Wednesday 11 December 2019

tis the season for a revolution

In previous years I've written guides and given advice about choosing sustainable holiday gifts. You know, buy from ethical, local, Fair trade suppliers and artists. Choose pre-loved items. Give someone an experience instead of an object. Cook a meal, babysit kids, plant a tree, make organic body scrub. And wrap it all in sustainable gift wrap.

I still wholeheartedly believe in those options. And - despite what the rest of this post may suggest - I really do love the holiday season. Love it. There is nothing better than enjoying delicious food and the company of loved ones under the twinkle of fairy lights. As an added bonus, living in Sydney means that Christmas is the perfect excuse for an extended summer break at the beach. Bring. It. On.

But this year, instead of hoping santa brings me a gorgeous sustainable frock and fretting over the 'perfect' gift for my loved ones, I want something bigger. I want a revolution. I want a seismic cultural and political shift to address the growing climate crisis. It's not too much to ask, is it?

My state is literally on fire. Look at these photos. That extended summer break I mentioned before will likely be spent indoors to escape the hazardous smoke pollution which periodically blankets the city. The fires have come so early and so fiercely that fire chiefs are making public declarations about climate change and begging the government to address the climate crisis. And what does our Prime Minister do? Offers platitudes, thoughts & prayers, naively comments that volunteer firefighters don't need to be paid because they "want to be there" and uses the opportunity of our nationwide distraction to axe the federal arts department and splitting the energy and environment portfolios into other, larger, portfolios, all but ensuring climate change doesn't get a look in. Shame.

The Currowan bushfire has been raging for days in a national park near Ulladulla, burning almost 50,000 hectares as of Wednesday, the RFS said.
Photo: AAP via SMH

Halfway around the world other world leaders are meeting for the annual COP climate talks. I freely admit to being particularly ambivalent about the talks this year. Which is unfair - many people work tirelessly in the lead up and throughout the talks to convince nations to make binding agreements to emissions reductions. But from my perspective (and at least one top scientist) it just looks like we've had these talks for over 20 years and global emissions are rising year on year. Countries including Australia and the United States shirk responsibility and forfeit the opportunity to become climate leaders. And remind me, how many people took an international flight (and how many business class, or private planes) to attend the talks? Not Greta, obviously, and though it doesn't make a dent in the grand scheme of greenhouse gas emissions, it does have an impact on the power of one's activism and leads to systemic change.

So needless to say, this holiday season I'm distracted. Instead of teaching my toddler about the magic of the season I'm fretting about his future. I don't want the champagne and baubles and bonbons - well, not as much as I usually do, anyway. I don't have the energy to handcraft gifts and I don't feel the same joy listening to Mariah Carey's "Merry Christmas" album as in previous years. I want global leaders to act just as that - leaders - and to take the bold actions necessary to halt the worst of the project climate disasters. We are seeing too frequent glimpses of them already, and frankly, it's terrifying.

But I hear you. You want a list. You want a guide for an ethical holiday season, so here it is:
  • Change your household energy to 100% renewable energy. There are multiple affordable options available making this option more attainable than ever.
  • Divest your retirement/superannuation. There are a variety of funds options that do not invest in fossil fuel companies but do have competitive returns. Make your money work for the future you want.
  • Ask your workplace about their own energy and investment plans, and work with them to make the necessary changes if not enough is being done.
  • Contact your politicians. Relentlessly. Let them know the climate is a top concern of yours, and if it's not theirs they will not get your vote.
  • Volunteer your time.
  • Donate your money. This year there are a variety of bushfire appeals including for Fire Services and wildlife rehabilitation. If any of my loved ones want to know what to get me, please do this for me.
  • Connect with others. Build your community and look after those who need some extra care.
  • Rest as much as you can, we have a lot of work to do in 2020.
Until then, fellow Revolutionaries, 

Friday 18 October 2019

sustainable fashion is so hot right now

For a long time the uptake of sustainable fashion could best be described as a slow burn. There was a constant increase in interest, but it moved at a snail's pace. Sustainable fashion designers struggled to make ends meet, with many working for the passion they felt as activists rather than for the money. And on a personal level, many people raised an eyebrow at my research and questioned whether it was really worth investigating.

Fast forward to 2019 and sustainability is trending, and it's making me worried.

Sustainability and climate change were key features at the recently-wrapped Fashion Weeks (including some fabulous disruption from Extinction Rebellion in London and New York), celebrity endorsements and labels are constantly popping up, the Duchess of Sussex wore Outland Denim and changed the face of sustainable fashion, The Iconic launched their ethical edit, 'Considered', and I feel like I'm seeing nearly as many Vejas as Stan Smiths these days.

Image via Instagram

In fact it was a Veja-spotting that inspired me to write today.

I was on the bus home from work this week, holding onto the swinging handle for dear life as the bus took a sharp turn, when I spotted a pair of Vejas on a young woman seated near me.  A quick scan and I saw she'd paired those white sneakers with some jeans, a Gucci crossbody handbag, a white Tommy Hilfiger tee and some lovely large gold hoop earrings. A few days later I saw another chic woman wearing Vejas with a long silk skirt and tee and a stunning oversized Dior tote. For all I know these designer additions were quality vintage or consignment pieces, but I'm going to make the assumption based on their pristine appearances that they were not.

I've read plenty of articles - scholarly and mass media - talking about sustainable fashion being a status symbol. And there is a lot of weight to the argument that sustainable fashion is primarily available for the upper middle class. These young women personified these criticisms in a way I hadn't yet seen in person.

I don't mean to point fingers at these ladies and blame them for the state of fashion today. However, seeing these bright young things wearing some of the world's most sustainable sneakers with trendy designer pieces demonstrated something I've been suspecting and fearing for awhile...we may be raising general awareness, but nothing is really changing.

Sure, sustainable fashion is so hot right now. More and more people actually know what it is. It's being written about in the pages of Vogue on a regular basis. There are podcasts, blogs, websites, online shops and sustainable stylists and designers all working to raise awareness of the issues and shed light on alternatives. But the fact that designer labels decided to adopt it for their latest runway shows makes me feel we are just swimming in circles, so does seeing a stylish woman who is matching sustainable sneakers with designer labels.

Fashion Editor Vanessa Friedman has an incredible critique in the New York Times about this current turn toward sustainability during the most recent Fashion Weeks. Of her many compelling arguments one that stood out to me was the fact that just last year the brands were addressing the repercussions from the #MeToo movement, and this year some models are reporting it's worse than ever.

In addition, fast fashion continues to pervail, despite some positive signs it was crumbling (like Forever21 filing for bankruptcy, mainly due to not being able to compete on style with H&M and Zara). Zara profits remain high and growing, with plans for worldwide online sales from next year. H&M recently announced its first increase in profits in two years and continue grow their store numbers to more than 5,000 around the world - it also has plans for further online reach in the years to come. More garments will be produced this year than last, and the same thing will happen next year again.

The fashion system is broken, and has been for a long time. It relies on constant renewal to survive, and it relies on us buying into new styles season after season, year after year, and so it injects billions of dollars into marketing to ensure that we make those purchases. In other words, just because people know about something - even the fast fashion companies themselves, which are making promises toward sustainable fabrics and transparent processes - doesn't mean the problem is solved. As long as clothes continue to be designed and produced at these fast rates in vast quantities, it cannot be sustainable. As long as labels want me to buy their new collection each season, or even each year, it cannot be sustainable. Until we can curtail this system that generates constant desire, it cannot be sustainable.

So there, I've said it. I've been thinking it for awhile, and there it is. For all the incredible work my fellow sustainable fashion activists have done over the past decade, particularly the past five or six years, the system remains firmly in tact. I know that progress has been made and I don't want sustainable fashion designers or activists to feel like their work has been for nothing, because it has undoubtedly shifted the conversation. But I feel an increased sense of urgency that just isn't being addressed but the launches of new sustainable fashion lines and the embrace of sustainability on major Fashion Week catwalks. It all feels like more greenwashing to me.

A few years ago, seeing two pair of Vejas in one week would have filled me with glee. Unfortunately, knowing what I know now, it fills me with dread. It appears they are being used as a status symbol, a recognisable and coveted name brand, that may even assuage guilt of some people about the dismal state of the climate and the planet.

So yeah, sustainable fashion is so hot right now. What will be so hot next year? (besides the planet, obvs).

Thursday 5 September 2019

sustainable work life


It's been awhile, and I'm just going to level with you - this working parent business is hard! I feel like calling every parent I have ever worked with to say, "I'm sorry if I ever gave you the side-eye for leaving work on time! And please tell me how you managed to be so put together for work while wrangling a small child at home." 

Though they probably wouldn't have even noticed my side-eye if they are like me, one eye on my work and another on the clock to ensure I time my commute-daycare-dinner-bath-bedtime routine just perfectly to minimise the likelihood of a meltdown from my mini-one.

I am managing to complete (and enjoy!) my paid work each week, but my labours of love (like this blog and other sustainable fashion activism) have taken a backseat. As so many women have experienced before me, I'm learning firsthand that you can't "have it all", at least not at the same time.

Lucky for me my paid work is incredible. I have the opportunity to meet and work with dedicated, passionate and clever people, including bringing people together with various backgrounds and ideas, all in the name of sustainability. And I was able to write a blog post about it for the Sydney Environment Institute. Here's a sneak peek, and head over their website to learn more.

Living Lab Series: Sustainability Across Campus, From Wave Flumes to Waste Fighters

Lisa Heinze takes us on a journey through the University as she explores past projects and future plans for the Sustainability Strategy.

Image by Vital Sinkevich, via Unsplash

Did you know that the University of Sydney has a wind tunnel and wave flume in its Centre for Wind, Waves and Water? Or that students can take units titled “Building a Sustainable World” or “Poverty Alleviation and Profitability”? Or that we have both a community garden and a food co-opright here on campus?
Over the past few months, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know some of the people behind these initiatives as part of the University’s sustainability strategy development project. The Sydney Environment Institute has been supporting the development of the University’s new strategy, and I have the lucky job of connecting with people who are working hard to make a difference through their research, teaching and actions at the University. In particular, the SEI has been responsible for creating an Advisory Group consisting of staff and students from across the University, and overseen the development of over a dozen sub-groups, to help establish a sustainability vision, identify priorities, and determine guiding principles across a range of sustainability issues at the University.
So what exactly does this mean? And what does it look like on a daily basis? I began by poring over faculty websites and staff profiles, seeking sustainability connections through research or teaching, and sending inquisitive, hopeful emails, asking for participation in the project. I’ve had my fair share of coffees, meeting people to find out more about their work and interests, sharing details about how the working groups’ insights will feed into development of the strategy, and connecting people into various groups to focus on categories like Energy & Emissions, Social & Culture, Water, Built Environment, Landscapes & Biodiversity, and more.
I’ve had the distinct feeling I was standing inside the (thankfully idle) engine of an Airbus A380 as I stood inside the awe-inspiring Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel at the Centre for Wind, Waves and Water...

Tuesday 25 June 2019

recycle your clothes

Over the years as I've taught lectures on fashion and sustainability I've shown my students the below ad from H&M about recycling your clothes.

I haven't always had kind things to say about H&M, but I love this ad from 2015. It's provocative, has great imagery, promotes body and cultural diversity, and whoever is doing the voiceover is mesmerising.

Typically the ad generates a lot of discussion from students. Fashion or clothing is something most people feel comfortable talking about, and H&M elicits a range of responses and emotions from different students. There's always a lot of support for the diversity shown in the ad, though it's often tempered by criticisms of overconsumption (this is a fast fashion company, after all), and there is always discussion about the role fast fashion companies play in providing fashionable clothing at a low cost for those with those on constrained incomes. But the message about recycling is what really gets people fired up. (Watch it and let me know what you think!)

So here's the deal - you can take any of your used clothing and textiles to H&M and they will recycle it for you. There is a range of things that may happen to the items. If they are good quality, they may resell or donate them. If not, they may be recycled into their base fibres to be remade into fabric again, or perhaps ragged and used in various industries. This is a global campaign, so no matter where you live, you can take things to any H&M store for recycling. And (naturally) they give you a discount for your next purchase.

Despite seeing this ad dozens of times, I've never taken my used clothing to H&M, mostly because I don't usually shop there. I appreciate the strides they have taken toward sustainability through research and innovation, but I don't like to support their overall fast fashion business model. Then last week I found myself with a number of used garments that just did not feel good enough to donate to a charity shop - and some items that are not meant to go to charity shops (hello used bras!) - so I thought I'd take them to H&M since I knew they would not end up in landfill this way, or cost a charity money to dispose of properly on my behalf.

It was very easy. There was a huge sign behind the counter, and the cashier kindly helped me put my bag of donations in the very large (and empty!) bin. She then handed me a coupon for 15% off one item from the store.

And, you know, since I was there...I shopped. Actually I had planned on picking up some long sleeve tops for my son now that winter has finally set in. I know that H&M have a decent range of Conscious Collection basics for babies made from 100% organic cotton. I've written before about building a sustainable baby wardrobe mostly using secondhand items and special pieces from small businesses, but I tell you what, now that he's eating and walking and going to daycare - the mess! Multiple outfit changes are not unheard of in a given day, and I'm getting a glimpse into the rips and stains that will surely mark my 'parent of a toddler' years. My early supply of hand-me-downs have slowed (probably because everyone else's children are wearing out their clothing), so affordable sustainable basics are a good way to add to his wardrobe. (In other words - I finally really understand what people who have attended my workshops in the past have been talking about when they talk of the difficulty in sourcing sustainable children's clothing.)

I bought some long sleeve tops, which were all on a "Buy 3 for the Price of 2" promotion and seemed like a money-losing deal to me since the full price was already so low. I briefly hesitated. Even with all the work H&M claim to be doing to improve working conditions and transparency, how can a garment be made for such a cheap price? And out of organic cotton? Who made those clothes? How much were they paid to sew these adorable nautical-themed onesies?

2-pack long-sleeved bodysuits - Dark blue/Anchors - Kids | H&M CN 1
I really am a sucker for stripes.

And yet, I bought them all the same.

And then I made an impulse purchase of an item that I didn't even know that I needed until I saw it - an adorable shoe organiser that hangs on the back of my son's door and has a bear face. His shoes had been making clutter and driving me crazy, so perhaps I subconsciously was looking for a solution, but it was definitely an impulse purchase. No denying the fact. Since this was the highest-priced item in my basket (at a whopping $25), it was the recipient of my 15% discount.

Image result for hm wall tidy bear motif grey
I mean, c'mon, the adorableness of being tidy!

And so, to sum up, I've basically been putty in the hands of H&M's marketing geniuses - they've received my used clothes, from which they will make money through recycling, and they've also received more of my dollars from buying brand new items.

Some sustainable lifestyle guru I am! I literally have a PhD on the topic, teach university students to think critically about the offer, and yet take me to a well-presented retail space and I get blinded by the lights.

At least I followed the one unbreakable fashion rule - I recycled my clothes.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

fashion revolution 2019

It's hard to believe it's been six years since the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, claimed the lives of 1,138 garment workers, most of them young women.

On the one hand, the perils (and realities) of garment production are incredibly well known. It's not uncommon for people to joke about their clothing "probably being made in a sweatshop", followed by uncomfortable laughter. Whether the Nike scandal of the 1990s springs to mind, images of scruffy children working in the first textile factories of the Industrial Revolution, or the below image of Rana Plaza, somehow we have come to accept that our clothing is made under terrible conditions.

There are so many reasons why this has come to be. The physical and (often) cultural disconnect between the people who make our clothes and ourselves is a primary reason why we can push these images out of our minds when buying new clothing. Not to mention the impact of advertising, fashion promotion, and the mode and speed of consumption which is completely ingrained in our culture and provides further reason to disconnect.

But...things are changing.

This is Fashion Revolution Week, a time to reflect on who makes our clothes, question brands on their production methods, and learn new ways of using and consuming clothing (which are often old ways!). The Fashion Revolution campaign started on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, and since then has grown into an international phenomenon (so much so that I am giving a lecture on its impact as part of a "Hashtag Activism" class at Sydney Uni next month).

Since the campaign launched in 2014 countless events and activities have occurred that are shaking up the fashion industry. Alongside the #WhoMadeMyClothes social media campaign have been clothes swaps, film screenings, clothing repair workshops, panel discussions, op shop tours and more. And the industry is taking note. There is increasing transparency from fashion brands worldwide, particularly at the final stage of production (this is the location that is noted on your clothing tag as the "Made In" country).

Look, as Fashion Revolution points out, the industry is far from transparent. In their first Transparency Index in 2017 the average level of transparency was 21% (see all the details and methodology on their website). But in 2018 when they measured again, there had been a 5% improvement, which is fantastic.

Similarly, the Ethical Fashion Report by Baptist World Aid has demonstrated some movement in the industry. While there is vast room for improvement, as this article by Peppermint highlights, the pressure put on fashion brands by consumers and the media is having a positive impact.

But this progress will only continue if we continue to agitate. We can't stop asking #WhoMadeMyClothes? We can't stop thinking about our clothing consumption choices, and wondering why we are buying what we buy. We can't become complacent about what materials are used in our clothing, or under what conditions they are created. As I mentioned to my students last week, changing this industry is like turning a giant boat - progress may feel slow, but continued effort is genuinely having an impact, so we have to keep pushing.

So what can you do?

  • Engage with brands on social media by taking a photo of your clothing, tag the brands you are wearing and ask them "#WhoMadeMyClothes?
  • Write a letter to a brand asking them about production, and what changes they are making for worker safety & pay, as well as environmental improvements.
  • Write to a policy maker asking for stronger support of ethical fashion production.
  • Write a love story to one of your pieces of clothing and share it online.
  • Participate in a #haulternative by swapping, op shopping or repairing your clothing. 
There are tips and tools for all of the above on the Fashion Revolution website.

If you are local in Australia (or New Zealand!) check out all the events happening in our region on the local Facebook Page.

I'll be participating at a panel on the 4th of May called "Rethink your wardrobe" (a bit after Fash Rev week, but let's keep this Revolution going, right?!) at Petersham Town Hall - looks like quite a line up and will be a fabulous swap!

What are you going to do for Fashion Revolution Week?


Thursday 11 April 2019


Instead of bringing you Part Two of Environmental Melancholia today I decided to share a quick story of sustainable fashion progress instead.

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

I was at the hairdresser last week getting a delicious hair treatment (don't worry, the salon is accredited with Sustainable Salons), and while relaxing in the shampoo chair I overhead another salon patron talking about her current craft project. Sitting on her lap was a a bag bursting with strips of cloth that she was braiding into long ropes. She proceeded to explain to her stylist that she was meeting up with friends later to sew them into baskets.

I was already pleased to hear about her project, as I was reminded of my own (now defunct) secondhand denim rug project. Then my sustainable fashion activist heart leapt when I heard what she said next:

We're trying to make something useful with these old clothes. You know, there is so much clothing waste because of fast fashion.

You can't make this stuff up!

Okay, I know it's not like the entire salon was sitting there upcycling used clothing. But compared to when I started working in this space, to hear a stranger start talking about clothing waste and fast fashion in this way felt revolutionary. And when coupled with the information my students at the University of Sydney already know about the perils of fast fashion, I can feel the tide is turning.

Do we have more work to do?


But I will forever believe in the power of celebrating these wins - we can push for more progress tomorrow.

Where are you overhearing people talk about fashion and sustainability?


Friday 29 March 2019

environmental melancholia: part one

I'm taking a serious turn in this blog post to talk about the grief, anxiety and apathy that can accompany environmentalism. It can come about from working in the area or as a result of hearing endless news reports about the climate, drought, rising sea levels, deforestation, you name it. It is sometimes referred to as ecological grief or environmental melancholia.

Good times at the beach?

This post has been on my mind for awhile, and though I'm sure I won't communicate everything I want to about it, I figured I may as well just dive in and get the conversation moving.

For example, I started writing a post in January (and because of working-motherhood never returned to), and it included the following:
As I've awakened on another steamy Sydney morning, during this summer of record-breaking heatwaves, I find myself thinking about the future. As a climate activist it's hard not to make the connection between these extreme weather events and our changing climate. Not to sound too apocalyptic or anything, but the early stages that climate experts have been warning about for decades are starting to occur. 
One-third of Australia's flying fox population died in a two-day heatwave last November. In addition there has been the mass death of hundreds of thousands of fish in the Darling River due to extreme heat and low river flow, and over 100 wild horses perished in extreme South Australian heat this past week. This is what biodiversity loss as a result of climate change looks like. I'm not going to sugar coat it, it is bleak.

Uplifting stuff, right?


I've also started working on a new project with the Sydney Environment Institute and speaking with a number of sustainability researchers from all faculties on campus. Normally talking to brilliant minds who are furiously working on climate and environmental issues energises me. But every now and then I realise, some of these people have been working on this stuff for decades. And we are still in a global political stalemate over concrete and revolutionary action (and it's only revolutionary because we have waited for decades to extricate our lifestyles from fossil fuels after learning of their impact - don't even get me started on that issue).

Oh yeah, the latest UN IPCC report was a real doozy, too. Did you miss it? The key takeaway is that we need to enact swift and immediate action to avoid catastrophe. We will reach a world of 1.5 degrees warming in 12 years (we've already reached 1 degree), at which point several hundred million human lives are at stake. I've taken the following from Grist:
We only have a decade left to finish our initial coordinated retooling of society to tackle this challenge. The scientists were quite clear about this. By 2030, we’ll need to have already cut global emissions in half (45 percent below 2010 levels, according to the report), which (again, according to the IPCC) would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions” in “all aspects of society.”
The language in this report is markedly more urgent than anything they've published before, which should highlight the gravity of the issues.

And then last night I was playing with my son at the beach, and as he was being adorable, crawling about on the sand, exploring the seashore, he made his way to give me something - a little styrofoam ball. How depressing. Is it human nature to clean up the planet? Or, more likely, he's watched his dad and I religiously take 3 (or 12) for the sea every time we are at the beach. This is something I wish I didn't have to teach my son, to clean up polluting litter from the beach and oceans. Let alone what's to come as the climate continues to change throughout his life (I must blog another time about the decision to procreate in a time of climate crisis).

So there you have it. Some of the causes of my current state of environmental melancholia. I have started reading a book of that same title by the very clever psychologist Renee Lertzman, and will give you a mini book review in the next post. I'll also share insights from other experts in the area, in case you have also experienced similar feelings of grief or anxiety.

As environmentalists or activists or simply humans living in this changing world, it is important to look after ourselves, acknowledge our emotions, and learn how to help each other move forward, don't you think?

More soon,