#017 Aditi Mayer: on balancing hope & urgency through a lens of intersectionality & decolonisation
Why do we need to decolonise the fashion industry? How do we move beyond voting with our dollar? How do we hold space for both joy and grief? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Aditi Mayer, a multi-hyphenate sustainable fashion blogger, journalist, photographer, activist, speaker, and Green Warrior.
Frustrated with the lack of representation and intersectionality within the sustainability movement, Aditi Mayer became a sustainable fashion blogger, photographer and activity speaking on style and social justice. She is also a Nat Geo Fulbright storytelling fellow. She speaks on style, sustainable and social justice. Her photojournalistic body of work explores labour, identity and the environment. Today, she has become a leading voice in the sustainability movement. She approaches her work from multiple domains. From grassroots organizing in Downtown LA’s garment district to educating folks on the importance of diverse perspectives. She also serves on the council of Intersectional Environmentalist.
For decolonising fashion and speaking up for labour rights, Aditi Mayer is one of our Green Warriors this year. (The Green Warriors list is our annual list of change makers, this year from around the world and not just in Asia, who are shaking things up on sustainability and modelling the way in their communities, or even on an international level.)
In this interview, we talk about addressing social and environmental injustices. Humanising the lived experience. Why we need to shift to a culture of accountability and grace. And more! You can listen to the whole conversation on the Live Wide Awake podcast here or read the highlights below.
On the Rana Plaza disaster…
My journey in this space… I would say started seven years ago. It was 2013 going on 2014. I was questioning, what are my next steps? What do I want to do? I always knew that I loved storytelling. Whether that was through photography or whether that was design and aesthetics. And at the same time, I learned about the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which had just happened in 2013. And for those who are not familiar, the Rana Plaza factory collapse was the biggest industrial disaster of our time. It was an eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh. And it was producing for some of the world’s biggest, fast fashion names that we know today. This was the moment that very much brought conversations of ethics and supply chains into the mainstream.
When I learned about this, it just got me thinking a lot more critically. About the politics of labour, the disproportionate impact that fashion had in the Global South. Especially in places like South Asia—which was where I was from. And so at that time, being a child of the Internet, I started a blog. Which I didn’t really have much intention or mission statement for… but it was just like a knee-jerk response. And as it evolved, even within the first few weeks, I decided to focus on sustainable fashion. I had no real idea of what that meant in practice, but I was curious.
On how her journey started…
I got an internship in my first year of college, which was for an “ethical” fashion brand that was employing victims of human trafficking in South Asia. As great as a mission it was, I started to see a lot of problematic power dynamics and tropes that were coming out. Not only of that brand, but the larger sustainable fashion narrative. So from the way that women of colour were depicted. Always seen in conjunction with their labour, always seen as victims of global predatory capital… To the way that [sustainable fashion] was catering only to well-off white women here.
It got me thinking, “Okay, Rana Plaza happened, but Rana Plaza is the tip of an iceberg”. And we need to interrogate the histories and systems, and structures in place. What created the conditions that allowed Rana Plaza to happen? This really framed my vantage point from there on out. And it led me back into my personal history and identity as a South Asian woman. From there on, [I started focusing on] understanding the impacts of colonialism in India. And not just India, it was also the larger world, and how colonialism became our current capitalistic structures. In terms of who has power. Who is seen as a productive member of society. How we value the things we do…
On the impacts of colonialism within South Asia and how it connects to fashion…
In the 1600s, the East India Company was established. That was basically the British colonisers coming to India. At the time, between spices and textiles, India had 25% of the world’s economy. The British wanted to own that. And if you think about how the fashion system operated in India, it was inherently artisan-led, regenerative in its approach. A lot of farms focused on sustenance farming. They planted native, indigenous varieties of what they needed. And they also planted their own cotton. But when the British came, they created the conditions in which India was only to give all of their cotton, their raw material to Britain… only to be sold back that cotton, at a premium, from the colonisers. Spinners and weavers were not able to afford that. This created a stark power dynamic there.
In the 19th century, Britain also capitalised on the US-Britain cotton relationship. They came to the US, forcibly removing Indigenous folks from their lands. And with so much land, which were plantations, they had to go to Africa to capture folks to become their slaves. There’s a lot to be said about what was happening throughout the globe at this time, between India and the Americas, in terms of how land was seen as dead material, how the value of those who were stewarding these lands were that of slaves… [All of this means that] we need to think about the relationship between fashion and empire. Because it was an empire of cotton.
On decolonising fashion…
I often say that we need to decolonise the fashion industry. And I think it’s important to explain what I mean by “colonial practice”. Which for me, means the exploitation and extraction of resources. Whether that is the natural environment or labour as a means for infinite financial gain. That’s precisely how fashion continues to operate. They continue to practice the global race to the bottom. Brands are looking to produce as much as they can, as fast as they can, as cheap as they can. And they do that by going to countries that have been destabilised by colonial violence, that still have colonial hangovers, and honing in on their vulnerable workforces.
You see this everywhere. From my backyard of downtown LA, where we have a largely undocumented garment worker community that are being paid cents… To South Asia, and anywhere in between. And so I think that’s why a historical lens is very important. And when I talk about intersectionality, which is another important theme of my work, it’s about understanding how identity informs our relationship to all of these structures and histories and the contemporary way that fashion operates.
On an intersectional lens on fashion…
Intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was a critical race theory scholar, and civil rights activist. Intersectionality is a framework that allows us to see the different elements of our identity: whether that’s gender, race, socioeconomic background, religion, sexuality… and how all of these things inform our lived experience. And how the structures and systems at play also inform our lived experience. Intersectional feminism was a framework to look at the different lived experiences of women around the globe and how we need to account for that. Now intersectional environmentalism, coined and popularised by Leah Thomas, applies that to the environmental movement. And so when I talk about intersectionality in fashion, it’s about the same things.
A lot of the narrative within the sustainable fashion movement is about buying our way into a new reality. That’s not everything, but it has become the mainstream understanding within the movement. That needs to be interrogated because when we talk about voting with your dollar, it limits not only who can engage with this movement, but how we engage with this movement. So when I talk about bringing intersectionality to fashion, it means having larger conversations of workers’ rights.
Why is it that marginalised communities continue to be at the back end of the fashion industry and continually marginalised? What about understanding the supply chain? Seeing the workers in the supply chain, and looking at the textile and agricultural aspect of fashion? When we only talk about buying our way towards a new reality, we erase a lot of folks that we need to amplify at this time.
On what this means in practice…
For me, going beyond voting with your dollar means having movements rooted in garment worker rights, policies to reflect that change. The fashion industry needs regulation as well. It also means looking at the practices we’re doing on the agricultural level. Are we planting cotton or linen or other natural fibres where it’s indigenous to that landscape we’re planting them in? It’s also about thinking more holistically. With material use, at the end of a garment’s life, is it going to biodegrade or is it going to turn into a bunch of microplastics? When we donate garments, what communities is that going to affect? Is it going to the Global South and fill their landfills and clog their systems?
So it really is a more holistic view. Of becoming not only consumers but activists. In that sense of interrogating our current systems rather than just buying our way into our new reality. Because it’s a lot deeper than that. And we can’t continue to ignore the beast of fast fashion that exists as we consume more sustainable fashion.
On how understanding interconnected nature of oppression will help us realise the interconnected nature of liberation…
So that’s something that’s been on my mind in recent weeks. Because I feel like at this critical juncture for both people and the planet, I saw so many overlapping natures of oppressions that we were seeing across the globe. Whether that was the fight for Black lives here in the States, or globally to the farmer protests that were happening in India. I could see how state-sponsored violence was occurring across the globe… how that was continually oppressing the same marginalised folks within these nations. The quote isn’t said to glaze over the nuances of all of these movements and lived experiences. But rather, there is something to be said about the nature of power and oppression that exists in these different contexts.
On how sustainability isn’t new…
The nature of sustainability isn’t new. A lot of the language we tend to speak in roots in the future. We need to “imagine the solutions”, solutions that utilise all these new technologies, or, you know, like something that’s going to come out of nowhere. But sustainability isn’t about reinventing the wheel. It’s about reorienting ourselves with a symbiotic relationship to nature that historically, many cultures have already formed.
And for me, a lot of the work of the last seven years has been reorienting myself with my South Asian roots, my ancestral heritage and knowledge. That’s been incredibly powerful, that many of the answers lie within us, and doing that work of understanding who we are rather than looking for it anywhere else. And I think when we take that approach, it kind of centres our own identity, no matter who we are. And any movement that centres identity is going to be a lot more personal and it becomes a lot deeper. Rather than making sustainability this abstract concept that is hard to understand and grasp for many.
I remember when I first started my journey in the space seven years ago, every time I would talk about race identity… Without fail, I would be met with comments of “that’s a distraction”, “that’s not at odds with sustainability”, “that’s two different conversations”. And so to see that less now is so important, because I know so many folks, especially people of colour in this movement, that felt so ostracised because of that sentiment.
On rest as resistance…
Another really big thing that I’ve unlearned within the last year is the idea of educators and activists constantly having to have output, output, output… always being on. I think it’s high time we divested from that idea because you have to fill your own well before you can do all of the work. And personal sustainability is a narrative that for a long time wasn’t being talked about. Whether that’s financial sustainability or personal mental health and wellness, these are things that need to be more mainstream when it comes to our understanding of how we operate.
Something that I’ve tried to practice a lot more in recent years, is the idea of equanimity. We’re going to have to experience those highs and lows, the grief and the joys. And I think we need to really embrace the nuance that those can co-exist at once. The world can feel like it’s on fire, but if we’re not finding moments for joy, this work cannot be sustainable. And especially as someone who’s public-facing on the Internet and is talking about social issues, it always feels like I’m the arbiter of heaviness. And so I think sharing little moments of joy in my day-to-day and taking a step back, is really important.
I think a lot of activists that I know online are trying to do the same, which is important because in many ways, the work will not stop. And if one person gets tired out, it’s not like the whole world and the stakes rest on one person’s shoulders. That’s where the idea of community comes back. Take your time to rest, take time to unplug. Because there will be others to fight the fight. And the beauty of a movement is that it’s only going to grow.
On a culture of accountability…
The Internet can be accessible in the sense of people being able to hide behind a keyboard, and just say what they want to say. I’ve come to realise that when it comes to more hateful language or comments, there are a few different varieties. Some of it is criticism, and that is valid. I’m not someone that tries to position themselves as someone that has all the answers. Or someone that is an expert in every single thing. So for one, I think the first step is creating space for myself to know that I will mess up, as a given. And so I think also as a culture, we need to start having more conversations about the nature of cancel culture. I am one for a culture of accountability and grace because everyone is on their own personal journeys.
On what a reimagined world looks like…
This is something I think about a lot. And I think of that quote, something along the lines of how it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That’s so powerful because it goes back into the fact that we’ve been fed such mechanistic ideas of how the world should operate.
So when I talk about reimagining the world, it’s about planting that seed. Where everyone comes to understand their intrinsically deep connection to the world. That they are nature. It’s about systems that can actually work for us. Systems rooted in regeneration and circularity. Because now, we’ve normalised systems that benefit the 1%. And everyone else is largely disenfranchised by virtue of the systems, especially in the fashion supply chain.
I also think I’m imagining a world with a lot more self-sufficiency. Like a world where we have our own gardens. Where we could grow our own food and make our own clothes. It can sound very idealistic, but I think a lot of the work of activism is also envisioning the role you want to see. It may not be in direct alignment with the outcome, but it certainly gives us the ability to step forward.
Three things I’m taking away from this conversation with Aditi
1. Rest is a form of resistance—it’s important that we look after ourselves so we can continue the work that needs to be done. 2. Creating a culture of accountability and grace where its okay to mess up and learn. 3. We are nature and everything is interconnected.