For Many Asian Americans, the Connection Between Fashion and Climate Change Is Personal
By Denali Sai Nalamalapu
It was raining outside when I found out that a bus full of thirty women nearly got swept away by climate-fueled floods near my hometown in Southern India. I closed my eyes and imagined the horror of feeling the bus lose traction underneath you as rain lashed down from above. I imagined the sudden surge of relief when nearby community members saved the women by helping them disembark the doomed bus. They must have been overwhelmed with the exhaustion of having survived this ordeal after working a long shift in the garment factory, and now having to find their way home. This story has stuck with me because it speaks to the particular circumstances of climate change and the garment industry.
The fast fashion industry has long used–and often exploited–Asian workforces to produce their goods cheaply so that they can generate more products and make a bigger profit. Because garment workers are often paid low wages, they are forced to work in difficult conditions, including during natural disasters, in order to make ends meet. This puts them at the center of precarious situations, like a lack of appropriate care following workplace injuries. The fashion industry thus deems some bodies–usually dark skinned and living in the Global South–less worthy of human rights and fair pay. Like many dominant industries in the world, it is rooted in colonialism and racism, which is the same case with the climate crisis.
But this reality is changing, and some Asian Americans who have sustainability and human rights at the forefront of their mind are leading the charge.
Ruby Veridiano is a sustainable fashion journalist and storyteller who grew up in the Philippines and moved to the United States when she was ten. Ruby reflects, “With every immigrant family, you learn how to make something out of nothing. My mom and grandmother were very fashionable, and inspired me to work in fashion. When we started our new life in America, we bought mostly secondhand and were taught not to waste anything.”
The sustainability movement has historically excluded immigrant, Indigenous and other voices of color. But Ruby has built a career around uplifting the unique perspective of Asian American and immigrant communities on sustainable fashion. “There is so much wisdom that can be learned from the ways we live. We need to lean on the things that we know.”
Ruby educates and supports companies to build a sustainable and ethical online presence that uplifts the voices of changemakers in the fashion industry. She believes in the power of stories to change the impact the industry has on the planet.
This includes women in Asia making the garments that companies sell. The Asia-Pacific region employs 75% of all garment workers worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. The garment industry is notorious for swooping into low-income, under-resourced communities, often in countries that lack labor rights, to exploit their workforce. Many of their workers are women, and they are sometimes very young and thus more vulnerable to perverse exploitation.
“As a diaspora, we might be on the other side of the supply chain but women in Asia are fighting for their rights and we can’t forget them. The [fashion] industry is built on the backs of Black and Brown women. We talk about gender equality in the West as equal pay and rights; that’s what women in the factories are fighting for in a visceral way,” says Ruby. She is exposing and changing this reality through strategic social media campaigns with socially conscious brands and collaborations with universities to make sure fashion students are supported and inspired to contribute to the change.
Alicia Tsai, a New York-based entrepreneur and alumna of the Fashion Institute of Technology, is taking her own similar mindset into the industry. Born and raised in Taiwan, Alicia moved to the United States when she was 19 years-old. The amount of waste in the U.S. is continually astonishing to Alicia, whose grandmother and mother grew up in a time when Taiwan was poor and wasted as little as possible. Sustainability is front of mind when she creates products for her luxury fragrance and candle company, Aerangis.
When Alicia came to the U.S., she noticed that sustainability was often associated with “granola” and “hippie” culture. She wanted to make a brand that was luxury and sustainable in order to prove that you don’t have to be boxed into a particular culture in order to buy products that are mindful of their environmental impact. Alicia noticed that many people avoid sustainable brands because they don’t align with their aesthetic, especially in big cities like New York. So she created a company that looks like other luxury brands and has a strong commitment to sustainability.
Recently, Alicia and her team were creating a new gift set. They struggled with the packaging of the set because so many gift sets are wrapped up in single-use plastics, including individual product wrapping, the wrapping of the whole set and the decorations. Alicia decided to use a sturdy, reusable box to package the set with ribbon made from post-consumer plastic and stickers with biodegradable adhesive. Her commitment to sustainability impacted every feature of the gift set.
Alicia still feels like an anomaly amongst her small-business peers in the depth of her eco-consciousness, and yet she admits that she can always do more, “Everything we use, we dig into the nitty gritty of its origins to make sure we feel good about it. Sustainability is neverending, so I do the best I can.”
Ruby and Alicia are two Asian American leaders directing the fashion industry towards a sustainable future. Ruby is changing the way sustainable fashion is communicated and Alicia is changing the role of sustainability in the industry. Because of their roots in Asia, they have integrated the intersections of the fashion industry’s impact on this planet and its people in order to ensure a livable and just future for their communities both in the U.S. and their motherlands.
Denali Sai Nalamalapu is a South Indian–American freelance writer, artist and climate communicator.