The Highsnobiety Better Earth Manual is a guide for style enthusiasts in the age of ecological crisis — a crisis caused in part by the fashion industry itself. Here, you’ll find a growing set of resources about conscious consumption and the pioneers who are making a change in our industry.
Leah Thomas is an environmentalist writer and creator based in Ventura, CA. She is the founder of eco-lifestyle blog Green Girl Leah and The Intersectional Environmentalist Platform, a resource hub that aims to advocate for environmental justice and inclusivity. Despite all her accomplishments, she believes that there is no such thing as the perfect sustainability activist. Here's why.
When I first entered the sustainability space and started blogging about eco-living, I felt the pressure to be a perfect activist: using no plastic, trying to go “zero-waste,” and buying the most “sustainable fashion” pieces, even if it meant going into debt. But while I know that I, like many of us, would love to be a “perfect activist,” the reality is that there is no such thing.
The sustainability world on social media is driven by consumption, which I've definitely contributed to via partnerships on my platform. It has created a monster and continues to perpetuate the incorrect belief that we have to buy our way into sustainability and we need to do so perfectly.
But activism and sustainability exist on a spectrum. The terms look different for all of us as they take a number of factors into account — accessibility, wealth, ethics, culture, education, and so on. Similarly, when it comes to thinking about sustainable fashion, for me, it's an intersectional issue. It's more than just the pieces we wear; it’s connected to human rights, feminism, and environmental degradation. And within these issues, there are other factors to consider: emissions, exploitation, transparency, accountability... the list goes on and on.
Affordability and access also play huge roles in what sustainability looks like in practice, and that differs from person to person. Growing up, I went to a prestigious private school on scholarship and was introduced to the world of expensive name brands. At the time, Juicy Couture tracksuits were all the rage, but since they weren't something my family could afford, I’d go to the local thrift shop and meticulously sort through the racks, hoping to find the one my classmates wore. When I found the tracksuit, I wanted to cry: It provided a way for me as a lower-income student to “fit in” with the trends. Thrifting made style more accessible for me.
These eco-living habits I adopted out of necessity as a child are now trendy. We see the gentrification of thrifting happening before our eyes. Wealthy “sustainability” advocates raid thrift stores in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in and resell the items on Depop for 10 times the price, making it more difficult for lower-income communities to have access to stylish clothing at an accessible price. This hurts my heart for students who grew up like me.
But in a capitalistic society that exploits both people and the planet, this is hardly surprising.
I used to work at Patagonia HQ, a pillar of sustainable fashion, and even in that space, I realized that what “sustainable fashion” means differs from person to person. Some people narrow in on materials and fibers, others on shipping emissions, and others prioritize the overall health and wellbeing of their employees and diverse workforces. Some of the most “sustainable” companies are unfortunately grappling with racist pasts and poor internal treatment of workers — even if the supply chain is “ethical,” their own offices are not.
With that in mind, I believe that there is no such thing as truly ethical and sustainable consumption. We all participate in some form of greenwashing, individuals and corporations alike, where we don’t fully encompass sustainability in all of our actions every day, no matter how dedicated we might be.
As a sustainability blogger, I have been contacted by hundreds of brands offering free sustainable pieces, which is a privilege — I wish that more ethical and sustainable influencers acknowledged how often they are gifted items from pricey sustainable brands, which allows them to have a fully ethical and sustainable wardrobe.
But there is no perfect answer or solution. There’s only progress, and we all have room to grow.
I also believe in working towards accountability versus cancel culture: If brands like H&M or Zara want to explore conscious lines, is there a redemption story there? Is there an internal team that’s trying to infiltrate the system from within, fighting an uphill battle to change? I’ve spoken to sustainability departments within fast fashion brands that are passionately trying to transform the companies, and this makes me question whether shaming corporations that are trying to explore their shift to a more sustainable, transparent culture is the right approach. This isn’t to absolve corporations of guilt; I am a firm supporter of sustainable and ethical manufacturing. However, I want to hold space for both individuals and corporations to evolve.
Change is a communal effort. If it is really going to happen, we need to provide the space for it to take place.
Shaming anyone for being imperfect in their activism is no way to move this conversation forward. We are all are existing within systems that need total reconstruction. The movement requires all of us to advocate imperfectly, to hold ourselves and corporations and governments accountable. We must collaboratively work together in our own unique ways in the best way that we can.
Personally, I try to be more nuanced in situations that shame could arise. If someone wants to buy an item from a fast-fashion brand's sustainable collection, for example, I don't lecture. Instead, I see it as a potential first step for them towards sustainable living in their personal life. Perhaps that action will lead to more similar actions in the future.
What truly activated my growth and changed my perspective on what I wore was envisioning the labor that goes into sewing each pocket, the amount of water it took to make my favorite pair of jeans, and considering who and what I am supporting when I spend my dollar. When I view fashion through a three-dimensional lens, I'm able to see all the intersectional issues that are involved, and that helps me connect with each individual statement rather than just seeing them as pieces of cloth.
Sustainable living, particularly when it comes to clothes, isn’t a linear journey, but it’s our collective action that can truly make an impact.