Representing the creative future

The world is on fire, but we’re still buying shoes

The self-published book by sustainability consultant Alec Leach is teaching fashion insiders how to recognise their impact

Here is how most fashion students feel when the topic of sustainability enters the classroom (or on rare occasions, sneaks its way into happy hour convo): overwhelmed, frustrated, scared, guilty, or all of the above. “Inspired” or “driven to action” is rarely on the list. There is simply too much bad news, and no viable way to solve it all.

Somebody who has found a way to cut through the insurmountable heaps of information and formulate the problems concisely is Alec Leach. As the former digital fashion editor at Highsnobiety, the journalist understands a thing or two about fashion culture – and how it impacts the environment. From his apartment in Berlin, he now manages @future_dust, a platform covering sustainability in fashion, while he consults fashion companies on their communication strategy.

As an experienced writer, his aim has always been to clean up the obscuring language around sustainability, but as the pandemic started, he was looking for a way to expand his knowledge beyond the meeting rooms and Instagram feeds. His self-published book The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes addresses the fashion scene directly, inspiring them to analyse their relationship to shopping and their need for consumption.

And this is also how Alec avoids those doomy feelings of climate anxiety. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the thought that you can’t save the world, but only by having a realistic understanding of where your impact lies, can you start making a change.

Tell me – why did a former online editor decide to self-publish a physical book?

I had started the Instagram account Future Dust in 2018 as a way to have a personal brand around my writing. When I worked as a digital fashion editor at Highsnobiety, I realised that freelance writing is a dead-end. The fee simply isn’t there to support someone in the long run. The pathway available to stylists or photographers, where you do unpaid editorial to get the commercial branded work, just doesn’t exist for writers or editors.

I decided to write the book two years later because I wanted to do something out in the real world. Fashion talks about physical things, so you don’t exist unless you‘re in the “real world”. I soon learned that the traditional publishing route would take years, so I looked into self-publishing. That means I had to pay for everything myself. But because I had started my freelance career in the middle of a pandemic, my costs were very low and I managed to make it work. I live in Berlin and my rent is cheap. I thought – “If I’m going to be reckless, why not do it now, when I’m 30 and I don’t have children?”

“Making the book gave me the confidence to say what I wanted to say, to realise my opinion was just as important as everyone else’s.” – Alec Leach

Looking back on it now, how do you feel about that decision?

I spent a year of my life articulating my perspective on the fashion industry. Putting myself out there has been a very empowering experience. It made me realise that I’m sick of making myself small.

When I still worked as a fashion editor, I didn’t take the usual approach. I wasn’t active on Instagram, I didn’t have cool outfit photos, and I wasn’t posting about my life. I was low-key. Making the book gave me the confidence to say what I wanted to say, to realise my opinion was just as important as everyone else’s.

“There is so much pollution in the communication about sustainability. Brands are sacrificing their credibility and simply copying the green narrative.” – 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, and I can’t feasibly have an impact on how a company produces. I’m also not on the board, I have no effect on the way a company spends its money.

My area of impact is language. That’s what it’s always been. There is so much pollution in the communication about sustainability. Brands are sacrificing their credibility and simply copying the green narrative. I can make an impact by cleaning up that language. As a consultant, I can approach brands and explain that they don’t need to talk the same crap as everyone else.

Obviously, because it’s consulting, this can get framed in a corporate LinkedIn language. There is a lot of “authentic communication” and “organic engagement”. In that context, it’s easy to second guess yourself and think you’re selling out, but to me, it always comes back to cleaning up the language. If I can make a career of that, then that is something I’m really willing to pursue.

It’s hard not to doubt yourself because people on the outside are very suspicious of people on the inside. Understandably, 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 proclaiming they are carbon neutral in their operations, and it always sounds very 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 the actual production. It’s the smallest part of their business.

Language can really obscure the true environmental impact of this industry. The media doesn’t pick up on it. A company proclaims they’re carbon neutral and everyone starts repeating it. That is 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?

Very often people hire consultants just to let them speak without listening. The corporate mentality is to copy what everyone else does. Again, 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 need an infinite amount of new clothes. That is very short-sighted.” – Alec Leach

So I approach my job the same way I would approach it on Future Dust, meaning I tell my clients: “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 that.” Just look at tobacco and fossil fuel, look at what misinformation and lies did to those industries. The cracks are starting to show. It’s taking a while, but we’re coming to terms with how unethical these industries are.

These industries 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 need an infinite amount of new clothes. That is very short-sighted.

This is what I tell them. It doesn’t mean that they listen.

“‘We need to kick ass.’ That is all I hear in these sustainability meetings. It’s nonsense and it’s embarrassing.” – 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 trendy topic. They want to be the loudest in the room, they want to go viral. When you do that, you only end up greenwashing. “We need to kick ass.” That is all I hear in these sustainability meetings. It’s nonsense and it’s embarrassing.

“It’s a slow-motion crisis, it’s been in it for a long time, so there isn’t a feeling of urgency, but there is no money, so risks are avoided. ” – Alec Leach

And what about the media? Why are fashion publications not picking up on this?

To put it bluntly… fashion media is broke. This is an industry in crisis. It’s a slow-motion crisis, it’s been in it for a long time, so there isn’t a feeling of urgency, but there is no money, so risks are avoided. You cannot risk pissing off a sponsor when you rely on them to fund your entire magazine.

“Google and Facebook have essentially destroyed the revenue model for most publications which only made the brands more powerful. ” – Alec Leach

Larger than that, fashion media has always been funded by the industry that it talks about. This is very different in sports, for example, where you can build a loyal audience that is willing to pay for your work. Fashion editors are entirely reliant on the brands they write about. Just look at how often you’ll see a designer leave an emoji in the comments of a famous journalist.

Google and Facebook have essentially destroyed the revenue model for most publications which only made the brands more powerful. They no longer need the middle man. Brands have realized they can give publications smaller budgets and ask for more. That makes genuine criticism very hard.

“Journalists approach the sustainability topic in the same way they approach a sneaker release: they copy what is in the press release.” – 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 is our blind spot. That is how brands get away with proclaiming they’re carbon neutral across operations. That is how the idea of organic cotton as the solution to everything gets spread. Most often, sustainability stories are just press releases that have been rewritten.

Journalists approach the sustainability topic in the same way they approach a sneaker release: they copy what is in the press release. That’s fine when you’re covering a new Nike design, but when it comes to sustainability, brands are really taking you for a ride. I don’t think editors have been trained to understand sustainability in a way that helps them see through that.

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.

Yes, you need to know the cultural context of Zoe Kravits’ 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. I’ve always written like that. It was always the way I wanted to write. I don’t really 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, it doesn’t excite me to have to decipher the artist’s statement – the same goes for fashion. I don’t like it when people talk 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 is where I can have the most impact.

“Fashion doesn’t feel like a place where you can build a lifelong career. ” – Alec Leach

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 and I think that is because I managed to take a guilt-free approach. I never tried to shame anyone, just prompt people to think differently and ask questions about the culture we’re a part of.

“So many 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 political science and I started getting into streetwear because I spend a lot of time in the hardcore punk scene. Bands were wearing Stüssy or Supreme, and that is how I found my interest, that is how I started writing.

When I started, I didn’t know the difference between Helmut Lang and Helmut Newton, I didn’t have this cultural fashion background. I’ve never been especially precious about fashion. I always had the perspective of needing to stay agile. Fashion doesn’t feel like a place where you can build a lifelong career.

I always thought the book would be good for my career. I thought it would be good for my personal brand. But I realized I can actually make money out of it. I can actually support myself as a writer. So many people actually want to pay for good writing, you just have to go directly to an audience.

“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.” – 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 is really about controlling people. Give them a few droplets of glamour and you can keep them exhausted and burnt out. They’ll accept really bad pay and long hours.

This whole fashion hierarchy, the cliché about fashion being glamourous and catty and gossipy, I don’t think anyone who lives their life in this way will end up happy. Look at André Leon Talley, he had this glamourous lifestyle and ended up with no friends. 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 do that, but if that’s your definition of success, you’ll only get disappointed.

“People swing between thinking they have no impact on the world and thinking they need to solve everything on their own.” – 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… they think that working in fashion is automatically bad. “This industry sucks, it’s a terrible industry, it’s destroying the planet and people’s self-esteem just to make a few very rich.” The thing is, it’s not going away. Every consumer-facing industry has the same problem. You can leave fashion and potentially face 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

Damn. Relatable.

That is 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, I can be part of a shift of mindset. The second is consulting, where I can be part of the ways brands communicate their impact on the planet. That doesn’t mean I think I can get brands to pay people better, or force them to sell fewer things. If my work results in 1% less greenwashing, then I’m already at the best of what one person can achieve.

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 the press about how Gen Z is going to save the world – that is so lazy. Millennials will let kids who have no money or professional influence save the world for them. Millennials do have influence. Stop thinking Gen Z will save us all. They don’t have the resources. They have to deal with all the same bullshit we had to deal with. Why would one generation of teenagers be any different?

One of my pet peeves, 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. 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 is 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 like, but it’s crucial. The system 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.

That is the sort of thing… 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. It’s unfeasible until the moment that it isn’t. People think history is static when it isn’t.

“Buying less is 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 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 not that many brands that I would happily spend money on, but it feels so much more exciting!

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 are actually those who can resist brands. Nick Cave. Fran Leibowitz. Michelle Lamy. They are so iconic and they only own a few things. It’s really exciting to think about clothes like that. That is 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.