Tell me – why did a former online editor decide to self-publish a physical book?
I started my Instagram project, Future Dust, as a way of building more of a personal brand around what I was doing. When I was commissioning freelance writers back at Highsnobiety, the idea of only doing freelance editorial writing seemed like a bit of a dead-end. The fees just aren’t there to support a career in the long term. The pathway available to stylists or photographers, where you do unpaid editorial to get high-profile commercial work, doesn’t exist in the same way for writers or editors, either.
I decided to write the book toward the end of 2020 because I wanted to do something out in the real world. Fashion is all about physical things at the end of the day, and so your ideas get a lot more validation when you have something out in the “real world”. I felt like the traditional route, where you get an agent and a publishing deal, would take too long, so I looked into self-publishing so I could move quicker. I had to pay for everything myself, but because I’d started freelancing in the middle of the pandemic, my living costs were low and I managed to make it work. I live in Berlin and my rent is cheap. It’s not like I’ve got a mortgage, kids and a car, so I thought, why not be a bit reckless now and see if it pays off?
“Doing the book gave me the confidence to say what I wanted to say, to realise my opinion was just as valid as everyone else’s.” – Alec Leach
Looking back on it now, how do you feel about that decision?
Putting myself out there has been a really empowering experience. When I was still working as a fashion editor, I wasn’t especially active on Instagram, I didn’t have a bunch of cool outfit photos, and I wasn’t posting about my life. I was pretty low-key. But I started to feel like I was making myself small. Doing the book gave me the confidence to say what I wanted to say, to realise my opinion was just as valid as everyone else’s.
“There is so much pollution in the conversation about sustainability, where most brands are just copying the same greenwashing narrative that everyone else does.” – Alec Leach
What I find very interesting about your journey is that working around sustainability or analysing the fashion industry wasn’t antithetical to working on your career in fashion. That is refreshing because the narrative around sustainability often divides people into uncritical insiders and critical outsiders.
The way I look at consulting is that I have a very specific area of impact. I don’t work in production, I don’t work in CSR, I can’t feasibly have an impact on how a company produces its clothes. It’s not like I’m on the board. I have no effect on the way a company spends its money.
My area of impact is language. There is so much pollution in the conversation about sustainability, where most brands are just copying the same greenwashing narrative that everyone else does. I can make an impact by cleaning up the language, I can approach brands and explain that they don’t need to talk the same crap as everyone else.
Obviously, because it’s consulting, you end up speaking in a lot of corporate LinkedIn lingo, like “authentic communication” and “organic engagement” or whatever. In that context, especially when you come from editorial writing, it’s easy to second-guess yourself and think you’re becoming a corporate sell-out, but to me, it always comes back to cleaning up the language around sustainability. If I can make an impact with that, then that is something I’m really willing to pursue.
It’s hard not to doubt yourself because people on the outside of the industry are pretty suspicious of people on the inside. And that’s understandable because there is just so much greenwashing.
“Language can really obscure the true environmental impact of this industry.” – Alec Leach
Why does language play such an important role in the sustainability debate?
Let’s take the example of carbon neutrality. Brands love to claim they are carbon neutral in their operations, and that sounds pretty impressive to the consumer. But what that actually means, is that they will be carbon neutral in their offices, their retail stores, and their warehouses, anything but their supply chain. It’s the smallest part of their overall carbon footprint, but it sounds really impressive.
Language can really obscure the true environmental impact of this industry. The media doesn’t pick up on all the tricks that brands play on them. A company claims they’re carbon neutral and everyone starts repeating it. That’s the power of language.
“There are thousands and thousands of people working in fashion. You need to have a realistic understanding of how much impact one person doing a single job can have.” – Alec Leach
How do you navigate this corporate world? Are the companies that hire you genuinely interested in changing?
The corporate mentality is to copy what everyone else is doing. It’s a place where we can really overestimate our potential influence. There are thousands and thousands of people working in fashion. You need to have a realistic understanding of how much impact one person doing a single job can have.
“Fashion thinks people will want an infinite amount of new clothes and so it doesn’t matter what they say about their impact on the planet.” – Alec Leach
I approach clients the same way I would approach them on Future Dust, meaning I tell brands: “You’re being dishonest. If you want people to still trust and respect what you do in ten years’ time, then you need to stop doing it.” Just look at tobacco and fossil fuel, look at what misinformation and lies did to the reputations of those industries. The cracks are starting to show. It’s taking a while, but we’re coming to terms with how unethical these industries truly are.
Executives so often only think in terms of the next quarter. They think that as long as they’re growing, they’re invincible, that people will need their product until the end of time. Fashion thinks people will want an infinite amount of new clothes and so it doesn’t matter what they say about their impact on the planet. That’s a really short-sighted way of looking at your company and its reputation.
That’s what I tell them. It doesn’t mean that they always listen.
“Marketing teams and they approach sustainability the same way as any other trending topic. ” – Alec Leach
From your experience, having seen how these corporations work from the inside, what are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to getting them to communicate about sustainability?
It’s all run by marketing teams and they approach sustainability the same way as any other trending topic. They want to be the loudest in the room, they want to go viral, and they want to “kick ass”. When you take that approach, you only end up greenwashing. It’s nonsense and it’s embarrassing.
“Brands have realized they can get away with giving publications smaller budgets and asking for more and more in return. That makes genuine criticism really hard.” – Alec Leach
And what about the media? Why are fashion publications not picking up on this?
To put it bluntly… fashion media is broke. It’s an industry in crisis. It’s a slow-motion crisis, it’s been this way for a long time, so there isn’t a feeling of urgency, but there is no money, so risks are avoided. You can’t risk pissing off a sponsor when you rely on them to fund your magazine.
And on a bigger level, the fashion press has always been funded by the industry that it talks about. Publishers are reliant on the brands they write about. Just look at how often you’ll see famous designers leaving Instagram comments on journalists’ posts.
Google and Facebook essentially destroyed the traditional revenue model for publications, and that’s only made brands more powerful. They no longer need the middle man. Brands have realized they can get away with giving publications smaller budgets and asking for more and more in return. That makes genuine criticism really hard.
“Most of the time editors approach sustainability in the same way I would have approached a new sneaker or lookbook back in my old job: you see what’s in the press release, and re-write it in your own words.” – Alec Leach
Besides the financial limitations, what other issues do you notice in fashion media when it comes to covering sustainability?
There are millions of small mistakes, but they all come down to the fact that editors are pop culture experts. Very few editors in fashion actually know how clothes are made. That’s their blind spot. That’s how brands get away with proclaiming they’re carbon neutral across operations. That’s how the idea of organic cotton as the solution to everything gets spread so far. Most of the time, sustainability stories are just press releases that have been rewritten.
Most of the time editors approach sustainability in the same way I would have approached a new sneaker or lookbook back in my old job: you see what’s in the press release, and re-write it in your own words. That’s fine when you’re covering a new Nike shoe, but when it comes to sustainability, brands are really taking publications for a ride because editors haven’t been trained to understand sustainability in a way that helps them see through that.
“If I go to an art gallery and the show notes feel like they were written in another language, then I’m just not going to bother reading them – the same goes for fashion. I don’t like feeling like people are talking down to me.” – Alec Leach
That is something I’m constantly confronted with. The skills I need to be a good fashion editor have to do with cultural knowledge and communication, not fact-checking or research.
Yeah, you need to know the cultural context of Zoe Kravitz’s latest outfit. But that perspective isn’t helpful when it comes to talking about sustainability.
Is that why you designed your book to be as accessible as possible?
That was the biggest thing for me. I’ve always written in an accessible way. I don’t have much time for flowery language. I always want to know the story behind things, but if someone won’t explain it to me in clear English, then I’m not interested. If I go to an art gallery and the show notes feel like they were written in another language, then I’m just not going to bother reading them – the same goes for fashion. I don’t like feeling like people are talking down to me.
That being said, the book is aimed at a specific cultural space. Most of the sustainable fashion books out there address mainstream fast-fashion shoppers, which is really important, but given that I have such a deep network in the actual fashion scene, which has a very large cultural footprint, I thought it would make the most sense to address that space. Most mainstream sustainability conversations don’t reach that space so I thought that’s who I should be targeting. That’s where I can have the most impact.
Of course, that makes a lot of sense. Talking about this niche cultural space, what has the reaction of your peers been to the release of the book?
So far, the reactions have been really positive. I think it’s because I made sure to take a guilt-free approach to it. I’m not trying to shame anyone, just prompt people to think differently and ask questions about this culture we’re a part of.
“People actually want to pay for good writing, you just have to go directly to an audience.” – Alec Leach
Was it difficult for you to make this career shift away from more conventional fashion and culture journalism?
I never grew up dreaming of working in fashion. I studied politics and I started getting into streetwear because I spent a lot of time in the hardcore scene. Bands were wearing brands like Stüssy and Obey and Supreme, that’s how I got into streetwear, and fashion came after that. When I started, I didn’t know the difference between Helmut Lang and Helmut Newton, I didn’t have this conventional fashion background. I’ve never been especially precious about fashion.
I always thought the book would be good for my career. I thought it would be good for my “personal brand,” so to speak. But I’ve realized I can actually make money out of my words, I can actually support myself as a writer. People actually want to pay for good writing, you just have to go directly to an audience.
“Being seen in all the right places and owning lots of nice things, that’s not the secret to happiness.” – Alec Leach
I find that most people find it hard to let go of fashion because they’re so used to the luxury and glamour it can offer.
That’s such an easy way of controlling people. Give people a few droplets of glamour and you can keep them exhausted and burnt out. They’ll accept really bad pay and long hours.
Being seen in all the right places and owning lots of nice things, that’s not the secret to happiness. You can be happy and still do that of course, but if that’s your definition of what success is, you’ll only end up disappointed.
“You can leave fashion and you’ll just end up facing the same problems somewhere else, or you can be part of a cultural change.” – Alec Leach
What advice would you give to people still trying to break into this industry?
A common thing I hear when I speak to younger people is that they think that working in fashion is automatically bad. “This industry sucks, it’s destroying the planet and people’s self-esteem just to make a few people rich.” But the thing is, it’s not going away. Every consumer industry has the same problems. You can leave fashion and you’ll just end up facing the same problems somewhere else, or you can be part of a cultural change. People swing between thinking they have no impact on the world and thinking they need to solve everything on their own.
“Something I find incredibly frustrating is the mentality of well-off white people losing their minds because they can’t understand why people would buy fast fashion. We need to move on from that mindset and think about larger power structures. ” – Alec Leach
It’s a really easy trap to fall into. You need to maintain a bit of a balance, to think about what your area of impact is and what you’re able to change. When I look at my career, I have two areas of impact. One is with the cultural conversation, where I can be part of a shift in peoples’ mindset. The second is consulting, where I can help to change the way brands communicate their impact on the planet. That doesn’t mean I can get brands to pay people better, or force them to sell fewer things. But if my work results in 1% less greenwashing in fashion, then that’s a pretty significant impact for just one person to have.
“Another thing I find incredibly frustrating is the mentality of well-off people losing their minds because they can’t understand why people would buy fast fashion. We need to move on from that mindset and think about larger power structures.” – Alec Leach
Everyone needs to think about what their potential areas of impact are. Especially people who are my peers, people in their thirties or forties, who have a great network and a level of influence. I get so frustrated with all this press about how Gen Z is somehow going to save the world – it’s so lazy. Millennials want kids who have no money or professional influence to save the world for them. Millennials do have influence. Stop thinking Gen Z will save us all. They don’t have the resources that we have. They have to deal with all the same bullshit we had to deal with growing up, and more. Why would one generation of teenagers be any different?
Another thing I find incredibly frustrating is the mentality of well-off people losing their minds because they can’t understand why people would buy fast fashion. We need to move on from that mindset and think about larger power structures. How can we get organized to change the way business is done? That is why the garment worker protection act in California is so exciting — it’s going to hold brands responsible for the supply chains.
I haven’t been able to get into the conversation around regulation as much as I would have liked to, but it’s crucial. Fashion is systematically broken. So we need to get organized. Right now, it costs too much money to be the good guy, so why would anyone do it?
Again, that is not how we’re taught to think in fashion. Competitive individualism keeps us from organising communally.
It’s the way it is until it isn’t. There is a future where every single cutting room is unionized. We’re already seeing it in fashion editorial — people are getting organized. It’s unfeasible until the moment that it isn’t. People think history is static but it isn’t.
“I didn’t want to publish a book just to tell people to stop shopping. It has to feel like an opportunity.” – Alec Leach
You might be one of the few people working on sustainability who still feels excited about fashion.
Weirdly, I feel more excited about buying stuff now than I ever did before. I’m doing it with such a different mentality now. I’m only buying for myself, and I’m only interested in buying things I will really wear. It’s much slower and there is no instant gratification, but when you get there, it’s so good. It just feels more intimate now. There are really not that many brands that I would happily spend money on, but it feels so much more exciting that way!
That was the whole point of the book. I didn’t want to publish a book just to tell people to stop shopping. It has to feel like an opportunity. The whole central message of the book is that buying less stuff is actually really exciting. The most iconic people don’t care about what brands or trends are hot. Nick Cave. Fran Leibowitz. Michelle Lamy. They’re so iconic and they only really wear a few things. It’s really exciting to think about clothes like that. That’s the central message of the book. Buying less is an opportunity.
Order your copy of The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Clothes here.