Creative visionaries have always been at the forefront of change. Before the mainstream media took notice, there was an army of pioneers that were already re-writing the rules for a more sustainable and inclusive industry, who were being subversive towards the traditional gatekeepers.
While these eco torch bearers sought to minimize carbon footprints and paid fair wages when no one was paying attention, it was business as usual for the majority of established brands. Inertia and money are powerful forces, and it took a global pandemic to expose the fragility of intricate supply chains. The disruptions may have begun with the infamous toilet paper shortage of 2020, but the rising costs of labor, raw materials and oil have been a sobering demonstration of the argument that climate activists have been making for years - our planet cannot sustain infinite economic growth. For many brands who manufacture overseas, the journey from raw materials to finished products can be stubbornly opaque, even to designers themselves. Now that sustainable fashion has gone from a niche market to trending hashtag, the question is "how are consumers supposed to know which brands are genuine in their ESG initiatives?" Kestrel Jenkins did a deep dive into this topic on a recent episode of Conscious Chatter. In episode #264, Jenkins discusses Greenwash.com, and how some big brands are attempting to co-opt the Sustainable Fashion movement (conversation begins at 7:55).
"The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network in 2021 found that after reviewing almost 500 websites, 40% of green claims could be misleading to customers."
- Kestrel Jenkins, Founder & Host of Conscious Chatter
"It's important to understand that it goes beyond just misleading consumers and actually really gets in the way of progress. It's a smokescreen for which all sorts of unsustainable practices can continue... You think change is being made because of greenwashing and the reality is it's not."- George Harding-Rolls of Greenwash.com
If the intricacies of supply chains are one of the challenges to companies being more transparent, there is a readily available source of sustainable wares that is often overlooked by the media, American Artisans. While large scale manufacturing has largely disappeared in the US, pop-up artisan markets have remained and can be found all over the country.
When you buy from your local designers & makers, you're automatically eliminating some of the unsustainable practices that are difficult to avoid at a larger scale - exploitation of foreign labor, heavy consumption of natural resources and carbon emissions from transportation overseas. Artisans also have a tendency to use materials that are readily available to them, and produce items that are either one-of-a-kind, or in small batch productions.
The life of a self-employed artisan comes with many additional responsibilities that customers don't usually see - establishing a show calendar, managing sales tax compliance, buying liability insurance, maintaining a current website and creating content for social media. This is on top of paying vendor fees, booth setup, creating inventory and channeling one's entire essence into a cohesive brand image. The amount of work involved, as well as the financial risk, means that this lifestyle is not for the casual hobbyist - only the passionate survive. For those who have been able to make this their full-time livelihood, it is a hard won escape from corporate jobs.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, I experienced all of this firsthand as a vendor at Quail Hollow's artisan festival at the Ulster County Fairgrounds in New Paltz, New York. Quail Hollow is just one of many organizations that requires vendors to also be the makers of the products that they sell. In the months leading up the event, I utilized every ounce of creative energy I possessed, and the experience was both exhilarating and exhausting.
I had to utilize my panoramic vision, and then manifest every aspect of it, shattering the illusion of the compartmentalization that has become standard to modern convenience. Even in my past experiences working as a designer for brands in NYC, the companies were small, and so every design related task was my responsibility. There was no one else to pick up the slack if I needed a sick day, and so I quickly became accustomed to being thorough in my work, as I gave all final approvals to the factory.
These formative work experiences turned out to be a blessing in ways I had not anticipated. As an entrepreneur, there are no guarantees, but the rewards are autonomy, unbridled creativity, and a glimmer of hope that the American Dream is still possible.
My experience over those three days reaffirmed what I already knew, that sustainability is our conscious effort to undo the mistakes of industrialization, and to prepare for the future by preserving artisan techniques that have already withstood the test of time.