As part of a series highlighting the work of young people in addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews fashion lover Sophia Yang, who advocates for transformation in the industry.
With the realities of climate change, inequality and the pandemic, one could be forgiven for choosing despair. But the world is no better off for that, so I choose to study hope, a discipline that requires practice. Here, treat yourself to a few minutes of joy in the next instalment of my series profiling amazing — and yes, hopeful — young people contending successfully with the climate justice crisis in Canada.
Sophia Yang wants us to listen to the stories in our clothes. Late in 2020, she launched Threading Change to raise consumer and fashion industry awareness of its climate, gender, racial, and labour justice impacts, and the ethical alternatives.
Tell us about Threading Change.
We are ambitious, international youth working for a feminist, fossil-fuel-free fashion future.
Vancouver activist proves you can love fashion and look good without wrecking the planet. #fashion #SustainableFashion #sustainability #BuyVintage
Of the more than 10 million mostly female workers in China, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Vietnam and Cambodia, 85 per cent make less than 25 euros a month producing clothing for us in the Global North. Many work 16-hour days, 364 days a year. The industry produces 20 per cent of global wastewater, poisoning the water supply in the Global South. It emits 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year, more than the aviation and maritime industries combined. Without change, it will use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
As consumers, we are urged to respond by “buying green” or ethically made clothes or shop at thrift stores. We need to do this, but it is not enough. Ninety per cent of clothing donated to thrift stores goes to landfills, often in the Global South. System, society and individual behaviour change is required.
Threading Change helps us to think about our clothing in new ways. Imagine how different the industry might look if it shared common goals of net zero and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Instead of imitating Rihanna, who sees fashion as her “defence against the world,” we could think about wearing the love represented by that sweater gifted to us, or the shoes we wore to that great picnic, or the homemade mittens on a politician’s hands. We could be more content wearing those than purchasing new because we would be consciously wearing our stories.
How does Threading Change bring about change?
We understand the need for Global South perspectives. Our 14 volunteers, four board members, and two paid staff represent seven different countries, including Lebanon, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Kenya, India, Trinidad, China, and Canada.
Since our founding in November 2020, hundreds of people from more than 15 countries have attended our “Textile Talks” webinars with international panels to educate ourselves and each other. We network with existing networks to grow rapidly. We have letter-writing events on Zoom to ask fashion brands to be transparent about how they plan to support the UN sustainability goals. In April 2021, our #ClothesBusters campaign busts fashion myths, like clothing donation outcomes, and exposes environmental and social ills in the industry. It also shows how fashion trends are created with manipulative psychology.
We will soon release our interactive map of global innovation in the industry. At COP26, we will profile 50 low environmental impact ethical garment producers rooted in their communities in places like Nepal, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico and Canada.
How did you get into this project?
One of my earliest memories is playing a childish competitive game with my cousin in China. We were trying to see which of us could stamp out the most ants in our garden. My granny told us to stop and reminded us that although to us it was just a few ants, to them it is their only life.
I emigrated as a child with my parents from China. They both work as engineers in the fossil fuel industry, and sometimes we have interesting conversations! But I know they will always support me, and they raised me to care and to be kind. These are ethical foundations for my life and my work.
I have always loved fashion. I studied forestry at UBC and became very aware of climate change. I had a seminal moment at COP25 during a presentation by fashion moguls from big brands on decarbonizing their energy use. A gentleman in the audience from Nigeria asked how his wife, who made 25 cents an hour working in a garment factory, could help. The panel started giving advice, like advocating for solar panels on the factory roof. I was stunned by how out of touch they were. I knew then I wanted to help connect the dots between justice and climate. Threading Change aims to do that.
Do you have advice for other young people?
Figure out what lights the fire in your belly and find out more about it. Spend time in rooms where you are not the smartest person. Don’t be shy about applying for jobs even if you don’t meet all the qualifications. Getting yourself in front of decision-makers will make an impact on them just because you asked the question.
Do you want to say anything to older readers?
People in the Suzuki Elders circle changed my life just by the hard work they do to protect our future. Be encouraging and compassionate. Share your stories. You have lived experience, and it is urgent that we learn from you.