This is the story of how I fell in love with sustainable fashion. This was an interview conducted and transcribed by Veronica Lempert for her Storie Project. Please see the original article here.
This Storie is about one of the moments in life where you know something big is about to happen, but you have zero clue where it is going and what the result will be.
Throughout high school, I wanted to work for Human Rights Watch. I knew I wanted to do human rights advocacy, so I volunteered and interned for HRW. I loved it. I always knew I wanted to do something to help people, something significant. But something was missing for me.
I was a dancer for a while, and at the end of high school I had to decide whether I wanted to study dance at Tisch or go to St. Andrews University. I ended up choosing not to go to Tisch, and when I made that decision, the creative part of my life kind of fell out. When I was doing human rights work, I always felt like that part of my identity was missing. But I couldn’t tell why.
In the summer of 2017, I had just finished my first year at St. Andrews. And you know at the end of a semester when you’re so burnt out and think, “Get me out of here?” That was me. So I called my mom one day and said, “I have to leave. I can’t be here.” And my mom says, “Give me 20 minutes.”
She calls me back and asks, “Do you want to go to Greece?” She had a friend in Greece who was working with refugees who knew someone that had offered to let me stay for the weekend. Done. I packed up my dorm room in 24 hours and called my boyfriend at the time to say, “Really sorry, but I’m leaving.”
I was on a flight to Greece 48 hours later. I had this giant duffle bag. I landed in Athens, and my mom’s friend-of-a-friend (who neither of us had ever met) told me to meet him at a restaurant and grab some dinner while I waited. So I was sitting in this restaurant, alone with my giant suitcase and I didn’t know the language so I’m just staring at the menu.
You know those moments when you realize you’ve made the right decision? You’re sitting there, and you just know you made the right call? That “This is where I’m supposed to be right now” feeling? That was what I had in that restaurant in Athens, alone, at 19 years old. I crashed at that guy’s place for the weekend, and he was great. But after that, I was on my own. I had never been on the type of trip where you wake up every morning and ask yourself where you’ll be sleeping the next night. I kept popping between friends of friends. Then I heard about this island in Greece, Lesvos, which is the closest point to Turkey – it’s only eight miles away, you can see it across the water. 50% of refugees in Europe come through Lesvos. It’s the gateway to Europe for the vast majority of refugees and refugees of the Syrian crisis, specifically.
I decided to go volunteer. Again, no idea how I would get there, where I was going to stay, what I would do there – I just decided to go. I flew out the next day and again stayed with a friend of a friend of a friend. It was some random woman but, you know, there we were!
Her name was Alison, and she was running an organization called the Dirty Girls of Lesvos. When refugees arrived on the island, the UN tends to hand out blankets, jackets, or clothing, which then almost immediately get discarded and left on the beaches because they’re wet and dirty. It’s basically single-use clothing. Of course, there are other priorities, like getting the refugees off the beach and to a safe place, but it means there’s a lot of waste in that process. There are a lot of blankets and clothing that could very easily be re-used but aren’t. And same goes with the life jackets. It’s a lot of waste for items that are essential to people.
Alison’s organization, Dirty Girls, collects these things, launders them in industrial laundromats, and repurposes them. It sounds like a really simple, straightforward organization, but it was really impactful. It was also something I had never thought about at that time. Of course, we should be washing this stuff. It makes perfect sense. Why hasn’t this been happening before?
So I stayed with Alison when I first got to Lesvos. I wound up in a warehouse (to this day I could not tell you how I got there) and told some people I wanted to volunteer. I asked if they had a place I could stay, and they said, “Yeah, we’ve got one extra bed upstairs. You’re in luck.” Thank god.
So here I am in this warehouse with two French girls and a guy named Ali, who was a refugee himself. It was surreal. I ended up working with a couple of different organizations while I was there. It was a total whirlwind trip. I’m not a spiritual person necessarily, but I just knew I was meant to be there.
The place I ended up working was a shit show. And understandably so. This was a stressful environment. The warehouse was across the street from this refugee camp called Moira. It’s an old jail that had been converted into a refugee camp. But the way they organized the camps was difficult. They tended to split up men and women because there were a lot of sexual assault cases. There was also a lot of strife and racial strife, specifically. So Moira was segregated by race to avoid some of these issues arising. And it was 90% men. These men lived in the old jail with barbed wire fences and cells. And this was across the street from where we lived. At the time, I didn’t have cell phone service, so I kind of dropped off the face of the earth.
Anyway, this warehouse where I was living and working was not very well run. It was managed by a couple who was overwhelmed (and lovely), but they just didn’t have the workforce they needed, and they weren’t able to multitask well with all the things that were asked of them.
The day before I was planning to leave, I went out back behind this warehouse. There was clothing all over the place – a literal sea of clothing. I remember thinking What the hell is this doing here? There was a shipping container full of clothing that had spilled open and there were clothes everywhere. When I asked somebody what it was, they told me that it was all donated clothing. The difficulty with donations is that they take a while to arrive. So when people send winter clothing, it comes in April or May, which then obviously people don’t need because it’s boiling in Greece. And then the opposite happens, too, where you get summer clothes in November. It’s a problem.
They had been storing it initially, and then they ran out of space, so it had all been moved out back. And this was about 4,000 kilograms, or 4 tons, worth of clothes that people had so kindly thought to donate to refugees. Bear in mind it’s the middle of June in Greece, so I’m in shorts and a tank top wandering through this ocean of clothing, picking stuff up. And it had just recently rained, so the clothing was soaking wet and filthy. For the most part, they still had tags on them!
During my time working at the warehouse, I talked to people who had been on the island for months. They had shown me pictures of the camps in the middle of winter, where refugees were living under a plastic tarp surrounded by two feet of snow. People were quite literally freezing to death in their tents.
And here I was, holding perfectly good winter coats that had been sitting out here in the rain, just because they couldn’t and wouldn’t prioritize this. The waste was horrifying.
I walked up to the organization leader, and I said, “What are you doing with all of these clothes?” He told me they were throwing them away. I couldn’t believe it. That was criminal to me. That doesn’t make any sense. Are you kidding me? There were people across the street who would kill for this clothing. We were swarmed literally every day with a line around the building of people looking for whatever resources we had. But he said, “We can’t wash it. We don’t have the infrastructure to wash it all, and we can’t afford it.” I blurted out, “Can I have it?”
So I suddenly owned 4 tons of clothing. (And I had thought my wardrobe was already big enough!). I go back out and wander through the clothes picking stuff up and thinking to myself, I leave tomorrow; what the hell am I going to do with this all? And somebody comes outside screaming, “Woah, Woah, Woah, get out of there! What are you doing?” I asked them what was wrong, and they told me that those cold, wet piles of clothing were home to snakes.
Now I had to be careful. I put big boots on and made sure I was checking everything I touched. I called people all over Lesvos asking if they could come and take some clothing, and all I got back was “nope,” “nope,” “no way.” I called storage units, and they told me they just couldn’t handle it. But one guy on the phone asked, “Oh, is that the stuff that came from that one factory?” And I thought, thank god we are finally getting somewhere. But then he says, “Yeah, nope. I can’t take that. It’s infested with scabies.”
So I called my old friend Alison of Dirty Girls and said, “Hey, I’ve got four tons of clothing. Can you wash it?” She told me it would cost 5,000 euros to wash it in her industrial laundry machines. I said, “I can do it. I’ll raise the money.” Then she so kindly told me that if I could raise half of it, she would split it with me. So now I had to raise 2,500 euros. I remember thinking, yeah, I can do this at 19 years old, for bloody sure. I called my parents and told them that I might have just done something really stupid: I needed 2,500 euros to wash 4 tons of clothes.
I told Alison that she had to get somebody over to the warehouse straight away because I knew that the organization wasn’t going to do anything about it and that the moment I left, it would all just be thrown away. I told Alison that somebody would have to come throughout the week to clean it out, given how much there was. She sent a guy with a truck, and in the first load, we got about a tenth of clothing. Then I had to leave. I decided to trust that Alison could get the rest of it to her washing site. And we ended up raising the money. People were so kind and we ended up raising 3,200 euros. The clothes were disinfected and stored. And then Alison organized the distribution the following winter.
This all happened before I had ever heard the words “sustainable fashion.” But there was something about that experience that perfectly combined my love for people and my passion for clothing. It proved to me so many things. The first was the overwhelming trivialization and disposability of clothing. Everyone thinks, “Oh, whatever. It’s just clothing. We’ll bin it and get some more!” People still don’t seem to recognize not just the utility but the purpose of clothing. The fashion industry is one of the only industries in the world that almost every person on earth engages with every single day. It’s not going anywhere. It’s an immensely powerful industry. But people have forever trivialized fashion as a vapid, superficial, and inconsequential industry. And that’s what’s allowed it to have this dark underbelly that sneaks under the radar while getting away with enormous waste, toxins, and labor abuses.
I remember looking down at one of the coats and realizing that it could save a human life. And it was about to be thrown away. It was ridiculous! At that point, I hadn’t thought of the ecological impact of not just clothing production but clothing waste. For me, it was incomprehensible that anyone could do that to not just the people around them but to the planet too. Even for people who choose not to, or don’t want to, engage with fashion, that in and of itself is a statement. What you wear projects what you want to say about yourself, how you subconsciously feel that day, how you identify. It allows for a sense of humanity, dignity, and a sense of self.
One of the other organizations that I worked for, One Happy Family, ran a shop/ bazaar where refugees could come and collect coins that could later be traded for clothes and goods. It was a wonderful and heartwarming experience to work in the shop. These refugees have lost everything and always had the attitude of taking what they were given. But given their circumstances, most of the refugees would show up in the shop wearing garish, ill-fitting garments that they either wouldn’t have chosen for themselves, didn’t fit, or didn’t represent who they were. That’s just a different way of losing a piece of your humanity. It’s dehumanizing. And I don’t think most people recognize that.
Images from One Happy Family
Of course, when you’ve lost everything, you’re going to take what you’re given. But for example, when asked what they needed or wanted most, a lot of the female refugees would ask for makeup, nail polish, a dress, or a hairbrush. Something that would help them regain a sense of womanhood and femininity. Something that would connect them to who they had been up until this point. Refugees and displaced societies have already lost the rest of their normal contexts, their previous lives. They had so recently had an established life with a house, a job, a wardrobe and a family. They probably had a favorite mascara brand! And they had to leave that all behind. It was beautiful to watch people come into the store and find something they actually liked, that actually fit them and served the practical purpose while also allowing them to feel like themselves again.
My experience in the store really solidified the importance of clothing in my world and the significance of fashion to me. It occurred to me for the first time that I could combine humanitarianism with clothing.
When I got home, I Googled “human rights fashion.” It opened Pandora's Box of incomprehensible issues that the public was not aware of. Granted, this was 2017, so in the four years I’ve been a part of this, this concept has blown up. There were some established women doing great work in the area, and they became my heros: Livia Firth, Orsola de Castro, Christina Dean. They had been doing this for ten years. And it’s been exhilarating to see this exponential growth in interest and commitment to sustainable fashion. But even now, I mean, phew. I was recently in London on Oxford Street, and there were queues outside Zara and H&M! The worst of the worst of fast fashion, and I’ll bet most people in those lines simply don’t know that fact. Granted, I’m entrenched in this world, so it can be hard for me to realize that sustainable fashion is still such a small niche.
This research exposed me to new issues like garment workers’ rights, toxic exposure, pollution, the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 – so many issues. And growing up in Northern California, no matter what, you were spending time in nature. If you were happy, you were on the beach; if you were sad, you were in the Redwoods. So the fact that fashion was decimating the planet at a greater scale than we can imagine was so heartbreaking to me. It’s like finding out that your boyfriend is actually a dick...
But this whole story, of clothes and refugees and the trope of getting lost to be found, made me realize I can help people. I can help the planet. Fashion is not vapid and inconsequential. It is one of the most pressing issues of our time and it is the world’s third most polluting industry. There are so many facets of sustainable fashion: slow, ethical, circular, secondhand, and environmental fashion. After my Greece experience, I ended up writing my dissertation at St. Andrews on how fast fashion is a global environmental injustice. I studied International Relations, and when I told my dissertation advisor that I wanted to write about fast fashion, the whole department questioned it. Even my peers were dubious. This reaction was because nobody clocked the fact that fashion has huge environmental, political, and social influence. It is this poisonous vine sapping the ecology of our earth.
All the research for that dissertation and all this experience prompted me to start @livefastbuyslow, my Instagram page. I wanted to condense these issues and make them digestible and understandable for people through a social media platform. But that summer in Greece was the catalyst. And I know now that I was right – sitting alone in the Greek restaurant waiting for a stranger to come and pick me up. I was right where I was supposed to be.