Tamsin Blanchard and Lily Fang have never heard of each other, but maybe they should.
Blanchard, age 52, is one of the sustainable fashion OGs: She started writing about fashion’s impact on the environment for British newspapers in the ‘90s, wrote a book on the subject in 2007, and has spent her decades-long career trying to push the industry to embrace better practices, most recently through her work at 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.
Blanchard and Fang both value the sense of camaraderie they feel with other people working in the “ethical fashion” space. But since Blanchard’s community comes from her in-person work with Fashion Revolution and her years in the newspaper trenches, while Fang’s consists largely of her peers on social media, they’ve never overlapped.
“I don’t have much of a two-way conversation with a lot of folks that are older than me [in the movement],” Fang says. “But I would totally be interested in that.”
That these two leaders representing different generations of the sustainable fashion community have never interacted isn’t just a coincidence — it’s emblematic of the way the movement at large often 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. Because otherwise, she says, her peers might never encounter it.
“We’re not reading the newspaper; not all of us are listening to news podcasts or the radio or wherever that information normally is disseminated,” she says.
It’s unsurprising that a generation that’s disinclined to pick up a paper from the newsstand might miss out on the informational groundwork — not to mention generational wisdom — laid out by the likes of Blanchard. But even for people closer in age than McSherry and Blanchard, there can be a disconnect. The speed with which new social media platforms crop up might be to blame: As each successive network has taken off, from Twitter to Instagram to TikTok, new leaders have tended to emerge on each social media site. As this progression continues, prominent voices from whichever platform was hot the year before don’t always migrate to the new platform, and expertise can get lost along the way.
I wish that there could be more dialogue between this younger generation that’s so passionate about this issue, and these experts that have established themselves as important people in the industry.
But if the sustainability movement wants to make real progress, finding ways to better bridge those gaps is crucial. When Blanchard first started out as a journalist in the ‘90s, anti-fur campaigns, sweatshops in the supply chain, and brands introducing clothing made from recycled plastic water bottles felt newsworthy. In 2021, the same kinds of stories still make headlines as though they are brand-new. After decades of work, with hundreds of articles and a handful of books under her belt, Blanchard is understandably impatient for more progress than what she’s seen so far.
“I am sick of talking about it, and I am a bit sick of listening to people talk. I just want things to start to actually change,” Blanchard says on the phone. “We need to start actually doing this stuff.”
Forty-three-year-old Jasmin Chua, the sourcing and labor editor at Sourcing Journal, agrees. She has been writing about fashion’s environmental impact since 2007. She says that the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed at least 1,132 garment workers and injured more than 2,500, served as a wake-up call for many in the industry. But despite all the momentum that built after the tragedy, there’s so much that hasn’t shifted, she says.
“When it comes to worker rights, we’re still talking about living wages. That hasn’t changed in the decade-plus that I’ve been working in this space,” she says. “Brands still have the same excuses.”
So what will it take to create real progress in the sustainability movement — the kind of progress that would render a sweatshop headline from 1993 obsolete today?
It might help to take cues from the climate movement, which is made up of a broad group of organizations and individuals fighting for action to limit 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. But where the sustainability movement has sometimes struggled to create cohesion across generations, the climate movement is increasingly leaning into the strengths that different age groups can bring to the table.
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. The result is a powerful alchemy of parties who can work together to bring about real change.
I am sick of talking about it, and I am a bit sick of listening to people talk. I just want things to start to actually 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. “We need to be able to share power across the table so that [the youth] don’t take 20 years to learn what it took us a minute to learn,” she says. “We don’t have time for them to learn [everything from scratch]; we have to be nimble.”
As an elder in the movement, she welcomes young people’s leadership and insight but rejects the idea that “the kids are going to save us all.” Because while, according to McSherry, Gen Z knows more about the issues with fast fashion than those before them, that doesn’t mean they’re doing what it takes to change the system.
“It’s tricky to be simultaneously the generation that is perpetuating these systems and making fast fashion faster, and also the generation that probably knows the most about these issues and is trying to create change,” she says, alluding to the way that her peer group has fueled the rise of hyper-fast fashion brands like Shein. “There’s just a big amount of cognitive dissonance in our generation.”
The kind of intergenerational community that brings together the urgency of youth with the embodied wisdom of age is not as present as it should be in the sustainable fashion movement. But there are exceptions. Aja Barber, a sustainability consultant and author of Consumed, is in her late 30s, but she has found her niche on Instagram, which many associate with the generation below her. On the app, she says she’s built relationships with people across a wide range of ages, including many who are significantly younger than herself, and she has garnered an audience of 249K followers.
“I’m definitely a senior in the Instagram world; I consider myself an Instagram elder,” she laughs. But Barber sees her age as a “privilege,” and believes she can offer a perspective that her younger colleagues in the movement can’t. “I’m old enough to remember what the world was like before fast fashion [exploded],” she says. “A lot of young people aren’t.” The implication is that she might be able to help young people better envision a future without it, too.
Outside of the world of social media, or at least in a world not totally dependent on it, there’s also intergenerational cross-pollination happening through dedicated advocacy groups. Though Blanchard might not be chatting with the next generation’s TikTok stars, she’s connected to young designers through her work with Fashion Revolution, an organization that has been influential in raising awareness and providing education around 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 clothing they completed prior to orders being canceled in the midst of the pandemic.
We need to be able to share power across the table so that [the youth] don’t take 20 years to learn what it took us a minute to learn.
Even if there’s much that still hasn’t changed since the ‘90s, there are areas where the movement has seen real growth, especially when it comes to intersectionality. While Barber might have stood out among her peers for highlighting how sustainability is connected to race, class, and fatphobia, Fang, McSherry, and much of the generation they represent see those intersections as a given.
And it’s striking to hear that both Chua, who reads and writes for traditional media outlets and mostly hangs out on Twitter, and McSherry, who prefers TikTok and Instagram, agree on what it’s going to take to create the necessary change in fashion: policy and government regulation of the industry.
Maybe, if the movement can figure out how to better facilitate intergenerational cross-pollination, the age demographics Chua and McSherry represent could come to not just agree on what’s needed, but actually work on those things together. Intergenerational learning takes a lot of humility, says Chua, but the payoff could be a sense of connection to something much bigger than oneself and one’s peer group.
“I wish that there could be more dialogue between this younger generation that’s so passionate about this issue, and these experts that have established themselves as important people in the industry,” McSherry says. “I think we could create a lot more change if there was a bit more collaboration.”
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