BY LAUREL PINSON (via Glamour.com)
More than 30 models took a bus ride to Washington, D.C., to participate in the People’s Climate March, an enormous rally that brought thousands into the sweltering heat to draw attention to issues around jobs, justice, and climate change. The group was part of the “Model Mafia,” a community of models who are eager to use their personal platforms (and their collective power) to encourage sustainability in the fashion industry and beyond.
While “fashion” and “climate change” might not be two things you’d put together, these models would beg to differ. In fact, they think the industry is teetering on the brink of self-immolation unless they start embracing more sustainable practices—and that fashion can set an example for other industries to follow. Sustainability has been a buzzword in the industry for some time but has yet to make the leap into standard practice or formalized regulations. Truth: Fashion is the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. These models want to change that.
The women assembled to caravan down to D.C. were true global citizens—people born in one country who have made any number of cities their home. As model Renee Peters stressed over email, “Models are representative of so many different cultures, ethnicities, and countries, as most travel all over the world for work. They also are representative of a vast range of socioeconomic classes, from their childhood upbringing.”
Top model Cameron Russell spoke to Glamour about what brought this group together and why climate change is a truly intersectional issue. And several of the Model Mafia offered their perspectives too.
Glamour: How did this all come together? How did you end up on a bus heading to D.C. with more than 30 models?
Cameron Russell: The women who came are part of a larger group called the Model Mafia, which is a group of models that have organized meet-ups to hang out and to discuss activism inside the fashion industry, as well as career development, friendship, and support. And when the People’s Climate March came into my calendar view, I emailed the group, and the response was enormous. I think we have a chain of 50 or 60 replies saying yes. On Tuesday of last week, we held this wonderful sign painting/teach-in where five different women from the group spoke about climate change and the way it intersects with the issues that they care about. One of the reasons I helped set up this group was I wanted to build a container for our industry to organize and help make visible all these model leaders that I knew of personally in some cases and lots I didn’t know. I actually saw a lot of models and a lot of women who were attracted to modeling because they had something they wanted to say, and it was fast access to media and a network and all the things it provides. On Tuesday this woman Hawa Hassan spoke, and she’s a Somali American woman who immigrated here, and she talked about how climate refugees and how climate change is an immigration crisis. (Hassan followed up over email with her own insight on the matter, writing, “According to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, the number of displaced people is now at its highest ever, even more than after World War II. And in the next 20 to 30 years, there’s no question that tens of millions of people—some estimates go up to one billion—will be displaced by drought and other effects from climate change. The term ‘climate refugee’ isn’t officially accepted yet, but soon it will be unavoidable.”)
Ebonee Davis has given a TedTalk on race in the industry, and she talked about the intersection of racial justice and climate change and how it is just as essential to solving the climate crisis as it is to addressing immigration, because frontline communities are largely communities of color. In the United States, people of color and African Americans are disproportionately affected by climate change and have also been on the forefront of the environmental justice movement prior to the climate movement. (Davis followed up via email with additional details on this issue, writing: “Most people think of global warming when they hear the phrase ‘climate change, but in reality climate change presents itself in many ways. Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and Dakota Access Pipeline are examples of how unsustainable manufacturing practices and irresponsible building can profoundly affect the earth and its inhabitants. In both of these cases, and many others, communities of color are the most vulnerable.”) And then there’s Renee Peters, who has been doing sustainable fashion work, and she spoke about sustainability in fashion. Our industry is one of the largest industrial polluters in the world and is responsible for somewhere around 10 percent of carbon emissions. And there are so many ways that we can advocate and make change within our own industry that will really significantly help solve them and move us to a sustainable future.
I think everyone asks, “Why go to a march? Are marches useful for anything?” And my personal way into this is thinking that this is an opportunity for us to build our political capital in this model group…. Anyway, that’s a long-winded answer.
Glamour: No, it’s actually perfect. The thing that I find so interesting about your group—and the Model Mafia broadly—is that you are putting climate change into your sights in a very intersectional way. I think models are the ultimate global citizens in terms of influencers, in a way. They are perceived by the layman to be these real jet-set characters, whether they are a person that is traveling to Milan for Fashion Week or not. It’s so interesting that you guys would band together to address something that really is global and is border- or boundary-less.
CR: I think this group has been really intersectional—and this was very intentional when we founded it. With models there’s a very “winner take all” dynamic where one in 1,000 or one in 2,000 girls hits the jackpot, and everybody else works their ass off hoping that will happen. And one of the really beautiful things [about this group] is organizing in that community and not organizing the way that we’re organized backstage at a show, where you see the same 30 girls over and over, or organized at a shoot, where you see the same women that are trending and maybe a couple new faces. Organizing it really by putting out a call to all women who understand themselves to be models has attracted a very diverse set along all lines. I think one of the most powerful parts of this group is that we can be in solidarity with each other among very, very different issues.
Glamour: So these aren’t all American models—and they’re also models at varying stages of their career.
CR: They’re not all supermodels; they’re not all going to be supermodels, but they are women who work in an industry that isn’t clean and who have a unique set of skills when they’re together. This isn’t necessarily really because everyone in this group is a supermodel. It’s because we have a shared interest and we have some shared skills and we’re in an industry that we want to push for them to change.
Glamour: What do you think is the number-one thing that fashion should turn its attention to in making change here? I’m sure there’s a long list, but where would you start?
CR: I think there are a couple of different ways that we can address this. We know that industries are going to have to self-regulate in order to address climate change. And the fashion industry—because it’s a big contributor, for one, but also because it’s so public—through self-regulation can serve as a model for other industries. It’s an industry really based on consumerism, so we’re going to have to change some of the fundamental ways that we operate. I think large commitments, industrywise, around sustainability would be very powerful. But I also understand that sustainability isn’t just about “Do we use organic cotton?” or “Do we produce fewer garments?” It’s also addressing a whole host of issues that I think our industry is also really well poised to address.
Glamour: These are the same issues I know the women’s rights movement often discusses—that once you start unraveling one thread, it’s really about so many different things stuck together. But I do think it’s interesting to think about fashion as an industry that’s more poised to effect change than other industries.
CR: I wouldn’t say that we’re necessarily more poised than other industries to bring change; I just think we see what we’re uniquely poised to address many of these issues.
On a lighter note, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is…I don’t know if you ever went to Blockbuster, the home video rental store?
CR: So I remember going to Blockbuster one day when, like, the Internet had arrived, and I was like, “Oh no, you guys, your time is so limited.” And they just didn’t adapt, and it was this really slow, painful death. There were discount bins of DVDs being sold, and the price just went down and down: $7.99, then $2.99, then free. And then they just closed. I feel like fashion is at this moment where we’re like, “We’re not going to be able to keep doing this. The centerpiece of our existence cannot be selling trash.” The reason that all of us are here is not to create and sell $5 T-shirts. The reason that all of us are here is because we love making culture and we are creative and we love the community. And all of those things are 100 percent sustainable and renewable. And that’s where our focus has to be.
This interview has been condensed.
Photos by Gabriela Celeste