Cross-Generational Collaboration is Crucial for Sustainable Fashion to Make Real Progress

three women sitting on sofa with MacBook

Tamsin Blanchard & Lily Fang may not have heard of each others before, but they might. Blanchard, 52 years old, is one of the most prominent sustainable fashion OGs. She began writing about fashion’s effect on the environment in British newspapers in the 1990s. In 2007, she wrote a book and spent the rest of her life trying to get the industry to adopt better practices. Most recently, her advocacy group Fashion Revolution. In the last couple of years, Fang, 25, has emerged as one of the most prominent voices on TikTok focused on sustainable fashion, where she educates her 55K-plus (mostly) Gen Z followers about garment workers’ rights and the problem with fast-fashion hauls.

Both Blanchard and Fang value the camaraderie that they share with others in the “ethical Fashion” industry. Blanchard’s sense of community is a result of her work with Fashion Revolution in person and her years working in the newspaper trenches. Fang’s comes mainly from her peers on social media. They have never interacted.

Fang states that “I don’t have much of an open conversation with many people older than myself [in the movement],” “But, I would absolutely be interested in that.”

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This is not a coincidence that these leaders from different generations of sustainable fashion have never interacted. It’s a sign of how the movement generally works. Twenty-four-year-old Megan McSherry, another standout voice on sustainable fashion TikTok, notes that her priority is just to get sustainability information onto the platform. She believes that if she doesn’t, her peers may never see it.

“We aren’t reading the newspaper.” She says that not everyone is listening to news podcasts, the radio, or anywhere else that such information is normally distributed.

It is not surprising that a generation who doesn’t want to pick up a newspaper from the newsstand may miss out on the informational and generational wisdom laid out by Blanchard. Even for those who are younger than McSherry or Blanchard, it is possible to feel a disconnect. It could be the rapid growth of new social media platforms. As each network takes off, from Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, new leaders have tended not to emerge on each site. This trend continues. Not all prominent voices, no matter how popular, migrate to new platforms. Expertise can be lost.

If the sustainability movement is to make real progress, it must find ways to bridge these gaps. Blanchard started his career as a journalist in 1990. Back then, newsworthy topics included anti-fur campaigns and sweatshops in the supply chains. In addition, brands that introduced clothing made from recycled plastic water bottles were popular. These stories are still making headlines in 2021. Blanchard, who has worked for decades and published hundreds of articles, as well as a few books, is eager to see more.

“I’m sick of people talking about it and I’m sick of hearing them talk about it.” Blanchard said on the phone that she just wants things to change. Blanchard says, “We must start doing this stuff.”

Forty-three-year-old Jasmin Malik Chua, the sourcing and labor editor at Sourcing Journal, agrees. Since 2007, she has been writing about fashion’s impact on the environment. She believes that the 2013 factory collapse at Rana Plaza, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,132 garment workers and left over 2,500 injured, was a wakeup call for many people in the fashion industry. She says that despite the tremendous momentum built up after the tragedy there is still so much to be done.

“When it comes down to worker rights, we still talk about living wages.” She says that this has not changed over the past decade. “Brands have the same excuses.”

What is it going to take to make sustainability a reality? The kind of progress that would make a 1993 sweatshop headline obsolete today?

You might consider taking cues from “The Climate Movement”, which is a broad coalition of individuals and organizations fighting to reduce climate change. Like the sustainable fashion movement, the climate movement is only a few decades old, though it’s connected to the even older .environmental movement. The climate movement, unlike the sustainability movement, is more open to the strengths of different age groups. This has helped to build cohesion between generations.

three women sitting on sofa with MacBook

With organizations like teen-led Fridays for Future on one end of the spectrum and Elders Climate Action on the other, the climate movement has actively sought to combine the energy of young leaders with the expertise of their elders. It is a powerful combination of parties that can work together to effect real change.

Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE since 1996 and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, reflected on this dynamic at an event for the book .All We Can Save earlier this year. She says, “We must be able share power across the board so that [the youth] do not take 20 years to learn something it took us just a few minutes to learn,” We don’t have the time to teach them everything from scratch. We have to be agile.”

She is an elder in the movement and welcomes young people’s leadership and insight. But, she rejects the notion that “the children are going to save us all.”

She says that it’s difficult to be both the generation that perpetuates these systems and makes fast fashion more rapid and the one that knows the most about the issues and is trying create change. She is referring to the rise of hyper-fast fashion brands like Shein, which her peer group has helped to fuel. “There is a lot of cognitive dissonance within our generation.”

In the sustainable fashion movement, the kind of intergenerational community which combines the youth’s urgency with the wisdom of the older generations isn’t as prevalent as it should. There are exceptions. Aja Barber is a sustainability consultant and author. She’s in her 30s but has found her niche on Instagram, where many associate her with the younger generation. She claims that she’s made connections with people of all ages through the app and has gained 249K followers.

“I consider myself an Instagram senior.” Barber views her age as a “privilege” and believes that she can provide a different perspective than her younger colleagues. She says, “I’m old enough that I can remember how the world was before fast fashion exploded”. “A lot of young adults aren’t.” This suggests that she may be able help them better imagine a future without fast fashion.

There is also intergenerational cross-pollination through advocacy groups, outside of the social media world. Blanchard may not be talking with the next generation of TikTok stars but she is connected with young designers through her work for Fashion Revolution. This organization has been instrumental in raising awareness and providing education about sustainability. Meanwhile, Remake, started by 43-year-old Ayesha Barenblat and bolstered by youth “ambassadors” on social media, was the driving force behind the #PayUp campaign that called for fashion brands to pay garment workers for the clothes they made before orders were cancelled in the midst the pandemic.

Even though there is much that hasn’t changed in the past ’90s there are still areas where there has been real growth. This includes intersectionality. Barber may have been the most prominent among her peers in highlighting sustainability’s connection to race, class and fatphobia. Fang, McSherry and many of their generation see these intersections as a given.

It’s remarkable to see that both Chua who writes and reads for traditional media outlets, but prefers Twitter and McSherry who prefers TikTok, and McSherry who prefers Instagram and TikTok, are in agreement about what it takes to bring about the desired change in fashion: government regulation and policy.

If the movement can find a way to facilitate intergenerational cross-pollination the age groups Chua and McSherry could not only agree on what is needed but also work together on it. Chua says intergenerational learning requires humility. But the rewards could be a feeling of connection to something bigger than oneself or one’s peers.

McSherry is in agreement. She states, “I wish there was more dialogue between the younger generation that is so passionate about this topic and the experts who have established themselves as influential people in this industry.” “I believe we could create more change if we had a little more collaboration.”

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