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Getting Creative with Emily Besa's Sustainability

The role of design and storytelling in sustainable action.

How can creativity support climate action? We had to ask a specialist. How can creativity support climate action? We had to ask a specialist. Emily Besa is a writer, fashion stylist, and creative consultant. She specializes in helping her clients reconnect with their individual style, and refine their self-expression. Emily Besa authored All The People, an intimate, personal exploration of gender identity and expression with the stories of 39 individuals. She writes for Six Degrees Berlin, which highlights local, ethical, and sustainably-minded makers, designers, and artists, and is currently the editor-in-chief for The Food Keeper, a platform that celebrates the women whose work and vision shape the cultural landscape. With so much on the burners, we were lucky to catch her at one of our events and secure some solid insights on creativity, fashion and sustainability.

Emily, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Can you tell us a bit more about what you are working on and how you got here?

Emily Besa on sustainability and climate change
Emily Besa, (Credit: Fanette Guilloud)

Before moving to Europe, I worked in Hollywood in the TV and film industry. While I enjoyed the creative process of bringing characters to life and helping to tell stories through clothing and wardrobe, there were aspects of the entertainment industry that didn’t sit well with me. There is a lot of waste and excess involved. For example, the productions I worked on shifted from using individual plastic water bottles to providing large water coolers and encouraging everyone on set to use refillable water bottles. Unfortunately, as soon as we were shooting on location, the plastic bottles would reappear. A lot of times, as is the case in many industries, long-term, more sustainable solutions are sacrificed for convenience and fast turnaround.

During my time living in Los Angeles, I would travel to Amsterdam between work projects to recenter, relax, and reenergize. At some point, I decided to move to Amsterdam and was excited to swap my car for a bike and focus my energies on the incredible designers and creative environment I found there.

Love and life brought me to London and then most recently to Berlin where I work with clients in a variety of industries as a consultant. My styling clients include those who want to reconnect with their style after a major life-change such as starting a new business or being in a new city, as well as people who are interested in exploring a conscious, sustainable lifestyle. My writing clients range from non-profit organizations to start-ups, to artists, musicians, and other authors.

How do you integrate sustainability into your work?

My take on personal styling is that if we know who we are and what suits us best, we are no longer susceptible to the changing trends presented every season or micro-season in the case of fast fashion. I work to reconnect people with their innate style. If we know ourselves, then we are less likely to buy something on a whim, because we have defined our personal style and are committed to it. We are people, not consumers!

I integrate sustainability by doing closet edits with my clientele so that they are truly informed about what they have at home. Together, we identify what is working for them, and what can be swapped with friends, donated, or consigned. We explore new outfit combinations to reinvigorate one’s style with already owned pieces—because of course, the most sustainable clothing, shoes, accessories, and all are the ones we already own. We identify pieces that can be mended or altered to bring them back into use or rotation. And in the end, if there are items that are truly lacking, we then go shopping with an emphasis on investing in bespoke clothing, local, fair and sustainable brands, as well as well-curated preloved and vintage items.

Sustainable fashion with Emily Besa
Emily Besa’s styling work (Credit L/R: Berndt Ott)

I aim to connect my clientele with their innate style, within their means, their comfort, and their joy. Because one’s style should be effortless and natural, I seek to remind each client that they intuitively know what works and feels best for them. I am simply a mirror, and I aim to be a positive and problem-solving one that works to undo the distortion of limiting beliefs and unsustainable habits that have been formed by our modern, materialist, capitalist society. Retail is not therapy, and no one should “shop till you drop.”

You create stories for work through different mediums. What do you think the most efficient narrative for climate action should be?

In my experience, there isn’t one way to tell a story, and the more diverse the stories and the storytellers are, the better. I think the most effective but not necessarily the most efficient narrative is one that centers and empowers the people who are at the heart of the matter for climate action: the people around the world whose basic human needs of safety, stability, clean air, water, and food sources are not being met, or are endangered.

…And what would be your preferred medium for this narrative?

I think the mediums that incorporate the visual are most impactful. Infographics, documentaries, short films, and the like can all be helpful, accessible, eye-opening and compelling.

How can creativity support causes? Can you think of examples that have influenced you?

Creativity can make a message particularly powerful and persuasive. Artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, actors, and everyone working creatively are uniquely positioned to support causes because they can deliver crucial and often complex messages in beautiful, unexpected ways. These creative players are responsible for shaping our culture and in turn, they can have a lot of impact on our beliefs and behavior. Thus they can be powerful advocates for causes.

Styling by Emily Besa (Credit L/R: Berndt Ott)

I have heard that The True Cost documentary was life-changing for many people. For me this is a great example of creativity supporting and even breathing new life into a cause. Here, the creativity of filmmaker Andrew Morgan has had quite an influence on the landscape of sustainable fashion, making many people aware of the particular problems of fast fashion.

I find it interesting when public figures such as actors or artists leverage their platform to support a cause and use their personal resources and considerable reach to do so. Jane Fonda springs to mind, with her multiple arrests while protesting for climate change. There have been articles written about the iconic red winter coat she’s worn while protesting, which further illustrates that developing a signature style can be significant and impactful. Incidentally, she has said that this coat is the last piece of clothing she will buy.

What is Emily Besa’s position on climate change? How do you want to impact your world?

Climate change is global, but we have to think and act locally. It is a real and everyday problem, so if we all take small steps every day, we can have a significant impact. I enjoy having good conversations with people who might not know how the fashion industry and the clothing we wear impact the world and all of its inhabitants. I hope to educate and inspire the people around me to be excited about all of the small things we can do to positively impact the world. I try to live in accordance with what I believe. Sustainability is an ideal, and it takes all of us taking small steps in our own way to drive change.

Is sustainable fashion possible?

Is it possible for us to have a more responsible relationship with fashion? Yes. We can extend the lifespan of our current wardrobe by altering it to update the silhouette, mending it when it becomes worn or needs fixing (such as replacing a button or a zipper) and caring for it properly such as washing it inside out, with the cold setting when possible, with gentle biobased laundry detergents and only washing it when absolutely necessary or spot cleaning—and definitely air-drying versus tumble drying. We can also get creative with our styling. And when we need to replace an item or if we need something for a certain occasion, we can invest in well-made pieces that we know we will cherish for a long time. We can borrow from our friends, or utilize clothing rental services if we need that hit of newness.

(Credit: Bernd Ott)

Is it possible for the fashion industry to become more sustainable? Yes. It’s a complex industry with globalized, fractured, and far from transparent processes but there are amazing brands, NGOs, labor unions, and various players within the industry working to overhaul the system. For fashion to become more sustainable, huge fundamental changes to the system are required. The modern fashion industry as a whole is not sustainable, but neither is agriculture for example. Not only is the environmental impact out of sight and out of mind, so is the socio-economic impact. These two things go hand in hand, because as companies have outsourced labor to cheaper markets to maximize profit, they’ve also moved the environmental impact abroad, and away from the labor and environmental regulations and standards we enjoy and often take for granted.

Climate action has a lot to do with personal action and identity. How do you see the relationship between personal style and personal narratives and sustainable living?

I think it’s a seamless relationship between personal style, narratives, and lifestyle, no pun intended. We live in a city and in a part of the world where we are privileged to enjoy clean air and water, and a very high standard of living in general. I think we understand that we can make various decisions about how we feed ourselves, and I think we’re moving in the same direction in thinking about how we clothe or style ourselves. For example, our food is labelled with the country of origin, we have several markets within the city where we can buy produce without all the plastic and paper packaging, or shops like Original Unverpack (Original Unpacked) and there are options like sourcing local seasonal produce through CSA (community supported agriculture) services. I do think we can make similar choices in regards to our personal style, and how we dress ourselves.

I would love to see it become deeply uncool to buy something and just wear it once; I would love to see people determine their own capsule wardrobes (and decide for themselves what items are their wardrobe basics or essentials), and truly define their own style. One’s style can evolve over time in a natural and holistic way, without needlessly purchasing and discarding clothing.

Happy Cow rated Berlin as the top 3rd vegan city of 2019 and there are lots of vegan options in this city no matter where you go. I would love to see the same with clothing options—with fair, sustainable initiatives and brands available for everyone regardless of socio-economics, neighborhood, and the like.

Emily Besa
Emily Besa in interview (Credit: Bernd Ott)

What are my best moves to use my style/persona to contribute to the fight against climate change?

Organize your closet so you know what you truly have. Turn each piece of clothing around so the hanger is facing backwards (towards you), and replace it in your closet facing the right way after you’ve worn it. Take stock of everything in your closet every six months to see what still hasn’t been worn. Edit out the pieces you haven’t worn within the year, and share, swap, donate or consign them.

Maintain your clothing, shoes, and accessories by cleaning and storing them properly, update and repair them professionally or yourself if you can. Do clothing swaps with friends. Share, rent, and buy pre-loved.

Invest in pieces of high quality, be selective about online purchases (and shop from local companies whenever possible), and reduce or stop impulse buying. Make your own clothing if you’re crafty.

What would you say to the people who want to support climate action but do not know where to begin or how to go about?

Talk to the people around you and ask them what are they doing to support climate action. See if you can get involved with what they are doing, or adapt any of their actions. Start small. Every little step helps, and it’s an ongoing, ever-evolving process.

And finally, the Ultimate Question, what is your equation of happiness?

Simple pleasures (good food, good company, good music, sunshine, fresh air, clean water), respect, and kindness = happiness.

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