Working towards Climate Positivity
By Mary Stringham.
Sustainability is the hot topic bouncing around the fashion industry right now. Just look at Phoebe Philo’s recent announcement—The former Creative Director of Céline is reportedly working on an eco-conscious collection. Climate activist Céline Semaan had this to say in an recent Instagram post about the news, “Fashion as we know it is about to change—the most influential designer is now launching an Eco-Centered brand and every editor who has ignored #sustainablefashion is now reaching out to all of us who have been for over a decade shifting the industry towards a #circular system and a more #sustainable industry.” Semaan, an activist, writer, and designer is responsible for the recent Study Hall Summit put on by Slow Factory, a design lab working with companies to research and implement sustainability-focused initiatives.
The event was held a cold January Friday of this year. A large line of people clad in black puffer jackets and armed with their reusable totes queued in anticipation outside The Times Center in midtown Manhattan. There they waited to enter the event space for the yearly conference which promotes sustainable literacy and tackles issues surrounding ethical fashion in an era of climate crisis. Spearheaded by Semaan, who is also the Founder and Creative Director of the Slow Factory, this six hour summit featured talks and panels by industry leaders, fashion designers, sustainable influencers and climate scientists all working to push the boundaries of fashion and encourage attendees to become, as Semaan so aptly put it, “professional troublemakers.”
Shame was not the name of the game at this year’s event with the focus of the conference being “climate positivity” meaning “to not aim for sustainable or less bad” as Semaan said, “but good for the environment.” The optimistic approach still recognized that the stakes are high, however, seeing as the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and 41 people are being displaced by climate change every minute. Strictly speaking, fashion needs real solutions to some very real problems and ASAP. The answers? Hope, action and centering black, brown and indigenous people of color’s voices.
From left to right: Colin Vernon, Mari Copeny, Céline Semaan, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Branch, Tina Knowles Lawson and Jasmine Solano
When asked how do we keep hope during this time of climate despair, Jungwon Kim Head of Creative and Editorial at the Rain Forest Alliance had this to say, “hope is not something we have but something we do.” This call for action continued later on in a panel when the term “sustainability” was called an empty word by co-founder of Veja Sebastien Kopp. Quite unsurprisingly as the term is peppered into daily conversations and advertisements put on by the media, brands and companies. For Kopp it’s all about action. He said, “We believe much more in reality, in actions, in what you do… I’m a bit fed up of speaking, of speeches, of words and for me, the urgency of today is to act and then to speak.”
Multiple presenters and panelists at this year’s Study Hall made it a point to acknowledge that the mainstream sustainability movement has become whitewashed. Despite hundreds of years of practicing circularity and fighting to protect the planet, black, brown and indigenous people of color (B/IPOC) have been overshadowed and silenced. The summit opened with a powerful land acknowledgement by Korina Emmerich, artist and fashion designer, who recognized the indigenous land the conference was being held as Lenapehoking, the territory of the Native American Lenape. Emmerich went on with this request of climate defenders, “I am asking you to show up on the front lines, to connect with the indigenous people whose land you’re living on… I am here to incite allyship to dismantle systems of oppression.” Unity was a key word Semaan wanted attendees to take away from the summit and here Emmerich asked for just that. Indigenous peoples make up about 4% of the world’s population and are responsible for protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity, yet they are rarely listened to by the mainstream climate fight as it struggles to come up with solutions.
Whitney McGuire, lawyer and cofounder of Sustainable BK, an initiative which works to close the gap between mainstream sustainability movement and targeted communities, followed Emmerich with an acknowledgment of labor of the forced work of enslaved Africans in America saying, “It’s time to acknowledge the deep history fashion has with the legacy of exploitation and disposability of people and of planet.” She also added this insightful statement, “We lose when we fail to see the contributions of other culture as valid just because they are different than our own. We lose when we believe inhibitors to the sustainability of all people and planet are too big to tackle. We lose when stop having hope.” As these powerful women and others advocated, it is centering B/IPOC voices into the mainstream sustainability conversation that will begin to make actionable change in the fashion industry and give hope to the people and the planet.
Photos courtesy of Study Hall.