Shanahan Studio Session with Harvard Student Isabelle Saxton
Welcome to Shanahan Studio Session Isabelle Saxton. Isabelle has an impressive resume starting with her family, her grandfather was a draftsman for Rolls Royce airplanes and her granny was a kitchen designer. Isabelle is currently attending Harvard university and is in her first two years of a Master’s in sustainability with a minor in corporate sustainability and innovation. When she was 17 years old she went to Paris to worked in Bon Marché at Dior! She also interned for a non-profit organisation called TASSI East, in Sri Lanka. The main topic discussed is sustainability in fashion. Let's get started!
Hello Isabelle, welcome to Shanahan Studio Session. Let’s start off by asking you how you started your career in fashion?
Hi Hannah, thanks for having me in the Shanahan Studio Session! When I was six or seven, I knew that I wanted to be an artist, like my granny, but painting didn’t sit right with me. Shortly after, someone told me that making clothes was a job and I thought that would be the greatest thing to do. So, when I was old enough to go to university, I went to study clothing design at the Rhode Island School of Design to learn how to drape, design, pattern, machine knit, sew, finish, and document clothing. I was interested in sustainability before going to RISD, so my minor was in Nature Culture Sustainability and Science, and the internships I did focused on working with sustainable brands, including being the co-student ambassador for Fashion Revolution for RISD. Since graduating, I have worked on my own clothing, which uses the juxtaposition between synthetic and natural materials to highlight the need for sustainability in the industry, and machine knitting that urges consumers to reflect and self-educate. All materials (thread, fabric, hard wear) are either second-hand, found on the street, or natural and naturally dyed (I don’t use synthetic glue interfacing). I’ve also freelanced and interned with fashion and sustainable brands and organizations, assisting with photoshoots, graphic designing, researching sustainable textiles and dyes, and writing sustainability texts.
Is there anyone in your family working in the fashion or creative industry?
Yes, on both sides of my family! On my mum’s side, my great grandpa was a draftsman for Rolls Royce airplanes, his sister was a tailor and suit maker, and my Grammy (his daughter) was a kitchen designer and avid painter and sketcher. My Grammy first taught me how to drape on a dress form when I was younger. On my dad’s side, I’m forgetting her relation to me, but a grandmother several generations back opened her own dress shop selling her tailor-made women’s dresses. My Granny is a mixed-media canvas-based artist, my aunt is an art teacher, and my cousin is an architect, so we’re a creative bunch!
How did you first become interested in sustainability?
I learnt about corporate social responsibility during the business management course for the International Baccalaureate (IB), and it seemed vital for every business to be taking CSR actions, and I felt compelled to be a part of the movement. So, I wrote my Extended Essay (a research requirement for the IB) on Patagonia, Nike, and Interface Inc. and that research set me on the path of pursuing a sustainable lifestyle.
If you could make one change in the fashion industry what would it be?
It’s got to be changing how education reaches individuals and organizations. Organizations are hounded daily on needing to be more sustainable, and can pay specialist life cycle assessment and carbon accounting professionals to help them, so I’m focusing more on individual education in this instance (but individuals also work for organizations so they can add internal pressure). Anyway, if each individual understood the gravity of their purchasing, use and disposal actions, then I would hope that they would change their behaviour, resulting in a less polluting fashion industry without even changing the structure of the industry (although that needs to happen, but you asked for one change!). I say this for a few reasons. The first is that consumers have purchasing power, so they are the main drivers behind the demand for fashion production, which perpetuates fashion's unsustainable system that (in many cases) contributes to environmental pollution and degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, forced labour, and unliveable wages. The second reason is that most consumers, worldwide, dispose of garments after seven to ten wears but by wearing them for nine months longer carbon dioxide emissions, waste, and water use could be reduced by 20 to 30% each. Thirdly, over half of British, French, U.S., Brazilian, and Canadian consumers either have low involvement with or completely reject sustainability in fashion. Therefore, consumers have a massive role to play in the fashion industry’s sustainable transition, and their role and involvement can increase through direct and effective education.
Do you think the future of apparel is sustainable? Why? Why not?
It’s got to be. If the industry continues to operate linearly, then by 2050, it could consume 26% of the universal carbon budget to keep global warming below the 2°C pre-industrial temperature rise limit because it’s predicted consumer 300 million non-renewable resources annually, to meet demand, which could emit 22 million tons of micro-fibres annually into oceans. Therefore, to see real sustainable improvements, the three main sustainability system elements (human behaviour, environmental, and industrial) need to coordinate change together. For instance, consumers need to be more responsible; policy needs to regulate toxic chemical and material usage, factory effluents and waste disposal; and the fashion industry’s linear operating system needs to become circular.
Tell us about your Master’s in Harvard, this is such an accomplishment to have studied here.
Thank you! I’m in my first of two years of a Master’s in sustainability with a minor in corporate sustainability and innovation. A combination of my intern and freelance experiences and my dissatisfaction with my job prospects during COVID made me reflect on what I wanted to be doing in several years’ time, and that was to change the sustainability pathway of the fashion industry from within large corporations. Large fashion corporations and conglomerates have money to make the required sustainability changes, and luxury fashion brands are copied by other brands, so they have a particular influential power. Therefore, this led me to the Master’s program I’m currently in, partly to be better qualified for the roles I find interesting, and partly to have a better understanding of sustainability as an overall system.
Looking at broad themes in sustainable fashion brands, what do you think brands are failing to understand?
I have a list! 1) that designers lead the sustainability of garments, so brands should provide them with tools to make sustainable choices; 2) you’ve got to design for reuse (durable and/ or industrially or biologically closed-loop designs) and easy repairs; 3) it’s not just about the clothing, for instance, investing in renewable energy to power brands’ supply chains will make the brand more sustainable; 4) writing 100% in the material composition leads to greenwashing because more times than not the thread or hardware are not made from that material, and their sustainability should not be neglected; 5) this isn’t a broad theme, but something I’ve been noticing: many self-professed sustainable brands have elastane and/ or polyamide in their fibre blends, so I think that brands are failing to understand that elastane and polyamide are not sustainable. These materials do not biodegrade and are made from non-renewable resources, so for example, having a “sustainable” brand explain how their wool, polyamide and elastane jumper is sustainable is like a car company saying we support the renewable energy powered electric vehicle movement by continuing to make 100% petrol powered cars. It is ridiculous, makes the brand seem untrustworthy, and makes me question the sustainability of the dyes, treatments, and finishes; are they really sustainable or are they conventional toxic synthetic chemicals?
Do we really need any more sustainable fashion brands?
This question’s tough because the most sustainable thing to do would be to not produce or consume anything, but the reality is that we live in a society which is driven by consumerism. Therefore, the more environmentally and socially responsible fashion brands there are, the more likely we are to achieve sustainability in the industry, provide sustainable alternatives for every type of consumer, and have universal conscious consumption.
Fashion is already a hard business for small upstarts to enter. “Sustainability” presents another layer of complexity. How do you feel about this?
Being sustainable is a massive advantage because sustainability is a great selling point, sadly, regardless of whether the company is actually sustainable or not. Therefore, if a clothing brand is as close to sustainable as they can be, then not only will they have an advantage over conventional brands, but they’ll have one over greenwashing brands because they will be able to show investors and consumers information that greenwashing and conventional brands will not have.
What advice do you have for people who are pushing for change in fashion and seeing little in the way of progress?
Keep pushing! It can be extremely frustrating, but we need a changemaking community to forge the future of the industry. Somethings need time, but you never know, your movement could be triggering thoughts in someone else who may meet the right policymaker or leader and share your ideas for change with them, starting a snowball effect. Also, if you’re feeling burnt out, you could try uploading a handprinting action on handprinter.org or on your social media networks so that you can see a number of people adopt your positive action.
Tell us about your internship working at Christian Dior?
This was a great experience; I was 17 and working at the Bon Marché, in Paris, at Dior! I interned as a shadowing sales assistant, and everyone I met was lovely, kind, and great to learn from. I realised certain things about how to interact with clients, and self and store presentation. I also learned that I do not enjoy retail work but love sales!
What is the most environmentally or socially positive project you have ever worked on?
Relating to clothing, the Parai Nilam women’s cooperative in Sri Lanka. I interned for a non-profit organization called TAASI East, to work on an extremely cross-disciplinary project that aimed to build the plans for a women’s cooperative in Sri Lanka to present to the government. It was wonderful collaborating with other teams from different backgrounds to make the vision of a village for 250 low-income, at risk, women and their families in Eastern Sri Lanka a virtual reality. I focused on how to build, fr