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Dreaming of sustainability in a material world

Not so long ago, fashion-savvy consumers shopped by the season, waiting for new collections to arrive before refreshing their closets. Now, retailers push cheap, trend-driven clothes all year round. Fast fashion means that consumers can buy heaps of clothes on impulse, then toss them out and buy some more. One billion new items of clothing…

Not so long ago, fashion-savvy consumers shopped by the season, waiting for new collections to arrive before refreshing their closets. Now, retailers push cheap, trend-driven clothes all year round. Fast fashion means that consumers can buy heaps of clothes on impulse, then toss them out and buy some more.

One billion new items of clothing are produced every year, and every second, a garbage truck’s worth of textiles are put in landfills or burned. If things don’t change soon, fashion could drain a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Kamea Chayne, author of Thrive: An Environmentally Conscious Lifestyle Guide to Better Health and True Wealth and the host of the Green Dreamer podcast, says she was once “addicted” to fast fashion. She struggled with depression during her first semester of college, and to cope, she turned to retail therapy—buying stuff to feel better.

“Retail therapy is this idea that every time we buy something new, we get a little burst of joy,” she says. “But it’s not really lasting. This really led me to question, what is it exactly that leads us to fulfillment, life satisfaction, and happiness?”

Born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, Chayne had traveled to 39 countries by the time she was 22, and she understood that to live and be well—to thrive—is a common aspiration within all communities and cultures. As she began to learn about the social and environmental injustices that keep people and nature from thriving, she made it her mission to be a more conscious consumer. “The [low] prices of fast fashion don’t reflect the true cost,” she says.

The fashion industry emits more greenhouse gases than ocean shipping and international airline flights combined. Those emissions stem mostly from big inputs like water usage for growing cotton and garment washing, and petroleum inputs for synthetic fibers.

“The amount of water needed to grow enough cotton for a single T-shirt is 2,700 liters, which is about three years’ worth of drinking water for one person,” Chayne says.

As she began to learn about humanity’s impact on the planet, Chayne started to feel the creep of eco-anxiety, and she noticed her friends responding to the sixth mass extinction and the climate crisis in the same way. “I learned from behavioral psychology that when we feel doomed, it will shut us down and inhibit us from taking action,” she says. “I wanted to talk about solutions. I wanted to explore the question: What are the different things that people around the world are doing to make a positive difference?”

In 2018, she started Green Dreamer, a podcast and multimedia journal, to do just that. Chayne has since talked to more than 160 people from around the world who are doing the work and have an informed point of view to share.

Episode one, “Rethinking Everything to Rebuild a Sustainable World,” featured actor and UN Environmental Goodwill Ambassador Adrian Grenier. In episode 88, Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, discussed “Why We’re Wired to Want More Stuff, and the Psychology of Materialism.”

In episode 105, “Why supporting community-based organizations may be key to environmental justice” Chayne spoke with Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, about how grassroots initiatives can lead to meaningful change for citizens, and how individuals can support environmental justice.

For a series on biodiversity loss, Chayne hosted a soil microbiologist, a regenerative farmer, an environmental journalist, and a nonprofit leader. Recent guests have discussed decentralizing the power grid, sustainable home improvement, and safeguarding indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest.

When she interviewed Ricky Kaplan, vice president of American Recycled Clothing, a zero-waste company, he told her sagely: “Happiness is not found in seeking more; sometimes it’s just learning how to enjoy less.”

How to thrive is a topic that’s still very much on Chayne’s mind. “We have to start thinking bigger, to recalibrate our measurements of what it means to live a good life, what success means, what abundance means, and to begin building those practices into our day-to-day lives,” she says.

Those practices, when applied to fashion, can include prioritizing recycled fibers and low-impact natural fibers like linen, regenerative wool, and organic cotton. Buying used clothing, participating in clothing swaps, and renting formalwear can make a positive impact, too. “We’re at a time when we need all hands on deck,” Chayne says, emphasizing that there’s a unique role for everyone to play in solving the climate crisis.

“There is a path forward. What inspires me is the reminder that I am a part of nature. I am a part of this whole ecosystem. The same things that we need in order to thrive are the things that nature needs in order to thrive.”

To learn more about Kamea Chayne’s story and others in this series, visit NatGeo.com/RewindNature.

Kamea is one of the change makers being highlighted in The North Face and REI’s series called REWIND NATURE – a series that springs from our desire to roll back time— to when the Earth was cleaner, cooler, and wilder. Inspired by the Eco Heritage Collection, the series produced in partnership with National Geographic spotlights changemakers who are taking a step forward to reverse the damage we’ve caused to our planet, and brings to light actionable ways to make small changes that have a big impact.

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