Defining sustainability is often bantered about in board rooms (at least it was before the pandemic shutdown), but incorporating sustainable practices successfully requires much consideration.
Red Carpet Green Dress’ Samata Pattinson mapped out ways that can be done during her “Connecting the Dots: What it Means to Be Sustainable” discussion with WWD’s sustainability reporter Kaley Roshitsh.
As the chief executive officer of the women-led organization Red Carpet Green Dress, Pattinson explained how she is focused on change and dialogue in relation to sustainability through brand collaborations, and engaging with emerging designers and students, among other initiatives. Connecting the dots between fashion as a global industry and sustainability as something that affects the worldwide community is one of the things she likes doing. Viewing sustainability through a global lens is key from her standpoint. The choice of language and visual images that are used about the issue can either bring people into the conversation or exclude them, she added.
Pattinson explained how her upbringing played into the work that she does now. Born and raised in Cambridge, England, by two Ghanaian parents, Pattinson said her mother always made customized clothing for her and her two sisters, despite working full-time. “This whole idea of empowering citizens to be creative is a conversation that we are having now in sustainable fashion. We’re talking about repurposing, refurbishing, recycling, empowering people to customize their pieces. But I grew up with a mum who did that. I never connected it with sustainability, just with a way to express creativity, be really efficient, too, and I guess to have a zero-waste philosophy,” she said.
During childhood travels to Ghana’s northern rural area, Pattinson often saw large trucks carrying produce and that provided “a visceral reminder that everything has an origin and comes from somewhere. You should always try to understand the journey of those things. I try to do that with the work I do with Red Carpet Green Dress. We try to be aware that everything has a story, an origin and a destination,” she said.
Asked about intersectional environmentalism, Pattinson said that involves something that puts a lens on people and the planet, including places where injustices are happening and marginalized groups are going through things that are unfair and unjust. Instructional environmentalism is very strongly linked to social justice, she added. “We have to step up for the parts of the world that are having to deal with how the industrialized consumers in the West are living. It’s a frustrating topic,” since many are not connecting the dots, Pattinson said.
Rather than discuss the subject, there needs to be conversations with the people and communities that are being directly impacted. Internships, for example, are not potential opportunities for someone who does not have the disposable income to pay for food, travel and living expenses that a nonpaying job would entail. In addition, she said, “If you’re a Black-owned business in the fashion industry, your access to opportunity, visibility and coverage is greatly diminished. People aren’t going to be as aware of your products and services as much as [they will be of] your white counterparts.“
In order to achieve equal footing, people need to speak for themselves rather than have others speak for them, she said. Noting the current debate about shared responsibilities over greenhouse gas emissions, where some think that large industrialized countries should have the same limits as the emerging economies, she asked, “How is that equal footing? How is that intersectional?”
Pattinson also challenged how the fashion industry has historically absorbed different cultures through appropriation instead of celebrating, honoring and doing justice for those cultures by talking about them and the root of some of the industry’s practices. She said, “I wish we had paid more attention to our global citizens and other cultures. I feel if we had, we would be so much further along than we are right now. We would have acknowledged who is the teacher and who is the pupil. We need to understand that so many groups in society and so many parts of the world can teach us through their culture. If we could just get in the habit of honoring and respecting that, we would be moving at such a faster pace than we are.”
In terms of prioritizing how to rethink and rebuild industries, Pattinson said redistributing power is essential. Noting how the pandemic drastically affected mom-and-pop operations and small independent businesses, she said those types of companies need to be part of any dialogue along with large corporations. Great attention should be paid to “who is making decisions, how are people being brought into these conversations and how we’re assigning stakeholdership and leadership. And that’s all interconnected time policy. Policy is really important,” Pattinson said.
Emphasizing the need to start regulating the apparel industry, assigning metrics to things and pushing for more accountability, she said, “This concept of less is more is not just a minimalist way of styling, it’s how we should approach things. We’re learning that a lot of the small tweaks that we can do are having a big impact. Tiny switches, like the fact that organic cotton generates [nearly] 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cotton, [can make a difference]. We know that 90 percent of the energy used by a clothing washing machine is used to heat up the water.”
All the information that she has been reading recently indicates these smaller incremental, but tangible changes can help to shift the industry. “We’ve been imagining it to be this big, big, big thing that’s going to overnight move us to where we need to be. But actually, it’s the small things. It’s less is more,” she said. “And finally also realizing that we don’t need as much stuff as we’ve been making. We need to just slow down.”