In the first interview from my series on Intentional Living: Diversity in Sustainability, I spoke with a dear friend, Sarah, about Dressing Ethically and the Importance of Shared Humanity. We cover everything from the Importance of Representation to tips for building a sustainable wardrobe, and more.
Usually, when we hear the stories of strangers locking eyes at a crowded bar, we immediately picture a couple (and a wistful pipedream made even more nostalgic thanks to the ‘rona). But in my mind, this is the story of how I met my friend, Sarah.
Of course, it didn’t quite go down like that. We both attended a Kinfolk dinner way back when, and though I was seated nowhere near Sarah or her husband, Jinn, I knew I wanted to meet her. There was something about the way she carried herself – Sarah seemed like an artistic soul who was self-assured, thoughtful, and kind.
We barely spoke on the night, but I found her & Jinn’s Instagram and asked them to model for one of my new business ventures. To my delight, these magical souls said yes.
Years down the line, I still feel incredibly honoured to count Sarah as a dear friend. More than just a friend, Sarah is also someone whose carefully considered, intentional choices in this fast-paced world have been an inspiration to me since the night we met.
And so, when I decided to start this project interviewing women from diverse backgrounds about intentional living, of course, she was the first person who came to mind.
- On Being First-Generation Australian
- The Importance of Representation
- Living Intentionally: Inspire by People
- Treating Humans as Humans
- From Dressing Ethically to Living Sustainably
- On Being a “Crazy Consumer”
- Sarah’s Tips for Dressing Ethically
- Sarah’s Favourite Ethical Labels
On Dressing Ethically and the Importance of Shared Humanity: An Intentional Living Interview with Sarah
On Being First-Generation Australian
In Australia, there isn’t really a nice way to ask somebody, “where are you from?” It comes with an in-built assumption of prejudice, of otherness, of not belonging. And yet, that is how I decided to begin each of these interviews. Sarah & I were sitting outside of Bunn Mee in Leederville, bellies full with Bahn Mi and young coconut, summer sun beating down on the pavement around us. I take a deep breath and ask, “so, the awkward first question is, what is your heritage?”
Sarah, of course, takes it in her stride. After all, this is a series about diversity and how different lived experiences inform the way we choose to live. “You mean, what makes me ‘me’?”
Sarah went on to explain that she is a first-generation Australian, whose Hokkien-speaking parents, like so many of their generation, arrived in Australia by necessity more than choice. Her parents were both culturally and ethnically Chinese but were raised in Rangoon, Burma, a home that was no longer safe for them by the mid-1960s.
“They were looking at America or Australia, and Australia just happened to come through first so that’s why we’re here. And it’s one of those stories that they came with nothing and they built themselves up just by hard work and sheer determination.”
Of course, like so many first-generation kids, Sarah knew that there were high expectations. Education was, for good reason, the priority but “it can just… go a bit far!” she laughed.
The Importance of Representation
Coming from Perth myself, and understanding the kind of private school Sarah attended, I was curious how that impacted her.
“My parents are also conservatively Christian, so I was living under that umbrella. It’s weird because there’s this whole part of me – school, church, etc. – which was predominantly white. All the TV, all the media…”
Of course, we were there to talk about sustainability and diversity, and Sarah & I both understood that between us, that meant clothing. We were never not swapping notes on new brands we found or dreaming about the same pieces from Innika Choo, Ace & Jig, or St Agni Studio. But how does looking ‘different’ from society’s norm affect the way you interact with it?
I for one know that as I began to focus on diversity in representation as a pillar of sustainability, I struggled. Because of my privilege, I hadn’t realised something so obvious; if the model doesn’t look like you, your shape, your skin tone, your hair, it’s very hard to picture yourself in that clothing. Because, as Sarah so plainly put it, “you’re not that.”
“I grew up always wanting to be blond-haired and blue-eyed because that’s what all the barbies were, that was what was on TV. It’s hard. So now, the companies that feature diverse models actually attract me. I’m more likely to look into their product and buy their stuff.”
Living Intentionally: Inspired by People
Diversity isn’t how Sarah first began giving importance to living sustainably and intentionally though. It happened mostly because she began paying attention. She began to notice that some of her favourite brands were being intentional in saying, ‘we are using organic, certified cotton.’ ‘We know our artisan makers.’ It sparked her curiosity, and made her realise that “actually, we should know this kind of stuff.”
Sarah credits her interest in sustainability to the pioneers who believed in sustainability enough to put it front and centre of their business, long before it was a buzzword. And of course, there was the Rana Plaza Collapse.
“I spoke to some Freo girls who had started a small label called Rana Clothing. They spoke to me about how the garment workers were living in sub-standard conditions and it made these people real. Like, it’s not a robot making my clothes. They’re real people.”
This revelation – that there are real people behind almost everything we buy – brought back memories of myself as a kid, pondering how all this mail arrived in our letterbox every day. Surely, I thought, there must be a robot somewhere folding them. But like almost every single thing we interact with, there are living, breathing people behind that as well. So why did this particular event strike such a chord with Sarah? After all, the Rana Plaza collapse was by no means the first time fast fashion made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Treating Humans as Humans
“At the heart of it, my ethos and the way I seek meaning and fulfillment is this shared humanity. Treating humans as humans and having compassion. Everyone is equal. No one is better than anyone else. So realising that what we are doing is possibly abusing people and then abusing the earth – so future people – I think is what struck me. Because nobody should be suffering for the sake of something so superficial as fashion.”
From Dressing Ethically to Living Sustainably
But living and dressing ethically and sustainably can mean wildly different things to different people. There is no one way to live sustainably, and there’s no one pathway to caring about our impact. Where some of you start by prioritising a low-waste home, others of you might start to wonder what’s in the makeup you put on each day. No matter where you start though, it’s hard not to let that drip into other areas of your life. For Sarah, it’s safe to say it started with fashion.
“Oh clothing, definitely [is my main focus], but we also try to reduce the amount of waste we produce. We could talk about fashion for ages but other things… I compost now. I minimise, or try not to use, single-use plastic – except for nappies. That’s my one big sin but it’s a life thing. But we have reduced our household waste to just one bag a week and most of that is nappies!”
The wonderful thing about intentional living at home is that so much of it comes down to habit. It’s surprisingly easy compared to clothing. A wardrobe is constantly evolving, it changes with taste, with seasons, with professional needs, with a changing body.
On Being a “Crazy Consumer”
As we mused about the different facets of living intentionally, Sarah began to laugh.
“That brings me back, actually. I used to be a crazy consumer! Each season, I’d buy tonnes of new clothes and then chuck them.
“I still really struggle with that because… I have a love of beautiful things! Beautiful textiles, beautiful fabrics, beautiful furniture, and I used to indulge that love by buying things. But have you seen that pyramid? Reduce, reuse, recycle – and then the top is to just not have it. That’s the best thing to do. That’s also the hardest thing to do.”
I’m sure it’s a struggle many of us can relate to. Even in the world of sustainability, it feels like marketing is being thrown in our faces constantly. There are sustainability influencers, ads on social media, and of course, there’s nothing like a good sale to increase temptation.
In Sarah’s case, avoiding that trap comes down to following a few simple ideas (and practicing a whole lot of mindfulness).
Sarah’s Tips for Dressing Ethically
We all have different priorities when it comes to building a sustainable wardrobe. For some, it’s the fabric, for others, it’s the working conditions. For Sarah, it all starts with quality and goes from there. So, what are Sarah’s Tips for Dressing Ethically?
- Buy quality pieces that will last
- Go seasonless
- Develop a colour palette
- Ask yourself, ‘do I really need this?’
- Consider how a garment will last and suit you as the years go by
- Dress Ethically by giving old clothes new life
Buy Quality Pieces that Will Last
To dress sustainably, clothing has got to last! This is why quality is my number one priority.
Try to ignore seasons. Go trendless. You’ll already have a huge positive impact on your wardrobe by not buying into the latest fad, especially those that you can already tell are only going to last a few months.
Develop A Colour Palette
Further on from going seasonless, I’ve developed a colour palette, because then I know everything will go together. This way, you can mix and match, and even create a new outfit by wearing something that is 10-years old with something that you bought 2-years ago. Plus, you won’t find yourself buying a new item only to realise you have nothing else to wear with it!
Ask Yourself, ‘Do I Really Need This?’
I think this is actually the biggest thing when it comes to dressing sustainably – just not buying things. Ask yourself, ‘do you really need it?’. There is a lot of pressure on women not to wear the same thing twice. We often find ourselves thinking, ‘I’ve got a wedding to go to, so I really need a new outfit’, but do you actually?
Consider How a Garment Will Last and Suit You as the Years Go By
I didn’t think about this until my first pregnancy, but it also helps to think about a garment in its entire life. Think about body changes, so your weight, if you’re breastfeeding, if you’re pregnant or hoping to be. This way, you don’t have to worry about buying ‘maternity’ clothing or buying a whole new wardrobe whenever your body changes.
Dress Ethically by Giving Old Clothes New Life
Coming back to that pyramid (reduce, reuse, recycle), I think it’s really important to make our clothes last as long as they can. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong for not wanting to wear sweat-stained white t-shirts or holy sweaters, though! Instead, you can give old clothes new life, by mending or dying. Indigo dye is amazing! I’m also saving a bunch of avocado pips and skins in the freezer to make a dye at some stage. Embroidery is great for mending small holes while making things look cute. There are just so many ways to extend the life of our clothes.
Sarah’s Favourite Labels for Dressing Ethically
Both Sarah & I agree that encouraging people to buy more stuff goes against the grain of building a sustainable wardrobe. But we all still need clothes, and we both love that fashion can be a form of art and self-expression. For Sarah, her favourite items are those that manage to look completely relaxed and undone, while still having a dramatic flair.
“One of my favourite things at the moment is a plain black jumpsuit, but the way that it’s cut is so baggy and ridiculous – it’s awesome!”
If this is your vibe and there’s a gap in your wardrobe you’re looking to fill, or if you’re just getting started with dressing ethically, here are a few of Sarah’s favourite ethical labels.
This is probably my favourite local [Australian] label, and I’m actually wearing one of their jumpsuits right now (for the interview and shoot). Little Tienda is Australian, and its production chain is completely transparent. She goes to Mexico and India where her artisans are. She knows them all! All of her proceeds are rightfully paid to the makers. It’s small-batch, it’s generally organic, and they use natural fibres and often natural dyes so that ticks a lot of boxes for me. Oh, and it’s mostly female-run!
Ace & Jig
I love Ace & Jig because they have a very clear production chain. I believe that they try to use organic cotton where possible, and it’s a female-run company. Also (this is huge for me), you could buy one of their products and then completely forget how old the piece is. It could be 2 years old or 10 years old. There are no seasons!
A lot of their stuff is also multifaceted. One of my favourite pieces of theirs is a dress that I actually wear inside out more often than not. It’s not actually strictly reversible, but because their fabrics are so beautiful, the inside is gorgeous. All I did was stitch the seam flat and cut off the label, and it looks like a completely different dress.
Innika Choo’s clothes are just so poofy and ruffly! I absolutely love it. And the smocking! So nice! So nice. And again, they’ve got all the properties of the other brands, but they’re for special occasions. Innika Choo’s clothes will make you feel a little magical.
Do you have any questions about Living Ethically, Sustainability in Diversity, and the Importance of Representation? We’d love to hear your thoughts and for you to be a part of the conversation. Just leave your comment below!
This interview was conducted in 2019 as part of an ongoing series interviewing diverse women about their experiences of intentional living. We’re all learning and growing, so Sarah’s opinions may have changed in the time it’s taken to publish. To stay up to date with the series, and any follow-up interviews, follow along on Instagram @rhiannamay_ or sign up for my newsletter list. I promise no spam – just a single update each month 🙂