As our world surges through catastrophe, one of the most powerful women on the front lines of this issue is Aditi Mayer. Aditi has been acknowledged for her involvement in the sustainable fashion realm, photojournalism, as well as being an advocate for garment workers’ rights. She currently writes about her endeavors through her sustainability mission in her blog, Adimay.com, where you can read about her thoughts, on issues threatening our ecosystem. Her voice is a necessary and essential asset in the South Asian female community. We sat down for an interview as she talked about her takes on all things sustainability and protecting those in jeopardy in unethical fashion production.
1. Your work in the sustainable fashion industry has been recognized by names like National Geographic. Over the last decade, you have inspired many young people to take action for the sustainability mission. Looking back to when you were younger, what moment really sparked a light in you to take action and to start educating and learning more about the issue of fast fashion and unethical clothing productions, and could you identify your role in the sustainability mission?
“ Yeah, so I had my start in the spring of 2014, so about six years ago, and at that time I was a recent college graduate about to start my college career and my passion was never actually in fashion as they say a passion for fashion. I was also into photography, and photography was a very powerful avenue for me to explore storytelling but by that time, I was quickly getting more into fashion photography. Fashion as a tool to kind of look at our relationship with culture and our own identities and that way. So at this time, I was just about to start college, and I learned about the Rana Plaza Factory collapse. So one year earlier in 2013, there was this huge factory collapse in Bangladesh, literally the biggest industrial disaster of our time. So basically it was an eight-story garment factory, producing for some of the world’s biggest fast-fashion retailers and they identified structural cracks in the building the day before but there was so much pressure from upper management to have workers complete orders. When you think about the demographic that often makes up garment workers, they don’t have a luxury of things going to their wages. So they’re forced back to work and the factory collapsed when there were over 1,100 people and so at that time that came on my raider and it just kind of catalyzed a time for me to start thinking critically about the fashion industry’s impact on people of color globally, especially women of color, especially in South Asia where I’m from obviously and so it’s not like by any means I learned about that and knew my mission from the forefront, but I just started a very simple blog at the time as a freshman in college about sustainability and fashion, didn’t even know what that meant to me at that point in time, but it became an exploration of what sustainability means on an environmental level, on a social level, and on a cultural level, and so today my mission is to kind of explore the intersections of style, sustainability, and social justice looking at the fashion industry from a lens of decolonization and intersectionality.”
2. You mentioned that throughout your childhood you grew up in a family that enforced the ideals of giving back to the environment every time we take nature’s gifts, like food. How would you explain to people today that we shouldn’t put ourselves in a position of superiority when talking about the environment around us, as humans have evolved to do, and how not putting yourself in a position of superiority ties into sustainability?
“Yeah, I think when I think about sustainability at its core sustainability is seeing how interconnected everything is, whether that’s our relationship to other humans considering how labor is often weaponized or seeing how we are a part of nature. I did an IGTV recently that talked about how amid COVID and everything, there’s this rising narrative of like ‘humans are the virus because we have damaged nature so much’ ‘ Coronavirus is our way of kind of like resetting the Earth.’ But basically, my response to that was, we need to really understand how we are part of nature’s ecosystem like literally, we are nature. So much of the discourse environmentalism is always about minimizing, minimizing, minimizing, and we feel like anything we do is in direct opposition to nature. Like you go to the bathroom that’s creating climate change. That’s what you know what I mean. So there’s a very damaging narrative that I think often overwhelms people, but once we understand that we are a part of this natural ecosystem, not a part it helps us understand that like you don’t have to feel so overwhelmed by this movement. I’m really inspired by the work of someone named Farmer Rishi. He is an Indian as well, but he teaches regenerative agriculture and so basically in regenerative agriculture, the way we actually, you know deal with soil and agriculture can actually sequester carbon. So one of the biggest tools we have against climate change is literally soil. And so that has been a really inspiring way of seeing how a lot of the times we talked about having a lesser negative impact but humans can actually create a positive impact like how we structure our systems can literally be reversing climate change. So I think that’s one avenue that has really inspired me to see like it’s not just about doing less harm but literally doing more good.”
3. For me, growing up in a South Asian household, I was always brought up with the mentality that the cheapest is best. Now you mentioned in the past how when the sustainable fashion message was just emerging, it was mostly consumed by those who were not part of a family of immigrants and were not people of minorities, or not people of color. How would you explain how sustainable fashion has upheld its name through years of privileged consumers, and those who couldn’t afford it, felt helpless when trying to contribute to the sustainability mission, and how has the consumption of sustainable products been evidently put at a disadvantage for minorities?
“Yeah, so I think it’s important to note that sustainability has always been an inherently black, brown, indigenous concept about how our culture is have operated before these terms even existed like sustainability and zero waste, like if you look at how our parents and grandparents are living it’s all about, you know to prolong the life of what we already have and something that’s dangerous is when our understandings of sustainability are only seen as something we can buy which is false. I always say that you can’t buy sustainability, sustainability is a lifestyle. It’s a mindset. Yeah, so sustainability is not just about what you buy, it’s about how your relationship with consumerism at large or poor people statistically have the smallest carbon footprint of all communities because they’re not constantly out there buying things. They don’t need you to know, and so with that said, yeah like, so I add the basically that’s like my answer to the question is that when we reinforce this idea of sustainability being a purely capitalistic endeavor, it ignores the real work that folks have been doing for Millennia. And I think we need to keep that first and foremost in our understanding of sustainability like yes conscious consumerism is important, but you can’t buy your way into Liberation.”
4. Now, as mentioned before on the topics of sustainability having a central obstacle of privilege and the floor is constantly taken over by white people or non-immigrants or minorities, what has it been like in the past decade of being the very few South Asian sustainability activists, and what has the baggage, and responsibilities taught you when raising your voice more often about issues like shopping more sustainably?
“Yeah, so when I started my blog and kind of got more into it, basically my whole college career kind of was growing my blog to the point of when I graduated it became my full-time thing and the stance I usually took with my blog was injecting conversations of race, privilege histories of colonization within the sustainability realm and I remember there was like a handful of women of color that I had found online that were also doing similar work, but our work was often written off as well. If you talk about race you’re making this, you know, not about sustainability anymore because you’re creating a race war or something like that. And so the degree to which these conversations have shifted in the last year or two to actively center questions of race and privilege and access. It’s really important that that has happened. It’s also important to know how much backlash that we faced for vocalizing those things right now. I think especially in the context of the black lives matter movement white-dominated spaces are forced to reconcile how they’ve been agents of anti Blackness and racist culture. And so now ‘race’ is becoming part of everyone’s vocabulary, the fact that all of these brands are using the words ‘white supremacy’ and their messaging now when talking about how things have been done. It’s really really interesting to see and so I think right now because we are at this critical juncture. It’s about seeing which brands are actually gonna reflect these conversations of racial justice internally not just posting a black tile on Instagram and being like, ‘Okay, we’re an ally!’ Because I think true racial justice work is about looking at who makes up your company internally to people on your supply chain? How are they being treated whether that’s the workers? To, who gets to represent your campaigns, you know your models? Is it like predominantly then white women and so it’s going to require a complete overhaul? But the thing is it’s the blueprint of how things should be ours already there because of the work of women of color in this space. We have been vocalizing these issues. So it’s just a matter of how grants follow suit at this point.”
5. As we move forward into a much more revolutionized world, when it comes to technology, so often countries like India have been put to a societal halt because for so long, movies like Slumdog Millionaire have consumed the thoughts of those who aren’t from India or from countries that aren’t America, that India is slum occupied, backward thinking and is a slow-moving country when it comes to progress. In an Instagram post of yours, you posted a meme from the movie PIKU which basically stated that we shouldn’t have the western culture as a mold for progress. How would you tie that idea back into India’s progress when it comes to sustainability and the unfair title we’ve had in the realm of progress for too long?
“Great question so that post was I think a really great representation of how colonial mindsets have reigned supreme in our understandings of what is success and what is progress. When I talked about decolonizing fashion and sustainability the most common question I get as well, what do you mean by decolonization? And so I always say, you know, in order to understand decolonization, It’s important, we take a step back and understand what colonial practice often means. And so when I think about colonialism. Colonialism is about, you know, extraction of resources, whether that’s people’s labor or the natural environment as the means for infinite financial growth and that exploitation and extraction is often happening in countries that are destabilized by colonialism, AKA India, and so a lot of our understandings, of, what’s a successful brand is often like the H&M and the Zara’s of the world because there are so many retailers and they sell so many clothes and people are buying so much because it’s so cheap, but it’s like you don’t understand that there is a cost to that the true cost of that is not just the $3 t-shirt. It’s about the labor behind it, the child, the woman behind it that is literally toiling in factories for literal pennies, the fact that the average wage of a garment worker in Bangladesh is equated to 35 US dollars per month. And so all of these things are important to consider, that our understandings of what’s successful or what is progress are completely twisted and our fashion system is a prime example of an inherently colonial model and it comes at the cost of people of color globally and so true, true success should be, you know, battling old life on the supply chain. True success is saying, is this system going to last for generations beyond us because we’re also in a climate catastrophe? The way we’re currently operating is not sustainable for us to live on this Earth while into the future. Yeah, and so it really requires a complete calibration of what is a good system. And honestly, how many countries were living pre-colonization India included in a way that was actually considered as the future? And so that that ceases to exist. So that’s kind of what I mean by this. Our understandings of success and growth are extremely colonial right now. And so that needs to change.”
6. In a recent interview with Megan Williams, you spoke about how India is approaching a Renaissance period when it comes to reclaiming our crafts. You spoke about how the colonization of India stripped away a lot of the resources and crafts/designs India was so famous for producing. How would you say in detail India over many years has worked to reclaim that title of cultivating our culture through our unique crafts and designs, and how does that reclamation tie into India’s sustainability narrative?
“So when I think about India’s fashion industry in terms of how it traditionally operated still operates a lot of the time it’s often you have a local tailor, right, you go to fixing your clothes so you make sure that you could wear things longer because they’ll fit you or if you think about our grandparent’s generation, it was common to have, you know, a Cotton Spool in your own home and like everyone was spooling their own yarn and fabrics. To the fact that depending on where you’re from in India, there are probably some traditional crafts. I’m Punjabi. So we have like Phulkari, and I know that it’s like there are so many regional crafts in India. Yeah, and so all of these things frame and inherently slow sustainable fashion model because it’s localized economies, they’re often using fabrics, like linen, and cotton that is often native to the area, you know, your local tailor, so it’s probably, probably not some person overseas that you’re exploiting right? And so that’s all the things that have framed our industry because the conversation around sustainable fashion has grown so much in the last few years, but India is a prime example of how things can operate and so it comes to us having a Renaissance. It’s not about necessarily creating anything new. We’re not Reinventing the wheel. Yeah, we’re simply returning to the wheel that always was but was often lost. Because when the colonizers came to India a big part of what they did was also creating the first models of fast fashion, you know, we had an inherently Artisan industry that they wanted to replace with factories with extreme output that they could ship to Birmingham in Westminster in England for their own gain, and so it’s important to understand that the economies that they were creating we’re always rooted in the exploitation of our own people and a lot of. What even Gandhi’s resistance against the British was was ‘don’t buy from the British create your own systems that are you know independent from that that are localized economy’. So often the cotton school was one of literally our symbols of resistance its part of the Indian flag, right? And a lot of that is about independence from the colonizers, creating your own systems and I think that’s a very powerful testament to the current climate as well.”
7. Now, since Corona Virus has hit, our world has experienced a severity in terms of the unemployment rates. Now, as you may know, mask production has been at its peak as more and more people step out of their homes and need masks to protect themselves. These factories that produce these masks can often practice unethical behaviors of production. How would you tackle the issue of unethical mask production during COVID-19 and how it is offering jobs to those who need it?
“Yeah, that’s a great question. And that’s something we’ve seen here in Los Angeles where I’m based, a lot of factories that were often producing for apparel brands shut down and all those garment workers are now producing PPE material, but they’re continuing to do so in like sweatshop conditions literally being paid in like pennies and so the way I would say we could address that is by actively supporting local designers and makers that often times, It’s like 1 person at the sewing machine producing. I’m seeing a lot of that independent makers kind of leading the charge and what we’re doing in those types of instances is we’re creating localized economies where you don’t have to be shipping masks from other countries, you can literally have local makers ship that to you, so the carbon footprint is a lot less your shopping local. A lot of these designers are often using scraps from other collections. So it’s almost like repurposed material. I think that’s one place to start when it comes to like, you know masks as one common thing that we all need in this era but the other part of it it’s like it’s hard because when I go to the grocery store, I can’t bring my own tote bags anymore amid COVID right? So it’s also having grace for ourselves that we are not operating in a system that has sustainability in mind and I think survival has to be the main thing that a lot of communities especially disadvantaged communities are thinking about but like we also have to reconsider these systems going forward how when a crisis hits why is it that we literally have nothing prepared in are localized economies that were suddenly worth is a huge shortage that even healthcare workers don’t have masks like there is something radically wrong with that?”
8. As we talk about the ethical ways and sustainable ways clothing can be made, brands like Reformation or Patagonia can be mentioned. They advertise their sustainable ethics and the materials that go into their clothes as being unlike any others that a fast-fashion brand would use. However, when ordering these clothes online we often forget about the methods of transportation used to deliver those articles of clothing to your doorstep, and how it’s extremely similar to the shipping methods of brands like Forever 21, which causes pollution. What are your thoughts on methods of transportation/ shipping methods for sustainable clothing brands?
“So that’s definitely something you’ll run into its if you’re shopping online, there’s going to be an inherent carbon footprint. So anything being shipped, but, one thing that a lot of brands that are actively considering the carbon footprint are doing is something called carbon, offsetting their carbon emissions and so offsetting your carbon emissions means that the company will basically, they’ll have a way of calculating the amount of carbon emissions released from shipping that order and they will pay an organization that plants trees or something of alike in a way to kind of offset that, so that’s one, one approach but it’s obviously not a complete fix to the issue, right? And I think being consumers in a global world, like obviously there’s going to be a carbon footprint to what we produce but it’s about actively creating systems that offset that carbon because carbon isn’t inherently, is not an inherently bad thing. It’s the excess of carbon in our world, right? And the other thing to offset is that is like again shopping local going to local second-hand shops and shopping there to local designers and makers as I mentioned because obviously, your carbon footprint will be radically less than that of air travel and ect.”
9. Models can often sponsor and work with luxury brands that don’t practice ethical clothing production behaviors. You have mentioned in previous interviews, that you have said no to working with brands that have in the past showcased racial bias, or have shown unsustainable production methods. Could you explain how you try to work inside out when you have no other choice to partner up with such brands, to improve their practices from your work with them? How can we, not employees, seek that same intention, but work from the outside in?
“It’s a good question. So as someone that operates the space as a sustainable fashion blogger, it’s really hard to maintain a sense of purity with every brand partner that I have, right? But what I’m actively looking for is a brand’s commitment to growth and change especially if they haven’t had a perfect track record. So as I am a sustainable fashion blogger and the like, It’s not like any blogger is going to change the company culture. We were brought on certain campaigns or certain elements of the brand. So I think it’s a bit of stretch to say that we could change it completely but we could definitely initiate these conversations internally because we have that access to management, administration, marketing, sustainability teams, whatever it might be but for consumers on the outside wanting to make a difference. I think we should never undermine the power of consumer demand, and especially in the age of social media and I could give you a few examples like after that Rana Plaza Factory collapse that I mentioned that happened 2013, this hashtag was born, “#whomademyclothes” where you know consumers go on social media and ask friends to talk about the conditions of their factories and whatnot. And so this has created a culture of transparency and accountability that if a brand is refusing to tell you those details more often than not that’s not a good sign, right? Yeah, I amid COVID a lot of brands had actually had orders that they had already had garment workers complete. So literally these items are ready to be shipped back to brands but like brands were like, ‘Oh my God Coronavirus, like we don’t know what this means for our business, so we’re not going to pay you for all of these orders. Billions of dollars of unpaid wages for garment workers in countries like Bangladesh. And so there is this whole campaign that was created, ‘#payup’, where. consumers kind of shame these brands on social media and call them out and get testimonies from those factory owners from those garment workers that said we literally finished all of the order and now they’re refusing to pay.”
10. So often when talking about sustainability people associate that term with the word minimalism. I just wanted to know your thoughts on how you can still love to collect and own multiple pieces of clothing with cool designs and textiles, essentially being a maximalist, but still maintaining that practice of knowing that you should slow down your consumption to be a part of a more Eco-friendly future?
“Yeah, great question. And I think that’s a very common misconception of minimalism, meaning you have a closet with three shirts that are all white which is definitely not my style, as a woman that loves her prints and everything. So minimalism is more so the philosophy of how you consume the rate at which you’ve consumed the care you give to the garments you already own. One anecdote or analogy I would like to often give to people is actually something that my friend shared with me, she’s another sustainable fashion blogger, but it’s the idea of looking at your closet like an art gallery. Before you buy a piece of art, you ask yourself, Is this something that I want to look at for the next 10 years? Does it go with the other stuff on my wall or closet? And so when you see your closet as an extension of an art gallery and you are the curator, it just helps you lead with more intention and I think that’s a really great example of how we should be looking at her closets and minimalism doesn’t mean you know, it’s not an aesthetic it more so that it’s a mentality, right?”
11. When we talk about sustainability and how we need to be more involved as environmental activists and sustainability activists, people can often assume, especially those who come from conservative backgrounds that they should ignore our cries as sustainability poses as a ‘Blue’ issue, rather than a ‘Red’ issue. What would your thoughts be when it comes to sustainability being a political issue?
“Sustainability is kind of an umbrella term that intersects with so many other conversations including racial justice including environmental justice, including gender equality because I mean sustainability as at least a fashion for instance like 80% of garment workers globally are female. I mean sustainability is something that touches every single life no matter where you identify on the political spectrum. And yes, I mean I would argue it is something that is inherently a politicized issue because of the lines of disproportionately affects, but I think with that said often for people in the west that come from privilege, It’s harder to see the effects of climate change, you know, I think COVID humbling moment for a lot of people because climate change is a bit more Insidious of it’s affecting a lot of communities in a very explicit way and they feel it and they see it and for a lot of people especially in the west it hasn’t hit them in that same way but COVID I think as an example that how it’s going to affect everyone because COVID-19 directly tied to deforestation. That’s like a whole other thing of like how COVID came to be and so it could just go to see how, as much as it might be hard to see how it’s affecting people in an explicit way, it’s not long before we do see those effects. Yeah, it’s inherently politicized because I think who we even have in positions of power AKA, the Donald Trump’s of the world are further exacerbating the climate catastrophe.”
12. Oftentimes when talking about the sustainability mission we forget about the inclusivity that also needs to be taken into account. More than often sustainable clothing is offered to women rather than to men. Or clothing brands like Reformation or other sustainable clothing brands don’t take into account the different sizes that shop sustainably. Do you think there is a gender bias in sustainable shopping and a size bias in sustainable shopping?
“ Most definitely, fashion, sustainable fashion is not exempt from all of the issues that the traditional fashion industry is often plagued by and that is a lot of issues dealing with inclusivity as you mentioned. Yeah, I often push brands to consider these things because as a sustainable fashion brand at its core that means you are already reconsidering the things that are broken with the traditional fashion industry, but that conversation needs to go beyond just labor rights on the environment level but also sizing and who you choose to represent some most definitely and I think that’s a realm where sustainable fashion has a lot of growth to do, size inclusivity, and gender inclusivity. But with that said, I also want to see more conversations around degendering fashion. The gender binary itself, I think it is something that we need to move beyond as a society and someone who has spoken a lot about this is Alok Menon, I’m not sure if you’re familiar, but they are a gender non-conforming activist that has spoken about degendering fashion. So I think that’s another really cool way to see how sustainability in fashion can really push our understandings of how all of this has run thus far.”
13. More than often, people assume that working out, and eating well is known as being healthy. Shopping and buying sustainably and ethically have seemed to be swept under the rug, as it isn’t known as being a part of leading a healthy lifestyle. How would you describe the fact that shopping and living a sustainable lifestyle is just as important as going to the gym?
“ Yeah, I think when we are wired a certain way where we constantly need more and more and more. It’s a really unfortunate sign of internalized capitalism and how we often associate feelings of our self-worth and our gratification from consumption. And so I think that is tied to like our mental capacities and how we see ourselves. And so I think that’s an extension of how we could see sustainability as part of changing how we’re wired on a mental and emotional level and when we distance ourselves from seeing retail therapy as a form of literal therapy. It just makes you wonder how like, we could find more validation in non-consumer items in our day-to-day lives.”
14. As we now step into an era of more of the youth taking action to protect our environment, what ways and tips would you recommend for the Generation Z, to become more active in educating and spreading awareness of garment worker rights and encompassing the ideals of a more organic and sustainable lifestyle, just starting at school or at home?
“ Yeah, I think all of those things starting with your inner circle is incredibly important, your family your friends, think about the spaces you occupy and how you could inject these conversations in them and the power of social media is also not to be undermined to really like see your social media as a way that you could kind of amplify your own values and initiate conversations. But because the online realm I think is so saturated with content, some of the most effective changes happen when you talk to people IRL AKA people in your inner circle. So start there and know that sustainability is not an overnight process. It’s a constant ongoing process. So don’t hold yourself to these, you know, unattainable metrics of success, but know that as long as you’re asking questions and are on this journey, you are already on the right steps.”