Beyond "going green"
UCI alumna and sustainability activist fights racial and labor injustice in the fashion industry
By Megan Cole
As public concern intensifies over labor rights, racial inequality and ecological destruction, one industry is especially in the spotlight: the multi-billion dollar “fast-fashion” trade, which mass-produces rapidly consumed apparel. Fast-fashion companies produce more than 1 billion garments annually, many of which end up in landfills. In the U.S. and abroad, the people who make these clothes often toil in sub-par factories and are undercompensated for their labor. Now, citing the environmental and social injustices propagated by the traditional apparel industry which includes fast fashion, a growing cadre of workers, consumers and activists are working to reform fashion and make the clothes we wear sustainable for people and planet alike.
Alumna Aditi Mayer (B.A.s literary journalism and international studies ’19) joined these ranks in her first year at UCI after learning about the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, the deadly collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory producing clothing for some of the world’s leading fast-fashion brands. The tragedy catalyzed Mayer’s trajectory as an award-winning blogger, influencer, photojournalist, and writer-activist working to challenge unsustainable and unethical practices in the apparel industry — particularly those that impact garment workers, who are disproportionately women of color. Below, Mayer discusses how far sustainable fashion has come over the past decade and where it might be heading next.
Q: When people hear “sustainable fashion,” they might think of reducing industrial impacts on the natural world. But your domain is broader than that: in addition to environmental activism, you often spotlight labor politics, human rights abuses, and issues surrounding race, gender, culture and intersectionality. How does your work differ from more mainstream “sustainable fashion” discourse?
A: My definition of sustainability considers impacts on the planet, people and culture — and for me personally, I’ve found that communicating sustainability through the domains of people and planet makes understanding the environmental element easier. When I first entered the sustainable fashion space, I began exploring who has power in the fashion industry and why they have power, and that inevitably led to questions of race and gender, histories of colonization, and how all of that intersects with fashion.
This hasn’t always been a popular line of thinking. When I first entered this world six years ago, topics of identity and race were always undermined and seen as distractions to the sustainability movement when in reality, identity is a key factor in how one engages with this movement. As a result, the discourse around race, gender and labor was often outright harmful. As a South Asian woman, I can’t tell you how problematic the landscape was when I first entered the sustainable fashion space. Like the idea of completely co-opting South Asian designs and calling them “Coachella fashions,” “boho chic” — it was a tone-deaf mess.
It’s a matter of seeing yourself not represented by a movement — the mainstream narrative around sustainability has largely been dominated by white communities. But more importantly, I think it’s the lack of intersectional approach the sustainability movement has taken. For me, sustainability is about understanding the root of how systems have been constructed to disproportionately affect certain communities. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities are disproportionately affected by issues of environmental injustice globally, from fossil-fueled power plants and refineries being disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods, to countries with the smallest carbon footprints bearing the brunt of climate change. We need to have conversations about white supremacy and colonialism — structures that have been centered on values of extraction and exploitation of finite resources — whether that’s the natural environment, or labor, as the means for infinite financial gain.
Compared to six years ago, brands are more careful now about how they position themselves in larger conversations about social injustice. Being apolitical was once quite common in the traditional fashion industry, but sustainable fashion brands are thinking beyond that now. Combating white supremacy is becoming part of the language of brands, because it has to be discussed. It’s not enough to talk about “fast” versus “sustainable” fashion without understanding how systems of labor in this industry were constructed through colonization. Without understanding who is disproportionately harmed by unsustainable practices, and why. That kind of systems-level thinking has always been a cornerstone of how I approach this industry, and it inevitably connects to labor and people in some way.
Q: Since you entered this field six years ago as a freshman, more brands have begun adopting the rhetoric of sustainability, and more consumers have been urging companies to take sustainable practices seriously. Why do you think discussions about sustainable fashion have been coming to the fore recently?
A: Right now we’re living in an interesting moment, to say the least. COVID-19 has brought business to a screeching halt. The murder of George Floyd further exposed systemic racism for the collective consciousness, and how pervasive it is in multiple domains: from policing, policy, to company cultures. Over the past couple of months, we have heard so many brands called out for their abusive practices — not only on a corporate level, but what happens in supply chains. People are beginning to understand that all sustainability conversations have to be tied to race, identity, all of those things. And the fashion industry is the perfect vehicle to unpack all of those things — especially as the industry has been built on the oppression of Black and Brown bodies based on an institutional form of racism inherited from a colonial past.
I also think the advent of social media is huge in creating a culture of accountability, whether that is for the Black Lives Matter movement, or whether that was after the Rana Plaza disaster. This trifecta of building workers’ power, which has been on people’s minds in this age of rampant social inequality; consumer pressure, via social media; and corporate social responsibility — all of that is coming together. Also, the vitality that younger generations have for activism right now has been inspiring to see. Sustainable fashion practices like thrifting and secondhand culture are becoming ubiquitous, whereas it wasn’t that way a few years ago. There’s a lot to unpack, but we’re definitely seeing a paradigm shift in how we operate as a society and what we choose to prioritize.
Q: Why did you decide to major in literary journalism at UCI? How has your training as a literary journalist helped you in your work?
A: I’ve always loved storytelling and have always wanted to be a photojournalist, and UCI had the only journalism program in the UC system. Still, I wasn’t sure about the program when I entered it, because I had never completely identified as a writer; I only knew I liked visuals. But I’m incredibly glad I did major in literary journalism, because it made my approach to storytelling more narrative-based in approach. I’ve focused on sustainable fashion for the last six years, especially in the context of Los Angeles, and grounding myself in that topic and knowing it inside out has lent itself to the type of storytelling I want to do. Professor Miles Corwin would always urge us to find a “micro story” that helps tell a “macro story,” and that’s how I see my work. I use “micro stories” within the fashion world as vehicles to explore other topics like the politics of labor, the environmental impact of fashion, or the lived experiences of people who make and wear certain things. Fashion is a vehicle to explore so many domains of the human experience, and my literary journalism training fueled that understanding of the “micro” and the “macro.” Even though it sounds like I do a lot of different things now, at its core, I’m just using the storytelling skills I learned at UCI in a socially engaged way and thinking about how to integrate public education and engagement as part of the storytelling process.
Q: What is a project you’re particularly proud of?
A: For a workshop, taught by Professor Amy Wilentz, I wrote a piece about the L.A. garment industry, and that was my gateway to engage more with the Garment Worker Center (GWC) organizers. That’s when I learned that L.A.’s second biggest industry is the garment industry, but no one knows about it because it’s an informal, underground economy that is largely undocumented and often exploitative of labor. Most workers are paid a piece rate, which means they’re paid per piece they make as opposed to an hourly wage. The piece rate is often as low as two to three cents, so workers make $6 per hour on average.
That workshop assignment, following that story for 10 weeks, led to me getting invested and constantly following any updates. I eventually started working with the GWC as a consultant. We recently had a bill (SB 1399) championed by the GWC that essentially would eradicate piece rates, create one legal wage, and make brands directly responsible for abuses in factories. This bill was many months in the making, and it got passed in the Senate a few weeks ago. Now, L.A. could literally be an example of what worker-led resistance looks like.
Q: You recently received the prestigious Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship for 2020-2021. What do you plan to do as a fellow?
A: I actually identified this scholarship as a freshman at UCI and am so amazed that I got it all these years later! The fellowship stipulates that you spend a year in a country of your choice to explore a globally relevant issue. My project would enable me to spend a year in India documenting the social and environmental impacts of India’s fashion supply chain, starting from farmers at the agricultural level, garment workers and artisans, and ending with textile waste. Because of COVID-19, the trip has been postponed to July 2021, which will give me more time to flesh out my organizational partners, decide what narratives I want to look at, and determine how COVID might affect the stories I find.
Q: In a perfect world, what would the future of fashion look like? What can the average person do to help promote sustainable fashion?
A: On the consumer level, definitely consuming less, opting out of a culture of mindless consumption and trends. I never want to say, “We will buy our way into sustainability” — you can’t buy your way into liberation. On the production end, it’s about reorienting business models’ measurement of success. The idea that rapid growth equals a successful business is inherently problematic. There are other ways to organize priorities. The idea of de-growth was introduced in the 1970s and was always seen as this radical liberal idea, but de-growth doesn’t mean the end of business as we know it. It means thinking about circularity and longevity as an essential part of the business model, especially in fashion. Redefining successful companies as those that create long-lasting clothes, re-use textiles and rely on regenerative agriculture, for example. When you think about fast fashion, it’s often an inherently violent form of production because it prioritizes speed at the expense of quality, the environment, and garment workers’ rights. The current fast-fashion model is predicated on quantity over quality, so you’re stuck needing more, more, more. Trends are always changing, and key to the marketing and advertising has been making consumers feel less worthy because we don’t have the latest thing — that needs to change. And I think it’s just now starting to. The future of fashion, in order to be sustainable, must demand a shift in how we see consumer demand, workers’ rights, and corporate accountability.
Follow Mayer on Instagram @aditimayer and on Twitter @aditimayer.
Photo credit: Simrah Farrukh