The Whitewashing of the Sustainability Movement (In Conversation with: Akilah Stewart of FATRA)

Title image of Akilah Stewart, founder and Creative Waste Manager at FATRA

Akilah Stewart is the director of FATRA, a creative waste management company that produces high-end bags made from recycled plastics and fabrics. FATRA, which means "waste" in Haitian Creole, is centered around the idea of looking at the plastic pollution we currently have and reintroducing it into the market to make consumers more aware of their own relationship with the Earth. We invited Akilah onto our Peachy Keen Podcast to talk about her work, intersections of race and sustainability, and the state of the sustainability movement at large.

[The following interview contains condensed excerpts from our podcast. To hear more from Akilah, listen to the full episode!]

We have all seen the sustainability movement change so much in the past five, ten years and there are just so many flaws in the movement itself. So, if you ruled the world, what are the first things you would change about the sustainability movement today?

It’s so deep, guys! It’s so deep. The first thing that I would change is the description around sustainability, what it means to people. Because I think we’ve sat on the white lies on what sustainability is and because if you cannot define something accurately, any way that you use that word is going to be inaccurate...I don’t believe that sustainability has been defined properly, as an inherently Black and brown ideology, to even be able to build on.

Quote from Akilah Stewart on appropriation and sustainability

And unless we’re talking about that, unless we’re talking about how people already had homes that were built of clay, built of mud, built of sticks, built of different plant-based materials that we’re later told are savage, but now are looking at those same technologies as something to sell back to you; unless we’re talking about how everything is interconnected with plants and your food source and how you’re getting the fibers; unless we’re talking about the very thing that sustainability is which is just basically holding sacred space for everything without having to commodify it- commodifying your resource doesn’t give it value, it's already valuable because of the life that it sustains and the life it gives to you! So, unless we’re talking about sustainability from a spiritual aspect, talking about it as a cultural aspect, we’re not talking about sustainability, we’re talking about green capitalism! And that’s really...that’s the first thing I would change, looking back and giving proper acknowledgment to where a lot of these ideas and innovations and technologies come from.

That's so true, and I think it’s so disappointing as well that we’re always reading about environmentalism, taking classes on it, and that narrative is rarely brought up. It’s always left out.

...You have to come back to the root and we have not come back to the root. We’re like “oh sustainability,” but yet we have not even talked about indigenous knowledge! There’s no way you can talk about sustainability without addressing indigenous knowledge.

We essentially pretend like Native Americans aren’t even here anymore which’s crazy.

People who have been saying, you know, treat the land with respect for seven generations and now all of a sudden companies are saying “treat the land with respect." It’s like, whoa whoa whoa...he just said that! But, being voiceless is a whole 'nother thing...being voiceless being overseen. There’s so many things.

Yeah, it’s such a slap in the face to have everything rebranded and just sent back to the people who founded the movement! And it wasn’t even a movement, it was just how they lived. And, like you’re saying, there were hundreds of years of shaming that lifestyle to now just saying “oh, actually you guys were right but we’re not even going to give you the credit…”

But they never even said “you guys were right!”

Do you think we're making progress with recentering the conversations?

I pray we’re getting somewhere because if not, I mean, it really just…[laughs]. It makes you crazy. It’s an odd feeling to be repetitive. And, you know what, I grew up, thank God, in a sustainable household. My father is from Haiti, my mother is from Guiana. I’m first-generation born American so we have a lot of things and do a lot of things and in a lot of ways [sustainability is] already ingrained culturally. And now it’s like, you know, what’s trending and I think that’s just a crazy idea! Because it’s almost like saying: “your igloos is so old and ancient, you don’t have to live like that.” However, igloos are self-isolating with heat! They tell us it’s so trash, but then they go and create something very similar and sell it back to you.’s that selling point, you know. It’s that “sell it back to you, sell it back to you.” It’s…

We can say "let's change, let's change" but what is it that we are changing to? What is it that we want to see? Do we want to redefine sustainability in a way that is going to acknowledge Black and brown people who have already been culturally living in a sustainable manner?

Quote from Akilah Stewart of FATRA

But I just feel wasn't a thing because it was second nature, right? I feel like this about so many movements. Like, it's not a thing unless you make it a thing. And sustainability...there really should be no need for it. Becuase it should literally be how we live. But it goes back to those stories that we've been told, and I think that we have to retell those stories about living with the Earth and having the Earth be a provider. Acknowledging that it gives us all that we need and it gives us all that we need for free! Which is why it's the easiest to exploit. Same thing with a lot of Black and brown culutres. It's the easiest to exploit because they're so kind and so giving and so nourishing! The Earth has no advocates so...we have to be advocates, but we also have to be activists. And that begins in our daily life. That begins with us, that begins with treating our things better, that begins with treating each other better. Just being more mindful.

To hear more of Akilah's thoughts on sustainability, check out the full podcast episode on Youtube or Spotify!