. White Supremacy is very much alive and well in our beloved industry as with the rest of society, and to be talking about the environment one must be well-versed in social justice. The two are connected, in fact, environmental racism is a topic that has been written about more and more recently. Technocratic solutions perpetuate the waste problem, and waste colonialism is also a reality. So when we talk about sustainability, we must also include all perspectives, and it is in fact a Culture, with a capital C.

What are some of the special features of the event? What can people look forward to hearing more about?
All of our events are live streamed. We always start with an outsider perspective so to speak, and have a very inclusive and diverse roster of speakers both from an intersectional and interdisciplinary perspectives. We openly talk about the elephant in the room, colonialism, and social justice. We are definitely between academia and industry, democratizing sustainability for all. Speakers include: Dio Kurazawa, founder of The Bear Scouts and Head of Denim and Sustainability at WGSN, fashion designer Mara Hoffman, activist Allen Salway and more.

Hair: Afua Willock
Dress: Mara Hoffman
Earrings: Camille D. Jewelry

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