Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.
When Leah Thomas posted a simple, colorful graphic with the words "Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter" to Instagram on May 28, she wasn't expecting it to go viral, much less launch her onto a new career path.
A former Patagonia employee who had built a small platform as a sustainability-focused fashion influencer, Thomas wasn't a stranger to online attention. But as the country erupted in the days following George Floyd's murder, Thomas's graphic — and the definition of intersectional environmentalism that she posted with it — tapped into a more-vital-than-ever conversation about the connections between environmental and racial justice.
"I of course want to save the whales, but I also want to save Black people," she says on the phone from her home in California. "Can we talk about that?"
In drawing connections between racism and environmental degradation, Thomas was following in the footsteps of figures like Dr. Robert Bullard, the "father of environmental justice" whose work in the '70s pioneered an understanding of the ways that polluted air, land and water disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
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But she was also introducing a new generation to the concept of these interconnections in a way they could easily understand, and in the form of something beautiful enough that aesthetic-conscious Instagrammers were eager to share. Within two and a half weeks of posting, her following on @greengirlleah had grown from 12,900 to over 100,000 as the graphic was shared and reposted over and over again.
It wasn't too long after that Thomas decided to start a dedicated platform called Intersectional Environmentalist with some friends in the sustainability space in hopes of scaling up her ability to share more informative — and aesthetically pleasing — content in the same vein.
"We're looking at the ways race, culture, gender, sexuality, religion and so on might intersect with someone's identity" and with environmental justice, Thomas says.
Though the cynical might critique the pairing of ugly truths about racial injustice with pretty graphics, Thomas has long been comfortable with the idea that beauty and justice might go hand-in-hand. She's been working in fashion, after all, which she sees as inextricably connected to her environmental interests.
"When we think about intersectional environmentalism, there are so many case studies that can be found in the apparel industry," she says. "Because it touches environmentalism when you're talking about recycling or using certain materials, waste and dyes, and that sort of thing."
Thomas didn't always intend to end up in the fashion world. She studied environmental science and policy in undergrad and interned at a couple of National Parks early on. But then she started freelance writing for a site called Kimberly Elise Natural Living, which she describes as "the Black Goop," and loved it.
From there, Thomas took a stint in communications at Ecos, which makes eco-friendly cleaning products, before starting to write for "ethical fashion" site The Good Trade and landing her communications gig at Patagonia. A natural aptitude for writing and an eye for compelling imagery helped Thomas build out a modest following on Instagram along the way, which she used to promote brands like Christy Dawn and Mejuri while talking about sustainability and wellness. Pairing beautiful pictures with text that asks readers to go deeper has long been part of her modus operandi.
"Artists, in my opinion, are leading this revolution," she says. Which means that if a beautiful graphic lowers people's barrier to joining that revolution, then beautiful graphics she will make.
It's a sentiment reminiscent of one voiced by Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, who claimed earlier this summer that "we live in a meme society, and the revolution will be memed." Rather than believing that cheapens the movement, Jean-Raymond asserted that "catchy phrases and things like that do work."
What unites Jean-Raymond and Thomas's approach is that they both offer a whole lot of depth to back their quippy content. While Thomas's viral moment may have started with one post, she's trying to use Intersectional Environmentalist to build something more lasting.
The idea for the broader platform, she says, came from a group of friends who were at a Black Lives Matter protest together and started kicking around the idea of making a platform based on the idea of intersectional environmentalism. They quickly built a website with the help of a scrappy freelance web developer, linked to relevant content, assembled a council of advisors and launched a new Instagram account, which gathered about 80,000 followers in its first month.
"We're trying to develop into a full-blown media house, exploring short-form media content and long-form video content," Thomas says.
Having worked with Patagonia's Media Grant Council during her tenure at the brand, Thomas is confident that Intersectional Environmentalist can find corporate sponsors to help fund their content. Even without advertising, the fledgling organization has already been approached by over 400 companies about potential partnership, she says.
Right now, Thomas and her co-founders are most focused on creating educational resources for companies that already profess a commitment to environmental sustainability, but may need to go further in making the connection to other forms of justice.
"I've heard a lot of stories from organizations like Reformation that have sustainability down to a T. But when it comes to people, especially Black and brown people, it's almost jaw-droppingly terrible," she says. "There's a very, very high turnover rate for people of color at sustainability organizations."
The Intersectional Environmentalist (IE) Business Accountability Program, which Thomas and her team are working on right now, will combine educational curriculum that takes about three months to complete with accountability "check-ups" from the IE team. The idea is that leaders at top companies will participate in the program alongside a cohort of their peers from other companies as a way of growing towards a more intersectional understanding of sustainability.
Having worked at companies like Patagonia and Kate Spade in the past, Thomas and her cofounders "were able to see the loopholes of big corporations... especially regarding internal diversity and inclusion within leadership positions," she says, even amongst companies that are certified Fair Trade or donating to 1% for the Planet.
"We also saw a lot of tone-deaf messaging about Black Lives Matter," she adds. "Through the program, these companies will actually get to consult with us and the cohort of other businesses to be able to have better messaging that's a little more culturally competent."
After the business-focused course is developed, Thomas hopes to create tailored versions for other demographics, like college students or activists, and she's also looking to set up mentorship programs through the IE network.
As if all that weren't enough, Thomas is also working on her first book, which she hopes will be released by the fall of next year, while continuing to write and create content for other platforms. Her busy day-to-day now is a far cry from what she might have expected when she was first furloughed from her job at Patagonia in the spring and had to go on unemployment.
"Patagonia was my dream company. But I think if I was working there I wouldn't have had the courage to sit alone and really think about my values and what mattered to me," she says. "And that's why I decided to turn down an offer to come back."
As scary as leaping into the unknown in the middle of a pandemic and a recession might be, Thomas believes it's worth it to try and change the sustainability space for the better.
"I just feel really blessed to have this opportunity," she says. "Who would I be if I didn't try?"