More Flow Please

This I Wear | Go With the Flow

At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a post on water, going with the flow, and my expanding, ever-changing view of what sustainability is and what it means for my own life and purpose. Here we are at the fresh start of a new year, and looking back at this post gives me goosebumps. It’s only in hindsight that I see how much “going with the flow” became my theme for this past year. It emerged with the unexpected loss of my grandmother this summer. It showed up when it became clear that there would be no “slow season” at work this year. And it said “hello” again when I found myself having a really hard time writing here after coming back from my annual August writing break.

While it wasn’t an intentional decision, I let myself slowly step away from This I Wear to gain perspective and rest.

As I let go of the “shoulds” and the guilt about not writing every week here, I found myself spending a lot of time letting myself be curious and learn new things. What ended up happening was that all my blog time this Fall ended up going to an online course on the Circular Economy led by the European university TUDelft and sponsored by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

There is nothing more “go with the flow” than the Circular Economy. The Circular Economy, which is still an emerging idea, is the total opposite of our current economy. Imagine our current economy – a linear economy – as a line: we take resources from the planet, we make the materials into stuff, we use that stuff, and then we toss it in the landfill. At most, that stuff gets a second go-around for recycling. In the Circular Economy, it’s exactly what it sounds like – a circle: we stop taking new resources from the planet that we can’t replenish, use all of the incredible resources and materials that we’ve already put in circulation, start designing things to last as long as possible and to be designed to be disassembled or re-imagined, and then keep them in the flow of making and using stuff as long as possible. In the Circular Economy, just as it is in nature, there is no waste.

Nature knows how to go with the flow. A fallen leaf becomes the nutrients in the soil to grow a new tree. Rainwater nourishes our gardens and then evaporates back into the atmosphere only to come down again. The cycle continues.

Throughout the experience of the course, I felt my understanding of sustainability growing and evolving. There is even a whole week dedicated to fashion and textiles. If you’re curious, the class will be offered again in February 2016.

This month, I’ll start another online course focused on finding your own way to be an activist in the sustainability movement. The 7-week course is hosted by the nonprofit The Pachamama Alliance, which works to protect the culture and environment in the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, and it’s a pay-what-you-wish donation at the end of the course. If you’d like to join me, you can sign up here.

If you want to start with the basics, though, try their free online 2-hour course, Awakening the Dreamer, which will guide you through understanding the environmental and human rights issues of our time. Heads up that at the beginning, you might wonder “what is this??” but trust me it’s worth it to stick it out to the end.

And just one more learning opportunity if you’re up for it: The Ethical Fashion Forum will be hosting a free online course for the first time on building a sustainable fashion business. So if you’ve been dreaming of creating your own clothing line or want to know the ins-and-outs of sustainable fashion in practice, sign up before the class starts on January 18.

So what does all of this mean for This I Wear?

Here’s the only thing that I know: My posting is going to be a lot more “go with the flow.” I won’t be posting on a regular schedule moving forward, but instead I’ll only be posting when I know I have something really exciting and thoughtfully written to share with you. If you’d like to be notified when there are new posts, you can get them right to your inbox by signing up to receive posts by email here.

And yes, in case you caught it, I did say the word “activist” earlier in this post. I’m going to be honest that the word bothers me. When I imagine an “activist”, I imagine someone who aggressively pushes their views on others. That’s not me at all. But I’m also increasingly feeling like I can’t stand by while I see bad decisions being made everyday that hurt people, hurt our environment, and endanger our future. Changing our shopping habits might be the way that we dip our toes into more responsible decision making, but I’m also ready to start talking about how we take big steps to make sure our future planet is one we want to live on.

I’m also curious to hear from you. Do the topics above interest you? Would you like me to be sharing more about sustainability innovations and more non-fashion sustainability ideas? Would you be interested in hearing about what I’m learning? Share your thoughts in the Comments or send me an email.

The Business Case for Secondhand

This I Wear | Secondhand

I think we can all agree that there is too much stuff in the world today.

If you don’t agree with that statement, read this again after spending an hour at your local H&M to see how much stuff people are buying. Alternatively, you could choose to google “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” or better yet, stop into any charity shop and see what nervous ticks the staff have developed since the release of Marie Kondo’s “The Magical Art of Tidying Up.

But for those of you who do agree, my guess is that you’re already trying to do your small part in encouraging a world of “less stuff” in your own way.

I also thought I was doing my part until I realized I could be doing a whole lot more because, well, #economics. And by that, I mean I had an enlightened moment of understanding that I was all supply and no demand, and that this was not gonna get any of us any closer to a “less stuff” world. Let me explain.

Here’s my usual routine when it comes to closet cleaning: Clean out closet. Decide if what I cleaned out warrants hosting a swap party. If not, donate clothes to my neighborhood charity shop. Cue that feel good feeling of knowing that I kept my stuff out of the landfill for at least a little while longer.

Oh how I have been naïve.

After my most recent “tidying up” inspired by Marie Kondo, I was all set to do the above usual routine when I heard a podcast talking about all the places to sell your clothes online. Beyond selling my really nice pieces at a local consignment store, I had never explored selling my clothes. I soon found myself browsing sites like The Real Real, Tradesy, and Threadflip that all specialize in online secondhand clothing and accessories for women, and I was floored by the amount of (really really good) merchandise on these sites. If fact, there is enough merchandise on these sites to keep all of womankind clothed and happy for all of eternity.

That’s when I realized that my usual routine was missing a really crucial step: shopping secondhand.

While I am very careful about knowing what I’m buying when I do shop (Was it made ethically? Where was it made? Are the materials sustainable and/or recyclable? Etc.), I’ve still been buying mostly new. And that isn’t really helping us solve our “stuff” problem, because we’re still creating more stuff and using more resources to make all these new things. So while the stuff might be ethically made, what about the unnecessary harm done by further cluttering up the world and using up our resources?

So if I really believe in the importance of valuing our resources and creating less waste, my habit of donating or selling my clothes is only solving half the problem. To make the secondhand market work, I also have to become a consumer of it – taking as much as I’m giving, and looking for what I need on the secondhand market first before I look to buy something new. (Luckily, between local consignment and vintage shops and the online secondhand retailers, this is even easier than trying to find something new that is ethically made.)

The same argument can apply to a million different scenarios when it comes to solving our stuff problem. If we’re recycling but not buying products made with recycled materials, we’re not really creating demand for those materials to tell the market we want more recycled products. Likewise, if we’re powering our house on solar energy but still driving a gas-guzzling car, then we’re really not committing to renewable energy.

Baby steps are important. Yes to making sure our stuff stays out of landfills, that we opt for renewable energy when we can, and that we buy responsibly made goods. But we could be doing so much more if we looked at our behaviors in a more holistic way to see what unintentional signals we may be sending to the market about what we as conscious consumers want. #economics

And anyway, perhaps the only good lesson that fashion has taught us is that vintage is just way cooler and we should know that the old will always becomes new again. So while I will by no means be a perfect secondhand shopper, I’m definitely going to do my best to close this loop.

Photo via ReDone Denim (source here!), a company that is definitely proving there is a business case to be made for secondhand fashion.

Meet me in Brooklyn on October 3rd!

This I Wear | Ethical Writers Coalition

You know when you have really good news but you have to keep it to yourself for a while? Well, that’s how I feel about today’s announcement.

Over the summer, while I was on my writing hiatus, I joined the Ethical Writers Coalition, a group of nearly 40 writers who are as committed as I am to sharing how to live a more sustainable life. While each writer may have her/his own focus – whether beauty, fashion, food, or home – and perspective, we all share the common goal of making it easier for you to make ethical and sustainable lifestyle choices.

I’m just getting to know many members of the group, so I hope you’ll click on over to the EWC site and discover some new voices along with me. You’ll also find the EWC logo in the sidebar going forward, so you can easily find more resources on sustainability issues from these writers whenever you need them. In fact, I highly recommend checking out the Secondhand Challenge happening this month.

As a perfect way to celebrate this growing community, I would like to invite you all to join me at the Ethical Writers Coalition Style Swap in Brooklyn on October 3rd. I’ll be there, supporting the event and swapping a few of my own things, and I would LOVE if you would introduce yourself to me if you attend! I’ve connected with so many of you online, but I would love to say “thanks” to you in-person for supporting this site and get to know you better.

Interested? Here’s how the swap will work:

1. Buy a ticket on the event page here.
2. Show up on October 3rd with 5-10 Fall/Winter pieces (clothing, shoes and/or accessories) to swap. P.S. You’ll want to get there early since the first 50 guests get a Zady tote bag and discounts from other ethical brands.
3. Drop off your pieces and enjoy a drink while everyone arrives.
4. When the swap starts, you can pick out a new fall wardrobe til your heart’s content! You can go home with as many pieces as you like, regardless of how many you bring.

Spaces are limited. This means if your gut is saying, “Let’s do this”, you should grab a ticket soon! I hope to see you there. And for those of you who aren’t in the New York area, you can check out my guide on how to host a swap in your community.

The Ethical Writers Coalition Style Swap is sponsored by Zady. Zady is re-envisioning the future of fashion by creating apparel with the highest of standards and a completely transparent supply chain. Similar to what the slow food movement did to the food industry, we are doing this for the clothing industry. The Essentials Collection is where we put action to our words by providing high quality pieces that are made with the highest environmental and ethical standards.

Supporting Artisans: Santa Fe Edition

This I Wear | Santa Fe

Santa Fe, New Mexico has been on my bucket list since I first became interested in artisan-made crafts years ago. Each year, the city hosts the International Folk Arts Market, drawing hundreds of artisans from around the world to this little historic city to display their wares and grow their businesses.

While I missed the festival this year, I did not pass up the opportunity to shop for local crafts during a recent 24-hour stopover in the city. But after I stopped into a few shops, I began to wonder how to tell what was really artisan-made and what was an imported version of the local designs. I wasn’t familiar enough with the local culture, especially the Native American cultures, to pick up on this difference.

So how do you tell what is authentic and what is not?

Before I dive into how to tell what’s really made by a local artisan and what it not, I think it’s important to clarify why you should even care. Shouldn’t you just buy any souvenir that looks good? Isn’t that its own way of supporting the local economy? Well, yes, you’re supporting that local shop owner, but there’s a lot more to consider.

Here’s my quick list of why you should buy artisan-made when possible:

  • You’re supporting the community more deeply when you make sure the artisan (who often created the designs being knocked off) is paid fairly.
  • You’re telling the local community that this is a traditional craft that has high value and is worth preserving, so that more generations continue to want to learn these skills.
  • You are showing respect for an artisan’s mastery and heritage. These days, so much design is ripped off and produced more cheaply. Honor the maker by making sure you are only supporting local businesses that respect the maker too.
  • You get a chance to get to know the maker.
  • It’s a smaller environmental footprint if the item wasn’t shipped from far away.
  • You are getting something truly special and handmade rather than something mass-produced.

(There are so many more reasons to add to this list – I hope you’ll share yours in the Comments below.)

So now, how do you know if something was really made by a local craftsperson or if it’s imported? My recommendation is to start asking questions from the seller. I like to start off with “I love this design, can you tell me more about it?” And then I get more specific with questions such as:

  • Who made this?
  • Where do you make it?
  • What is it made of and where do the materials come from?
  • How do you (or the artisan) make it?
  • Who taught you this craft?

Hopefully, these questions will help you engage in a memorable conversation with an artisan as much as they will help you clarify if an item is truly handmade or an imposter.

If you’re in a store that is supposedly selling local crafts, a great indicator is if the artisan has signed his or her pieces or if there is information about the maker next to a piece. Even better, sometimes stores will share photos of where and how it is made to give you more context about the craft itself. You may also want to ask shop owners if they buy directly from artisans, and if so, who sets the price for the goods.

In Santa Fe, I was extremely fortunate. I asked my authenticity question to a staff member at Bahti Indian Arts, mostly because his store provided clear markers of its authenticity: certifications from local councils, information on how designs were made, and the names of the artisans. Bahti Indian Arts is beautiful and a must-see, and the store associate kindly gave me a few other recommendations to help me make sure I was purchasing from stores that truly want to support local makers and craft:

1. Sun County Traders
2. Keshi The Zuni Collection (My favorite and the store makes it clear that the artisan sets the price to ensure fair wages!)
3. Rainbow Man
4. Shiprock Santa Fe (see rug photos above)

In addition to these shops, you can visit the Plaza where artisans daily enter a lottery to display their wares in the approximately 70 spots under the portico. Each vendor must prove that he/she makes the goods, so you can shop here with confidence knowing that you are buying directly from the maker. Go early for the best selection and take your time to learn from the maker how each item was made.

Want to learn more about artisans? A few of my favorite resources are UNESCO, Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, and HAND/EYE Magazine. Still have questions about how to tell the difference? Share your questions in the Comments or email me.

Style Story: Angela & Made-to-Order by Mumbi

This I Wear | Angela + Made-to-Order by Mumbi

Welcome back from summer! We’re kicking off the season with a story from my friend Angela. After seeing her Facebook posts of the beautiful dresses she had made in Nairobi where she lives, I asked her if there was a story behind the dresses and, of course, there was. Angela and I met when I was her RA in her freshman year of college. It didn’t take long before I felt like she was a member of my family, but anyone who meets Angela could be similarly lucky. Angela happens to be open to the world in a way that I’ve rarely encountered and because of that, she has a way of making deep friendships wherever she goes. (Did I mention that she is also an award-winning jazz singer?). So from Angela, here’s the story of the dresses and how she came to make the switch from discount shopping to made-to-order clothing. – Rebecca

My 62-year-old mother is more stylish than I am. In primary school, I was known as “Gap Girl” because my mom bought all my clothes (from the sales rack) at Gap Kids. Somehow she managed to pull together a great wardrobe at a bargain price. By the time I was in high school, Mom had discovered discount stores like Ross. My family nicknamed her “Ross Pro” because she would dig through the store’s overwhelming clothes racks and always triumphantly pull out the best designer pieces going for about 10% of the original retail price. In short, I never had to shop for myself until college when I moved out of my parent’s house in Honolulu to Washington, DC. Even once I moved out, I barely found time to go shopping between studying, studying, and studying. My biggest clothes purchases still occurred when Mom was visiting and escorted me to Ross or her new favorite, Marshalls.

But after graduation, when I moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi, Kenya on a research fellowship, my shopping habits changed and I had to wean myself off of Mom’s help. No longer could she send me pieces from a recent snag at her discount favorites (Not only because it usually takes months or even a year to arrive, but the postal system in Nairobi also has a way of losing things…).

So when I first arrived in 2010, I checked out Nairobi’s shopping malls but quickly realized they are full of imported, over-priced and poor quality products from the Middle East and China. Next, I tried the second- and third-hand clothing markets. Those were better and reminded me a little of the discount store experience – digging through bins of clothes and never seeing the same thing twice. But eventually I tired of that too and resigned to wearing the same clothes until my annual trip home when Mom would take me shopping.

Fortunately, on one fateful day in March last year, my clothes shopping habits changed forever. I met Mumbi. Mumbi is a talkative, hard-working Kenyan lady always up for a design challenge. She’s probably in her late forties/early fifties with an energy and joy for her job that’s rare to find anywhere in the world. Mumbi has been in the same cozy studio for the past 30 years, tucked away on the fourth floor of an old building in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the bustling heart of the capital city.

I was first escorted to Mumbi’s studio by one of my AirBnB guests who loved fabric and had been recommended to Mumbi by the owner of a nearby fabric shop. “She’s really great!” my guest gushed. After previous lukewarm attempts to have clothes made by fundis (tailors), I was skeptical. “Alright, well, let’s try.” I acquiesced. Before we left, we sketched out some ideas. I look for inspiration online as I am not the kind of person who wakes up dreaming of the ideal dress I want. Then, we stopped at Biashara Street (Swahili for “Business Street”) where Indian-owned shops boasting all types of fabrics are conveniently located next to one another. After picking through vibrant shades of blues, greens, oranges, we settle on a few that fit our design ideas.

“I love a challenge,” Mumbi always tells me. Once I asked her why she didn’t save the drawings or photos of her past work in a portfolio so future clients could peruse through and choose what designs they wanted. “That’s boring! I never like doing the same design twice. I want to have new challenges,” she exclaimed. That’s why Mumbi and I get along, I guess – I keep her on her toes with my ‘new-fangled’ designs and Pinterest-inspired photos. My clothes hang next to children’s Dalmatian costumes, traditional African attire, curtains and pillowcases. I’ve learned to never be surprised at what I might find Mumbi working on when I visit her.

Mom still picks up clothes for me periodically, when she finds a deal is just too good to refuse. She saves them for me until my annual visit home to Hawaii. My husband is now also the lucky recipient of such clothing purchases by Mom and looks forward to her latest finds. That said, nowadays, it’s a reciprocal exchange: I also bring home custom-designed and tailor-made clothes by Mumbi (with some design input from yours truly), with love from Nairobi to Hawaii.

Angela Crandall Okune is making the jump from Nairobi back to the States to begin grad school. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Honoluluskye.

**If you are in Nairobi and need a new outfit, you can contact Mumbi directly at +254 724306117.

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