The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“When we were younger, my mom would make our dresses for weddings, so I grew up watching her sew. I think I was six years old when I asked her to teach me, so she taught me how to thread the machine. I don’t think I actually used [the machine] for quite a few years, but I would make clothes for my stuffed animals. I did more crochet when I was young. The things that I made — it’s actually insane — I never used a pattern. I just figured it out. I loved puzzles and putting things together. Designing and constructing garments is basically like placing a puzzle piece. You have to fit things a certain way. Certain pieces can only go together in certain ways to make it fit and make it functional. It’s just how my brain works.” – Marissa Myers, Designer and Slow Fashion Advocate.
Marissa Myers is a Slow Fashion activist based in Calgary, Alberta using her platform as a designer to inform people on the harm of fast fashion.
I meet Marissa for coffee on a Thursday morning in downtown Calgary, Alberta. The cafe isn’t full, but it still has the signature ambient noise of a coffee shop. Marissa is wearing a rust-coloured dress accented with gold jewelry, tied together with gold glasses frames. She greets me with a warm smile and a hello. Once we both have our coffees, I start with a few simple questions: How old are you? What’s your favourite colour? Do you know your star sign? To which she replied: 23; green and pink; and she’s an Aries.
I ask about her childhood. She grew up in the northwest of Calgary. “There were lots of parks and bike paths. It was a nice community to grow up in.” We both laugh when I ask her what her favourite thing about Calgary is. The obvious answer is, of course, the mountains. Marissa continues to explain that while she doesn’t plan to stay in Calgary, she’s built a home here. “It’s not a big city,” she says but with the mountains and the U.S. and B.C. borders so close, “you have the best of every world.” It is apparent that Marissa is grateful for the home she has here in Calgary. However, her next stop is New York City.
Marissa wishes to pursue a degree in international business at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising (LIM) College, if she can finance it.
Marissa explains that while it is a business college first, LIM has a niche in fashion. This is where she wants to take her career next. Her goal is to get into supply chain management. Marissa feels this is the most impactful way to tackle the negative impacts the fashion industry has on human rights and the environment.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Originally, Marissa’s dream was to be a fashion designer. Her love for creating and styling outfits made a career in fashion design a natural choice. However, at the age of nineteen, Marissa watched a documentary that completely changed her outlook on the fashion industry. The True Cost documents the processes, the people, and the places behind the clothes we wear. It asks the question, “Who really pays the price for our clothing?”
As it turns out, the answer is not as simple as an exchange of cash for goods. The true cost of our clothing comes down to the lives of the people manufacturing our clothes and the impact the industry has on the environment. The ten dollars you spend on a T-shirt in North America is tied to the exploitation of workers in countries in the Global South. Marissa notes that “a lot of people don’t understand that this is a human rights issue.”
This system of rapid production that has overtaken the fashion industry is commonly known as fast fashion. Companies source cheap synthetic materials (most are made from petroleum or petrochemicals like polyester) and manufacture in lower-middle-income countries (LMIC) where labour costs are low. Clothes are then produced and shipped out at a high-speed rate (as fast as one to five weeks) to meet consumer demands. Keeping costs low and meeting high demand is the main contributor to the human rights violations Marissa describes.
However, consumers greatly contribute to this issue as well. While the industry forecasts and markets new trends in rapid rotation, consumer behaviour considers items that are worn more than once “old.” According to ThredUP News, one in two consumers does not want to be seen wearing the same outfit twice. The faster new trends come out, the faster old trend items end up in landfills where they can take 200+ years to decompose. “We are producing more than we can consume […] people are always looking for the newest thing.” Marissa points out that the waste ratio increases exponentially because these new trends are put on the racks weekly. She explains that these items are essentially made just to be thrown out.
Marissa knew she could not continue contributing to this system. When she learned about fast fashion and how it contributes to the human rights violations of textile workers, she felt disgusted at how we, as a society and as consumers, could treat people as though they were disposable. Marissa attributes part of this attitude to a disconnect between consumers and where their products are made. “It’s easy to say ‘well I don’t know them’ and ‘it’s not in my backyard’ and ‘at least they have a job.’” She describes the working conditions in textile factories: poor ventilation, long hours, exposure to harsh chemicals, and even physical and sexual abuse.
“Would you take that job?” She asks me.
I am instantly reminded of the privilege with which I live my life here in Canada. I can turn down a job or negotiate my salary if I decide the wage offered is not enough. I can quit if I’m unhappy at my job. I can get a loan and go back to school to retrain for a different field. In Alberta, I can work a single eight-hour shift at a minimum wage of $15 CAD and make $120 CAD in one day. Meanwhile, some 689 million individuals in extreme poverty across the globe are left to stretch their daily average income of 1.90 USD to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families—a number that will only increase in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Advocating Slow Fashion
Having decided to change the way she approaches fashion, Marissa began to educate herself on how to practice slow fashion. She soon found herself using her platform as a designer to advocate for sustainability.
Marissa explains to me that her greatest priority in slow fashion activism is creating awareness. “I’m constantly reminding myself that change can’t happen if you’re not aware.” I ask her how she creates awareness, and she begins to laugh. “I’m always telling people, ‘you can’t just make a post on social media!’ but here I am making posts from my bed.” Even so, Marissa knows that something as small as an Instagram story can resonate with someone. “If it happens to resonate with you, it might take root, and you might look into it further. It’s a start.”
But Marissa is also keenly aware of her responsibility as an activist. “I never want to spread misinformation.” She tells me how she has made mistakes before and that while it never feels good to be wrong, you can always learn from it. “You take it down, do more digging, and then you get back in. It’s a constant process of learning and unlearning.”
Empathy is also a big part of Marissa’s activism. She knows how easy it is to become disconnected and frustrated with other people and their points of view. Regardless, she makes a point of communicating that people and their experiences matter. In the future, she hopes to organize events to bring people together to talk about slow fashion formally. “Face-to-face interaction and emotion are huge. Seeing the passion that someone has when they speak on the issue at hand is really important.”
Slow Fashion in Practice
Marissa describes slow fashion as being a “conscious consumer.” She says that because “you vote with your dollars,” it is important to be mindful of where you are spending your money. However, she is also quick to point out that while it is great to buy from sustainable brands, “sustainable fashion is not accessible to the majority of people.” Marissa laughs and tells me that her friend often says, “I know my tax bracket.” She explains that while it would be ideal for everyone to buy from sustainable brands, it may not be practical for everyone.
The low prices of fast fashion clothing are specifically catered for the masses—particularly for younger people with little income. These consumers are more likely to follow current trends and cancel old ones and will still experience frequent changes in their bodies and tastes. “No matter what you do, where you are, or where you look, fast fashion is everywhere.” Marissa’s advice is that even if you have to buy from a fast fashion company, you can still be conscientious of what you buy.
“Before you buy something, ask yourself if you can commit to wearing it thirty times.” She notes that while fast fashion products are often of cheap quality, wearing an item thirty times is not a lot. You can also consider what the material is made out of. Some synthetic fibres are less harmful than others (polyester can be recycled whereas nylon can’t). However, it is best to stick to natural fibres; a cotton T-shirt will at least decompose. Thrifting, Marissa notes, is also a great way to enjoy the brands you love without giving your money to fast fashion companies. She believes it is better to “contribute to the local economy instead of giving your money to Zara or H&M.”
She also recommends that you consider how the new piece will work with what you already have. The point is to enjoy the creativity of fashion and personal expression while also only buying what you need. An easy frame of reference, Marissa says, is the “Buyerarchy of Needs.” Much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Buyerarchy is a pyramid of levels or steps that buyers should fulfill before they can consider the next level. The goal of the Buyerarchy is to avoid buying new. The levels of the Buyerarchy are as follows: use what you have, borrow, swap, thrift, make, and buy.
Imperfection is Greater
While tackling fast fashion may seem rather intimidating, more people see the benefits of slow fashion. Advocates like Marissa keep the movement alive by continuing the conversation and making sustainability an everyday choice. If we do vote with our dollars, practicing conscious consumerism can significantly influence the consumer trends fashion companies so carefully study (see also Levi’s, Adidas, and Pay Up).
Marissa paraphrases Anne-Marie Bonneau when she tells me, “We need more people doing sustainability imperfectly than we need people doing it perfectly.” She explains that practicing sustainability requires grace. Even now, Marissa says she still falls victim to impulse purchases. She’s not perfect; no one is.
“In the sustainability movement, you can never truly win. You are always going to lose to some extent […] Once you realize that you always lose, it takes a lot of the pressure off. It allows you to extend grace to yourself and others. Not everyone can commit to the level that you are committing to, and that’s okay.”