Where Race and Sustainability Meet (In Conversation With: Akilah Stewart of FATRA)

Image of Akilah Stewart, founder of 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!]

When we talk about sustainability and green capitalism, a lot of times we only focus on changing the companies we buy from or the materials we use. It’s hard to advertise that people should just stop buying stuff, to say that the best thing you can do sustainability-wise is pretty much to not buy anything. How do you even advertise that?

It is very hard, it’s very hard. One of my sisters,Whitney McGuire, she actually spoke about this. It’s because purchasing means something different to different groups of people. So, you know, for a lot of Black people it is going to be hard to tell them to just stop buying because our purchasing power is equated to a type of liberation; it’s tied to a kind of “we couldn’t before, now look what we can.” So, it’s a slippery slope when it comes to just telling people to not buy things. Because for certain groups of people that is their joy. If they’ve saved up enough to buy a new house, to go on vacation, to buy a new dress, to buy a good meal, to have a matcha latte. Sometimes that is a stress reliever, sometimes that is the joy that comes to certain groups of people. So, it is kind of a slippery slope when it comes to saying to just not purchase at all.

However, I also want to mention that the same problems that we’re talking about in sustainability as far as overwaste and overindulgence, that’s also conversations that are not being had in Black communities because a lot of the times certain communities can’t even afford to be wasteful! They can’t afford to throw dresses away every week. So it’s also being intentional about who we’re speaking to, about what.

While, overall, it would be lovely to just tell people not to purchase or not to buy new things, there is a whole group of people who look at buying new things in a very different way than people were looking at buying new things, where it’s just like “oh well I can afford to buy this and throw this away immediately.” It’s two very different conversations and we have to make sure that we’re meeting everyone where they are.

Quote from Akilah Stewart, founder of FATRA

There’s no “one size fits all,” which is hard for people to grasp.

Exactly, right? The nuances, the grey areas. I think we’re..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. So...it’s that selling point, you know. It’s that “sell it back to you, sell it back to you.” It’s…

This is a movement that you cannot...we can’t leave anybody out of this movement if we’re really trying to make a change. And meaning that means that you have to meet people where they are and it can’t be all about buying, buying and buying. Buying is not...we just need to have a better relationship with nature. And I know for Black people that’s probably a very traumatizing one because I think...the story that we’ve been told about nature is “you’re the cotton picker, you’re the field n*****, you’re outside doing work” and that was something to be looked down upon. And I think that that has played a very traumatic role in the minds of us unconsciously [so] that we don’t enjoy or look at the outdoors as something to enjoy and something to find rest and restoration in. We look at it as something that’s laborious and something that we’ve had to toil and work in and something that we still haven’t had any reconciliation with because there’s been no reparations. There’s been no type of giving back at all for Black people who had to toil in the land and have made this country what it is! And with all of that, we still can’t even go outside and just enjoy nature. Because of that trauma.

That is 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 never brought up. It’s always left out. How can we even attempt to try to heal a problem that’s never being brought to light?

That’s the main thing! And everyone is like “equality!” and “I don’t see color!” and I’m just like [pauses]. But, guys…it’s like a fucking bleeding wound, and they just say “you know what you should just put this dressing on” and you’re just like “but, I’m bleeding.” Let’s close this up and then we can dress it and make it nice. But it’s never been closed and...I feel in order for white people to understand and to be taught about these things it has a certain amount of accountability and I think that knowing that- it’s just like they don't even want to see it, don’t even want to acknowledge it. And I think that that overall is probably the thing that is the most difficult: it’s still something that needs to be done because you can sweep it under the rug all you want, but then when it starts leaking out the sides in the form of violence, in the form of mass incarceration, in terms of drug usage...All these things that eventually make its way back into our communities, all communities, then you notice: there’s this issues. Yeah, but you have to come back to the root and we have not come back to the root. And we’re like “oh sustainability,” but yet you have not even talked about indigenous knowledge! There’s no way you can talk about sustainability without addressing indigenous knowledge.

Quote from Akilah Stewart, founder of FATRA

It’s just...it’s so terrible. I think, exactly like you’re saying, there needs to be an emphasis on intersectionality within the environmentalism movement because it totally is just marketed to one person right now. I think you said that in your interview with MelaninASS that the kind of picture of sustainability now is white hipsters going to local coffee shops when that is not what sustainability has looked like ever up until now. And, moreover, who even says that that is the most sustainable life to live? It’s just so frustrating to see continual [whitewashing] within a movement that is claiming to be here just for good, and within the movement itself there’s just so much erasure left, right and center.

No, definitely. I feel like....how do you promote sustainability outside of the capitalistic space? Just understanding that...Black bodies were capital. And being that sustainability is about cutting down on waste and living in a way that’s going to be regenerative and living in a way that’s going to allow you to sustain and carry on beyond that moment in time...I think that for a lot of us Black and brown people it’s honestly been a healing situation going back to or reclaiming a lot of these practices. Reclaiming things from our past or even discovering things from our past. But, I do wonder: in white spaces how do you implement sustainability in a way that acknowledges those things while also, same as us, trying to be innovative. How do you find the “old world” within the “new world” when there has been no middle ground of acknowledgment?

I think the biggest thing we [at Peachy Keen] have been just trying to work on lately is giving credit where credit is due and giving that acknowledgement. We’ve been trying to use our social media platforms to post...for example, Rebecca just wrote an article on Native-owned businesses to support and [went] in depth about the mission behind each business and where that comes from, but...I feel like I have so much more to learn and so much more I need to learn, especially as a business owner. I just never want to be a part of the problem, of course, and I think that what that means to me is needing to take a hard look in the mirror and look through all of our practices and question if we are contributing to this sustainability movement that has erased so many people. And, moving forward, I want to ensure we are giving credit where credit is due, using our platform and our money to invest in these causes and in the voices that have been left out of the sustainability movement, and trying to think outside of the box of green capitalism into more of a long-lasting way. And I think that’s the challenge. Making a company that you can be able to live on, just because that’s the world we live in, but doing it in a way that doesn’t just add fuel to the fire and is actually trying to make a change, so...that’s what I’ve been trying to do lately but I know I have so much more work that needs to be done and I do think that bringing these conversations to these communities is really, really crucial.

Conversations are definitely a great starter but, yeah, I think we definitely need to use platforms to amplify voices and also to support those voices. Because everyone is doing the same thing, you know? We’re all trying to create businesses that are financially viable and that just make sense. So I think, overall, sharing the platform and paying people for their work in sustainability in general is definitely very important, as well as learning or redefining what sustainability is and doing that through action, saying: these are some of the things that we have put in place within my company and within my business, these are some of the people we have hired within my company and within my business, these are some of the voices we want to amplify within my company and within my business. And just making that an intentional daily practice.

You know, I always say racism is not a Black people issue, it’s a white people issue. I think that they need to be more intentional about waking up and making sure that they’re decolonizing, the same way Black people need to decolonize. Because we have internalized ideas that have come from outside of us and we need to do the work intentionally.

And I think it’s the same thing with all of the “isms.” You want to be more sustainable every day? It needs to be an intentional thought moving forward: how do I, one, uncover the truths of sustainability and, two, if something looks the same but is called something different can [I] recognize that and acknowledge that? Because I think that definitions, wordings, titles, they’re very important. That’s why I’ll say I’m a creative waste management company. Yes, it's a brand. Yes, I sell handbags. However, "creative waste management" let's you know that it’s a way to look at the end of life as the first order of business. It's a way to let you know that these are things that are being recreated from something that you may not have [given] a second glance. So I think that just defining and acting are very important. You have the definition of what it is that you're doing but you also are also making it your priority to intentionally do those things or follow those things every day.

Quote from Akilah Stewart, founder of FATRA

That's definitely really true. I think, hopefully that a lot of the conversations that we're having on a national or global scale will really make some change within the sustainability movement and outside of it. But...there's just so much work that needs to be done.

There's hella work that needs to be done. Yeah, I'm glad these conversations are happening, but we need real live movement and real live equity and financial support behind a lot of the work that we are doing. And this goes back to the debate of "consumer [responsibility] or industry [responsibility]." People on a smaller level can support small brands all they want, but we really have to rally around industrial change and that is work. That is reimagining even within our own businesses. 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?

That begins with us; that begins with treating our things better; that begins with treating each other better. Just being more mindful. It's very difficult, especially living in New York, but you have to be mindful. You have to have the intention that you are going ot do right for you, whatever right may be for you. Everyone is in different places, like I said. Having those conversations is very important, but the work behind it is just as important: to walk it like you talk it.

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