Published for INSPADES Magazine, Issue Quattro, April 2017
Fashion is a universe of competing aesthetics, blending mass production with creative flare. Rushing to keep vogue in flux for trend-seeking hoards, many fast-fashion brands pollute their industrial path with carbon footprints, spurned on by demand for affordable wear with fluctuating styles.
For the past two years, sustainability blogger Stevie Van Horn has devoted her time and energy to zero-waste living. Despite her proximity to the befuddling metropolis of Manhattan, Van Horn found resourceful ways to live green in the heart of Brooklyn.
“It’s a huge undertaking to think about what we can do on a personal level to change things on a global scale,” says Van Horn, “We live in a world where convenience wins over quality or sustaining Earth’s resources and species.”
Through her blog “Trading Waste for Abundance”, Van Horn shares insightful tips on how to minimize one’s use of non-renewable materials, as well clean-eating recipes that are conscious of ingredients. For example, in her recipe for “Zero-Waste Vegan/Gluten Free Tacos”, Van Horn mentions the environmental benefits of reducing one’s meat intake. Quoting physicist Noam Mohr, Van Horn explains that, if every American ate vegetarian for just one day, the United States would save 1.5 billion pounds of crops that would otherwise be fed to livestock—that’s enough to feed New Mexico for over a year.
Recently Van Horn has begun to explore the important roles that fashion and waste play in climate change, and by sewing hand-embroidered designs on recycled clothing, Van Horn supports two needs with a single deed. Featuring endangered species in her designs, such as bees or Sumatran tigers, she hopes to open dialogue on topics that may be “a little daunting, but still must be heard,” while also encouraging the use of second-hand clothing.
“Embroidery for me is merging something that is talked about and used every day (fashion) with something that is very real (extinction).” Through intricate detail and vibrant hues, Van Horn weaves her passions and ideologies into profitable potential. “My intricate embroidered movements reflect my adaptation to a minimal and zero waste lifestyle—it takes time, energy and intention, but beauty comes as an end result,” she explains, describing the intensive labour and love invested in each piece. With seven hours spent on her delicately embroidered bee design and thirty hours devoted to her Sumatran tiger, this endangered endeavour is undeniably a labour of passion.
“When I commit to something, I have to go 100%—all the way,” says Van Horn, who began her quest for waste-free living in April 2015. Spending two months in preparation for the shift, she took a “fail-proof” approach by researching, purchasing product alternatives like cloth bags and totes, and preparing “mentally” for the flip to zero-waste. Her unique journey began when, while working as a barista, one of her regulars introduced her to Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. “I realized then that my life was going to drastically change,” Van Horn reflects on finishing the book.
If you aren’t savvy with botany, don’t panic. Van Horn was quick to illustrate how mycelium conceptualizes the interconnectedness of living creatures on Earth. “Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony and is considered the neurological network of the forest because it behaves similar to the neurons of the human brain,” she explains, “it lives, adapts and communicates with its environment.” Like a web of signals, mycelium impacts the world around it, inspiring the question: as humans, how do we interact and engage with the planet and its other inhabitants?
“I started to pay attention. Mycelium restores, recycles and rebalances its entire ecosystem. This got me in a long, drawn out wormhole of what role we play as a human species. Thinking of the non-renewable materials we have produced for ‘convenience’, and the natural resources we have depleted, formed my obsession to find a better way,” Van Horn shares.
While she always had a flare for art forms in the past, including painting and ceramics, this is the first time that Van Horn has profited from her creative work. Her embroidered vintage tops began to resonate with the Instagram community, resulting in requests for custom-made designs. “It was something that happened kind of unintentionally,” she says.
When asked about her use of equipment and how she sources materials, Van Horn laughs, “The equipment is my hand, a needle and thread!” Using 1970s vintage tops that are 100% cotton, she currently sources thread from brands that claim to be eco-friendly, but is still researching more sustainable options that meet her “higher standard”.
So how does second-hand clothing relate to climate change and why do bees and tigers make a difference in the grand scheme of things?
According to a fast-fashion analysis article in MSNBC by Michael Shank and Maxine Bédat, the apparel industry’s production methods make it “the second largest polluter of fresh water globally”. Furthermore, clothing items are only worn seven times on average before they’re tossed, contributing to 12.8 million tons of fabric that are annually disposed of by Americans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Perpetuating this cycle of waste and clogged landfills is a yearly production of 150 billion new clothing items.
Let’s not forget that fast-fashion pumps low quality in huge quantities, meaning cheap material, and polyester, found in fifty percent of all clothing, is a plastic made from fossil fuels that does not break down when it’s dumped into waste sites. While we cannot properly dispose of existing clothing, we can recycle it through second-hand use, and reduce production rates in the apparel industry.
“Climate change scares people,” says Van Horn, “We all have facts: we have heard about acidifying oceans, the great pacific garbage patch, deforestation and ice caps melting faster than we know, but the conversation quickly gets shut down.”
With her embroidery, designs as simple as a bee or a tiger can get the conversation going. “Bees pollinate a vast majority of the crops we depend on, which feed 90% of the world,” Van Horn explains. “If we lost these crops and plants, it means we would also lose the animals that depend on those plants. The bee, however small, is a powerful and intricate part of our existence.”
She goes on to describe her reverence for the Sumatran tiger, a symbol representing current issues of deforestation and the loss of habitats in areas like the Leuser Ecosystem, found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. “It’s a sensitive topic for me,” says Van Horn, who laments the fast disappearance of the majestic creatures and their habitats to accommodate consumerist demands, including cattle crops and palm oil plantations.
“There is a more fulfilling way to live, not just for the planet, but for ourselves,” she asserts. While living conscious of the environment may feel strenuous at first, it can quickly become second nature. Like mycelium, through effort we can learn to perceive and engage in a healthy relationship with our environment, and in doing so, become aware of our effect on the planet and how to minimize negative impact.
“Breaking old habits is always the hardest part, but now, the new habits are just as easy as the old ones,” admits Van Horn of her transition to zero-waste living, “Taking a snack in a cloth bag before I leave the house is just as easy as finding a store to buy chips and protein bars from when I’m hungry later in the day.”
Nearly two years after making the shift to a sustainable existence, Van Horn took “a huge leap of faith” and quit her day job, deciding to pursue blogging and embroidery full-time.
“I had enough orders where I could afford a month of not working as a barista,” she recounts. Since then, orders for her embroidered shirts have been consistently trickling in, allowing Van Horn to live off her work. “Social media is a godsend and I wouldn’t have sold anything if it wasn’t for Instagram.”
Riding the wave of her current success as a full-time artist and eco-activist, and relishing in such “freedom”, Van Horn hopes to take her sustainable living methods and ideology to the next generation. Van Horn plans to write and illustrate children’s books featuring endangered species, as well as visiting schools to host workshops and educate students on prevalent environmental issues and teach them how they can help to sustain not only their Earth but also their future.