Though sustainability and race are often thought of as two different fields, indigenous communities and communities of Color are not only disproportionately affected by climate change and other environmental problems, but also have often been utilizing sustainable practices for much longer than the “sustainability movement” as we know it has been around. With that being said, it only makes sense that Black women are currently some of the most innovative and thought-provoking participants and leaders in changing our relationship with nature and with clothing. From designers to creative directors to event curators, here are fifteen inspiring Black women leading the sustainability movement.
Akilah Stewart (Founder of FATRA)
After designing shoes in New York City for years, Akilah Stewart decided she needed a change. She packed up shop, moved to Honolulu, and soon created FATRA, a luxury handbag brand. Each FATRA bag is created using a mixture of recycled single-use plastic, retrieved fabrics/leather, and responsibly-sourced artisanal textiles. But the type of materials used isn’t the only way FATRA aims to repair our relationship with the Earth; Stewart also leads weekly workshops, teaching adults and children alike to patch and naturally dye their own clothing and reduce individual amounts of textile waste.
Like Akilah Stewart, Ibada Wadud is out to do more than just save the environment. Her up-and-coming line of leather handbags employs formerly-incarcerated women and provides them with training in design and leatherwork, creating a direct channel from incarceration to sustainable career paths.
After taking a trip back to Ethiopia, her home country, Kebede met a group of traditional weavers who had no market for their trade. From there, she developed lemlem, a collection of clothing and home goods created by artisans in Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda and, of course, Ethiopia. Not only does lemlem attempt to preserve traditional methods of production, but a portion of the profits go back into the community, providing female artisans with healthcare and education.
The origins of McGlonn’s company can actually be attributed to a single letter from a stranger. While volunteering at Books Through Bars in West Philly, she read a letter from a female inmate requesting a dictionary so that she could write a novel while imprisoned. After that experience, McGlonn knew she had to combine her passion for sustainability with concrete methods that would attack the prison system. Grant Blvd’s collection of brightly colored clothing is produced using no new water and no new fabric and provides employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated PoC.
Say the words “sustainable fashion” and people immediately think of minimalistic clothing in muted colors. While many people do love this style, McKillian knew that the spread of ethical fashion depended on catering to more than just one specific taste. Galerie.LA aims to provide shoppers with a carefully curated platform filled with unique and high-fashion sustainable pieces, allowing people with more avant-garde personal style to shop sustainably.
Nicole’s clothing line focuses not just on ethical and sustainable production habits, but also on dismantling the gender binary along the way. From vegan leather vests to denim trench coats, all clothing is displayed without models and is made from recycled plastics in factories that provide workers with a fair wage and guarantee safe working conditions.
Being involved in the sustainability movement doesn’t just mean producing clothes with a lower environmental impact. It can also look like people like Jenine Hausif, who founded her company Sew Sustainable to provide people with convenient and quick alterations, repairs, and upcycling. Hausif, a self-proclaimed shopaholic in her youth, aims to change the culture of fast fashion, where cheaply-made clothes are worn for a season, damaged and thrown away.
After getting her MBA, Nnamani decided that there was a distinct need to draw attention to and connect Black creators in the ethical fashion scene. And so, Beau Monde Society was created. In the years since its inception, Nnamani and the rest of the Beau Monde team have not only created gorgeous installations in both NYC and LA but have also fostered discussions about the future of the sustainability movement.
Ngozi Okaro (Founder and Executive Director of Custom Collaborative)
Each of the products available on Custom Collaborative’s site is produced locally in New York, most of them using reclaimed fabrics. But just as important, if not more so, are the programs Okaro has implemented through Custom Collaborative that train women from low-income communities in design, sewing, alterations, and pattern-making to help end the cycle of poverty.
Jackson aims to help the sustainability movement spread by starting at the root of the problem, our throw-away culture. To do so, she employs a number of methods: organizing clothing swaps in Brooklyn, curating panels on sustainability and directing, and highlighting sustainable fashion events.
Brittany Sierra (Founder of Sustainable Fashion Forum)
As anyone with an interest in sustainable fashion can tell you, finding two designers who agree on what the terms “sustainable” and “ethical” mean can be tricky, to say the least. That’s where the Sustainable Fashion Forum comes in. Sierra noticed a distinct lack of communication between consumers and designers in the sustainability movement and, in 2017, created her platform. Since then they’ve hosted annual panels featuring brands like Adidas, Girlfriend Collective, and Vogue to discuss what sustainability really means and how to extend it beyond the fashion industry.
Deborah Shephard (Founder of Clothed in Abundance)
Deb Shephard learned firsthand the power of decluttering your life when she moved from Los Angeles with only a suitcase to her name. From there, she started documenting her life and soon developed Clothed in Abundance, a platform that aims to teach people how to live minimalistically and sustainably.
Style Lottery’s origins are something that most women can relate to, sharing clothing with their siblings and close friends. However, Komonibo took this common experience a step further, creating an intranational clothing swap that takes lightly used clothes and donates them back into the community, working one on one with women from low-income backgrounds to make sure they can dress for success.
Tess Tiaba (Founder of Love Stories Bali)
When Tiaba traveled to Bali a few years ago for a work trip, she had no idea that she would never leave. But after meeting Agnes Rini-Astuti, a local education activist who had created a community school, Tiaba knew she had found where she was meant to be. She soon created Love Stories Bali, a brand of colorful pajama sets and silk wraps that donates 100% of the proceeds right back into that same Balinese school founded by Rini-Astuti.
As an influencer and sustainable fashion enthusiast, Drakeford saw firsthand the number of talented designers and stylists of Color making waves in sustainability. All that was missing was a platform that highlighted these individuals and their commitment to the environmental movement. To remedy that, she created MelaninASS (short for “Melanin and Sustainable Style”), a website and Instagram page that features interviews, brand recommendations, and thoughtful op-eds about the intersection between race and sustainability.