Last week with had a photoshoot and conversation with Kristy Drutman of Brown Girl Green. Brown Girl Green is a podcast and media series. Kristy interviews environmental leaders and advocates about diversity and inclusion as well as creative solutions for coping with the climate crisis. She is working to change the image of what it means to be an environmentalist in the 21st century.
The conversation below is between Kristy and Rachel of tonlé. This shoot was created in collaboration with Reclaim Collaborative and Chloe Jackman Photography, and also features items from Candid Art, Carry Courage, Astor + Orion, and Passion Lilie.
Rachel: Hey Kristy! So nice to work with you on the photoshoot today, would you mind starting by introducing yourself and talk a little bit about how you like to talk a little bit about your work and how you got into or how you got interested in sustainable fashion.
Brown Girl Green is a podcast and media series focused on environmental justice and specifically interviewing environmental leaders and advocates about creative solutions to the climate crisis. Last year I was the MC for SF Sustainable Fashion Week, (that’s when we met), and at that time I learned a ton about sustainable fashion brands. As I was working on my blog, I was invited into different spaces like sustainable fashion, which I would not have been exposed to before. I always knew fast-fashion was bad, but I didn't really know what the alternatives were. It was pretty much my introduction to this whole world of learning about different brands and what really is sustainable versus what it's not sustainable in terms of supply chains, companies' investments in diversity and equity, and the labor that goes into their product and so forth. So I would say that that's what got me intrigued in the spectrum of where sustainable brands were in terms of the different facets of how they were producing their clothing.
Rachel: Sometimes I would argue that the term “sustainable brand” is somewhat of an oxymoron, and I know that's kind of ironic coming from me as somebody who runs a sustainable brand, but I'd be curious what your take on that is. Do you think it's really possible to actually have a sustainable brand, and what does that look like at its best?
Kristy: Yeah, I would say that especially given our current economy and the system we operate in I don't think you could ever be a hundred percent sustainable because, at the end of the day, you're still producing more for consumption. Most brands are still buying from a supplier in other countries, and don’t have full control over their supply chains.
So I'd say it's impossible to get it to be a hundred percent sustainable, but the aspects I think should be considered are: how are they moving towards being environmentally responsible? Are they at least being transparent about where they're sourcing their materials and what labor is going in? Do they have some sort of a grasp on how their supply chain operates? Do they care about social sustainability as well?
Companies need to be aware that consumers are going to keep demanding more transparency and wanting to find brands that are willing to follow through and consistently try to evaluate themselves internally on what they could be doing better.
Rachel: Yes, exactly, that is spot on, and I guess we should probably take one step back and I'd be curious to even just have you define what sustainability really means?
Kristy: Okay sustainability to me; honestly, I love the concept of regeneration more than sustainability. But I would say sustainability to me is evaluating what is going into a product from start to finish. So being able to create a system with whatever you're producing, consuming, or creating that's going to work in harmony and symbiotically with the natural environment and also prioritizing the needs of the people whose labor goes into those products. Sustainability should also focus on what a product’s afterlife is.
Sustainability is focused on creating something that is economically and environmentally viable to last for the long term, not just for quick and easy consumption.
Rachel: One of the purposes for starting Reclaim Collaborative is that we believe that no one brand or individual can be sustainable because the systems that we live in are not sustainable and the ecosystems that these Brands operate in are not sustainable. So how can we take a more systemic approach to change? Personally, I think that there's this emphasis in the sustainable fashion community that each individual and brand needs to be sustainable, but in a lot of ways, they're not contributing to systemic change. So I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
Kristy: One of the primary ways is definitely voting for leaders who are going to actually hold companies accountable to regulate pollution.
We need leaders who will regulate supply chain management, to create and enforce policies around companies reducing their carbon emissions and caring about the amount of plastic waste that they're producing, as a few examples. All of that requires policy at different levels of government.
So first of all being able to vote is really important, but also we need to think about long-term investments and social governance, especially for Millennials and gen Z who might be just starting to think about how they invest their money. We need these generations to think about investing more into companies that actually care about sustainability or at least have some sort of transparency index around that; this can actually be a systemic way that people could start to make change working within the system of capitalism.
Then I'd say petitioning and calling out companies and destructive policies, utilizing social media and educating people about environmental and social malpractice, and boycotting companies that refuse to change. We can demand that they either shut down their operations or dramatically improve how they're producing their clothes.
Rachel: I'd be curious how you balance on your platform the activism side of boycotting and calling people out versus the side of supporting and putting your money into the industries and the businesses that you want to see lifted up.
For a long time I was very critical that sustainable fashion was just not going to be accessible for someone like me. I didn't think I had the funds to afford “sustainable” fashion brands or I didn't see a lot of models who looked like me. But especially in the last year, I’ve seen more brands specifically brands run by Black Indigenous and People of Color, and brands that are more affordable and accessible, and that's become something I’ve been excited to share with my audience.
At the same time as sharing about brands who are doing things right, It’s really important to me to call out companies and call out those systems, because people feel very helpless, and being able to actually have targets and have specific calls-to-action gives people something tangible to latch onto and to balance out how they're being educated and where they should put their money, and not put their money, at the same time.
Rachel: I think many of America's problems can be traced back to corporations having too much control and too much power. And you mentioned regulating corporations, I mean, some of the most iconic American corporations are fashion companies that are going around the world, exploiting people in other places and dumping pollution and trash. You've talked about how America sends its trash all over the world, and this is just one shocking aspect of that. So, in terms of the regulation that you want to see happen in the fashion industry, why is fashion political and how do you think that people should vote?
Yes, I do say that fashion is political because a lot of these companies, especially those that promote fast fashion or promote unsustainable fashion practices, are really making it especially difficult for marginalized communities, especially low-income and Black and Indigenous and People of Color, to be able to have access to better choices.
I always think about that whenever I think about sustainability and how fashion is political, I think about who are the most marginalized groups and how they are being impacted. And when there are issues in a brand’s supply chain they either try to cover it up or just blame the supplier and leave it at that. When this happens, accountability is lost and then we don't know who to pinpoint these problems on. So even if the government did create some sort of sweeping regulation, who knows if it would actually trickle down to those suppliers in countries outside of the United States. And so I think that fashion is incredibly political because we have to understand that these supply chains are a symptom of globalization. Everything we wear was created as a product of colonization, of domination, and of oppression, and then branded as some form of creativity or self-expression when in fact these corporations are actually deciding what your self-expression and creativity are. The fact that many people don't have more access to better options means that these corporations have a vested interest to keep it this way. If people have the ability to demand better options or ask why these companies have this much power that maybe they'll start to actually be able to self-educate themselves about how the supply chains actually are run and start to demand that these companies do better.
Rachel: So capitalism is a symptom of colonialism, which is a symptom of white supremacy in a lot of ways; so how do we deal with that? What would you suggest that brands and consumers do?
The first step is definitely decolonization. Each person needs to ask: what is your role in the system that continues oppressing and harming marginalized groups? It means looking into your supply chain, and figuring out who is getting the short end of the stick.
Then, how are you going to actually set goals for your company to be transparent and address how that most marginalized group needs to be treated better, whether that's improving the working conditions, paying them fair wages, being able to actually transparently identify how your supply chain operates. I think it's about self-auditing metrics and being able to have stakeholders or advisory boards, even if that requires you bringing in outside consultants, to actually figure out if your corporate social responsibility is measuring up or if it's just greenwashing.
Rachel : And can you talk about the greenwashing and woke washing that you've seen happening?
Kristy: Oh my gosh. I don't want to name names...but unfortunately yes. I think there's a lot of brands that are now recognizing especially after the summer that diversity and equity are important. They woke up to that being important now they're going about getting it all the fucking wrong way.
Some sustainable brands just want to get their diversity cookie, but they don't actually know what that means and they don't even embody that within their company. So if a brand is going to ask me to work with them, before they approach me, I wish they would keep house in their own company and figure out how to address their internal problems.
But the thing is, it's up to like people like me to really be able to discern and call them out on their crap and be like, are you actually addressing X Y and Z thing because if you're not I'm not going to let you profit off of my ability to understand what's actually going on with social issues in the world while you have not even taken a second to address your own positionality.
There are certain brands or products I definitely won’t work with - I won’t criticize others for doing so - but I just won’t. So I think as I go deeper in this I have to ask myself, what are my negotiables as I'm also just trying to live my life as a brown woman, whereas a lot of these white influencers get away with way worse shit than me, but also knowing that I have a role and responsibility, to show that there needs to be different relationships with brands to hold them accountable.
I actually have a scorecard that I use to evaluate brands, and I do my own internal auditing before agreeing to work with them. With tonlé, I’ve been a familiar with your brand since last year, and just your intentionality about everything and from what I observed I've seen on your website, I guess I’ve done my own audit and...I've told people about your brand as one that I think more sustainable brands should be emulating.
Rachel: Thank you so much, that means a lot to me! On another note - Do you have a favorite piece from the shoot today? Just curious!?
Kristy: Oh, I mean I loved everything I wore today! I think probably the first piece I wore - the vanna jumpsuit - I was like I could sleep in this, it is so nice. And the sweater with the tassels was so fun! I love this clothing. It's so comfortable.
Rachel: Thank you so much! I’m loving that jumpsuit too! Is there anything else you would want to add to this; some last parting words of wisdom?
Kristy: I'm just excited to see where this grows because I think that people, especially marginalized people need more community spaces, to have conversations about brands and sustainable fashion. And I think a lot of these sustainable fashion collectives are kind of tone deaf around these issues that we’ve been discussing. So, I'm really excited about Reclaim Collaborative, and the opportunity for this platform to be more intersectional, and that this could be a space for more people like myself and others who have felt frustrated with the inaccessibility of sustainable fashion to feel like they're included in, and leading, the conversation.
Moving the industry forward needs to be about cross-cultural exchange, not about extraction or co-optation or appropriation. It needs to be about sharing knowledge so all groups are empowered. Because there's constant learning that needs to be done.