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Women leading change: Natalie Smith, Sustainably Chic

March 02, 2017

Women leading change: Natalie Smith, Sustainably Chic

As well as being an incredibly lovely human being, Natalie is a fashion blogger with impeccable style, and has dedicated her blog to showcasing ethically made fashion and accessories from around the world. I caught up with Natalie on Skype a little while ago to hear more about how she became interested in ethical fashion and how she deals with the complexities and controversies that come up along the way.

Before we get started, thanks for getting up so early on a Saturday morning to speak to me! I’ve been following your blog and Instagram account for a while now, and absolutely love your style. How did you get started in ethical fashion blogging?

I started about five years ago when I was studying fashion at college. I started seeing some random articles popping up about the waste created by the fashion industry, and the unethical treatment of workers.  Something that really stood out for me was what was happening in Saipan, an island in Micronesia that is technically part of the United States of America. I discovered that some companies were saying their clothes were ‘made in the USA’, when in reality they were made in Saipan where workers were effectively treated like prisoners and weren’t paid for their work. While I think the laws have since changed around what you can say is ‘made in the USA’, unfortunately there are still sweatshops operating all over the world.

I also started reading about the huge amounts of water used to create clothing, and at the same time the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon was really taking off, which just amplified the environmental problems. During my last few years at college I dedicated all of my projects to sustainable fashion instead of covering the latest trends at New York Fashion Week.  While those types of topics are probably more appealing to most people, they don’t go towards addressing the problems we’re facing right now.

After moving to Charleston, South Carolina about two years ago, I started writing the blog to share what I was learning and it just grew from there.

Fast fashion is definitely big in Australia as well, but we have a small population compared to the US so it’s on a different scale. I remember being shocked at the ‘fast fashion haul’ scene in The True Cost documentary, where a woman in her early 20s was proudly videoing herself unpacking a never-ending stream of shopping bags from fast fashion stores. Is that an extreme example or do you see a lot of that in the US?

That is so normal! I work part-time at Marine Layer (an ethical fashion store) and we often have customers walk in with bags from fast fashion stores. When they ask about what we have on sale, I give them the usual spiel about who is actually for paying for low prices. People will often say to me, ‘I can’t afford to spend $40 on one shirt!’, but I know they’ve just bought three or four shirts for $60 at a store down the street. So for many people, it’s not necessarily about the money, but more about the mentality we’ve developed about how much clothes should cost and the quantity of clothes we actually need to buy.

There’s also a huge cultural element here, because so many girls think they have to wear something new every single day. Instagram and social media is so important to people that you can’t wear the same thing twice! I’ve often heard girls say they can’t wear a certain dress again because they wore it the other day and there’s a photo of them wearing it on Instagram.

Wow - that’s taking it to another level! One of the things I love about your blog and social media accounts is how well you deal with different opinions about what ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ means. I recently saw some pretty ‘shouty’ comments on your Instagram feed, how do you decide when to engage and when it’s best to ignore?

It’s really challenging! I’ll delete any offensive or abusive comments straight away, but I do think it’s hard for people to know what’s real sometimes. There are so many documentaries out there with a singular ‘it’s my way or the highway’ message, and they’re full of one-sided analysis.

For example, we’re often told that veganism is the only way to live sustainably. But for a lot of people living in developing countries, their livestock is their only source of protein. They don’t have access to avocados, or quinoa, which also have their own sustainability challenges! So it’s important to understand how privileged we are to be able to make that choice, and to think about that before judging others. Personally, I have no issue buying leather goods made by an artisan who is using the resources at their disposal, but I’m often criticised for that decision.

I’ve had a similar experience since starting Renegades of Chic - these issues are complex and everyone is coming at it from their own perspective, so there often isn’t one right way of doing things. I’ve definitely had to make some difficult decisions when choosing who we partner with, how do you select the brands you work with?

I don’t have any strict criteria that I apply to everyone, but I’ll always write about what makes a particular brand ‘ethical’ and give people as much information as possible. I do have brands approach me that don’t know where their cotton has come from, because they’ve bought it at the local market, and I’ll have some people question me about that.

From my perspective, even if there are certain parts of the process that aren't 100% known right now, that business is still doing something positive and making a difference for women who desperately need it. At the point we’re at in the world right now, I’m OK if a product isn’t 100% perfect if I know its making a real difference in people’s lives.

Another important element of transparency is wages. I know there are a few brands out there like Everlane who break down in percentage terms how much of the retail price goes to the people who made it, what are your views on that?

I think it’s really important we keep asking those questions and hold businesses accountable when they say they’re paying a living wage to artisans. But having said that, there are a few things to keep in mind. Obviously the cost of living is different everywhere in the world, so looking purely at dollar amounts is misleading. Also, if we’re going to be talking about how much the artisans are being paid, we should be doing the same for everyone involved, including the designers, because otherwise I think there’s a risk of disempowering or patronising the artisans. 

For me, I love to focus on the incredible skills that artisans possess. I’m constantly blown away by what is being produced, and how much history and culture that represents. So while obviously living wages are very important, we can also be celebrating the skill and artistry that artisan-made products embody, because they are awesome! At the end of the day we all work to put food on the table, but so few people can create what they can.

That is such a great way of looking at it - I’ve never heard anyone talk about this issue that way before. It can also be difficult striking the right balance between providing information about the problems while also shining a light on the solutions, to demonstrate why ethically made products are so important. Have you seen any ethical fashion bloggers or brands who are doing that well?

I spoke about this recently on the ‘Conscious Chatter’ podcast, because I do feel there’s not enough positivity out there. Personally, I feel like we can mention issues like waste and unethical treatment once or twice, but then really direct our energy into shining light on the slow fashion movement and make it a positive, happy story that people are naturally drawn to. If people want more information about the problems they can watch The True Cost documentary because it’s all in there!

I notice a lot of negativity in some blogs, and their tone tends to make people feel guilty about what they buy. While I’ll admit that I might sometimes do that in person - because if someone is right in front of me I’ll take the opportunity! - my blog is really trying to shine light on the positive ways we can contribute. I think the yoga bloggers are great at the positive messages, so maybe the rest of us can learn something from them!

—————

After the interview was over, we kept chatting and inevitably the US election came up, which was still a couple of months away when we spoke. I was surprised to learn that we had some pretty different political views (just for the record, neither of us supports you-know-who).

I started thinking that had we met in a different context, like an online political forum, we probably wouldn’t have connected with each other in the same way because we had such different ideas. But the fact that we had such similar views on human rights and international development meant that our political views were in the background - something to discuss but not define our relationship.

Over the last couple of years I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of social media echo chambers (both consciously and unconsciously thanks to scary algorithms), so connecting with someone who doesn’t share my views was pretty refreshing. It reminded me of that phrase ‘there’s far more that unites us than divides us’, and I started thinking about how I can try to find some common ground with people I perceive to be completely different, and can’t imagine ever understanding. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a hashtag or an app for that.

To discover the best ethical fashion brands all over the world you can visit Natalie’s blog at www.sustainablychic.com and follow her on Instagram @sustainablychic.

The True Cost documentary is available on Netflix and is a fantastic insight into the fast fashion industry and the social and environmental challenges we’re now facing. And now that Seinfeld is streaming on Stan you can follow it up with the episode where Elaine dances so you’re not depressed for the rest of the night!

And if you'd like to find out more about how we choose the products in our collection, you can read about it here.

Image courtesy of Sustainably Chic


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