Some people achieve much in a relatively short span of time. Emma is one of those people. She is already the founder of several initiatives the biggest being Collective Fashion Justice. Her mission is the collective liberation of all animals; human and non-human. Emma has a wonderful way of bringing us along with her, giving us a deeper understanding of supply chains within the fashion system. She is now also a published author, ‘How Veganism Can Save Us’ is her first book.
D: Emma, where did you grow up? Your family name suggests a Skandi connection.
E: I was born in London and I grew up in Melbourne, but my dad is Swedish, so I've spent quite a bit of time in Sweden and I have roots in a few different spots.
D: Are there family still there?
E: Yes, dad's entire side of the family lives there.
D: Is your mum English then?
E: No, she's Australian. The London connection is that mum was working there, then they decided to move back to Australia to have nice open spaces for children.
D: Did anyone in your family spark your interest in fashion and animals?
E: I don't think anyone sparked my interest in fashion, that's something I developed myself. Mum was always a real animal lover, though she didn't raise me vegetarian, that was something that came from my own experiences. It was her respect for animals though that paved the way for me.
D: Did you have lots of animals in the house because of your mother's interest?
E: Nothing out of the norm, we had dogs my whole life. Bill was 19 when he died this year and I'm 23, so.
D: Do you think the experiences you had as a child have heightened your desire to protect?
E: Yes, being sexually abused as a child, if that hadn't happened to me, I probably wouldn't have as much empathy as I have now. I wouldn't have been able to understand suffering so much. Once you understand suffering in one form, it doesn't really matter if you're talking about it in different forms. The consistent thread across my work, whether I'm talking about protecting animals in general or in fashion, weather I'm talking about safe working rights for people in fashion, whether I'm talking about child protection, (as I also do that work,) the one thing across all of them is the desire to eliminate suffering. It doesn't really matter who it’s for because that feeling is the same in all of them.
D: A lot of children have gone through what you've gone through, and you have done something very positive about it with the work you are doing with Emma's Project. Can you tell us a bit about that?
E: Emma's project is something I'm working on with the Australian Childhood Foundation. Essentially, it’s a project that exists to collect the lived experience of other people who have survived child sexual abuse and then to use that lived experience to inform better campaigning, better legislation, better everything we do in relation to trying to prevent child sexual abuse. So much of the way we try to do that now, is very theoretical, rather than based on what people know would have actually helped them.
We have collected hundreds of survey responses from survivors who are sharing their thoughts and experiences. The reason that I'm able to do this and a lot of survivors haven't necessarily done something like it, isn't because I'm special. I think it's because I had the privilege that, even though something awful happened to me, my family really supported me with it, even if others didn't. I had huge amounts of psychiatric support, huge amounts of therapy, medication for a decade, all of that type of support. Which means that I've probably been able to process it more, for my age than a lot of other people have been able to. Because I've been given all this support, I'd like to use it to help other people who haven't necessarily had the same support. The ultimate aim is that other people never have to deal with any of it. Ever.
D: I like how you talk about using the wisdom of children that have been through this. For me that's an absolutely inspired way of thinking. Its brilliant what you are doing.
D: You said the fashion side of things was something you developed yourself. You started modelling when you were quite young? Is that where your interest in fashion started?
E: It was, I was around 15 when I was signed to an agency. I joined the fashion world in that way because I was really interested in fashion and if you're 15, that's probably the only way you can do it. Also creatively, a local store sold a few singlet's that I had altered, so I was quite thrilled with myself for that. But I saw modelling as a kind of entryway into a creative industry that I could be more involved with later.
D: When did you become vegan?
E: I became vegan when I was 16 and had stopped eating land dwelling animals a year before that. The first step happened because I was living in Sweden with my dad's family and was eating quite a lot of moose and deer, which is usual there. I felt a little bit uncomfortable with that and it made me think, maybe my thinking was inconsistent if I was happy to go home and eat a cow, a pig or a sheep, so I stopped eating all of those animals. A year later I learnt more about ‘other ‘ industries like dairy, eggs and wool that was when I became vegan. That then impacted my work in fashion quite significantly. I had done some jobs where I was wearing fur, but even if I wasn't ever doing that again, almost every single shoot has leather shoes or something like that. Animal materials are everywhere, so I had to completely change what I was doing.
D: How did you do that? Did you stop modelling or did you find a different way to continue?
E: Around the same time, I went to Cambodia, and I met with a woman who had co-founded a brand called Dorsu. She had previously worked in a sweatshop in Cambodia and told me about her experience, seeing women who had babies at their feet at work because they couldn't afford anything else and couldn't have bathroom breaks. This was another factor that completely changed how I saw fashion.
Which all meant that within a fairly short time frame, I only wanted to work with brands who were treating their workers fairly and weren't using animal materials, or even if they worked with some, I didn't want to wear those specific things. Obviously that’s very challenging because most brands don't fall into that category and halted a lot of my modelling. I was still modelling at that point because I didn't fully understand living wages and the complexity of that.
When I was 18 one of my agencies dropped me, possibly because I was a little bit difficult (laughs).
That made me evaluate what was next, and decided to start a creative agency, Willow Creative Co with the photographers, stylists and everyone I knew who cared about having a better fashion industry. We started producing photo shoots for brands that were interested in doing the right thing and I would model for those. Getting work was more complicated, but it was also something I was much more in control of, in general and creatively too, which I really enjoyed.
D: Is the agency still active?
E: Not really. The reason I started it was that I felt that brands that were doing good things didn't have the same capacity to have really amazing marketing that brands that are doing terrible things have. I still think that that's important, but I now believe that helping to sell more things is not the solution. That's why I now work on the campaigning, legislative, consultation side of things. It’s great if other creatives do that kind of thing, but it's not where I see my role anymore.
D: Even if other creative’s work on that side of things, they still have to put the message out that over production and overconsumption should stop.
D: You are a multi-faceted person, an abundant creator with overlapping goals all centred on justice. You are a newly published author, speaker and creative winning awards for the Willow and Claude film you produced. Mostly recently you have collaborated with Waterbear on the documentary SLAY. You are also the founder and director of Collective Fashion Justice; can you tell us about the work you are doing now?
E: Collective Fashion Justice is a not-for-profit organisation, and it exists to create what I call a total ethics fashion system, which is one that respects the life of all animals, whether human or non-human, that prioritises living individuals, but also the planet and the living planet that we share. All of those things have to be prioritised before profit, and that is not case at the moment. We work at citizen consumer education level, but also consulting with brands, pushing them to do better, and at a legislative level because that impacts everyone else. The short film Willow and Claude was a project with Collective Fashion Justice. We have written reports, and engaged with fashion weeks and brands to help them implement new policies to ban certain materials and to be more innovative. We have helped to pass legislation in New York. We do a lot of different things, but they are all centred on that goal. A lot of our work is focused on fashion supply chains that have animal derived materials in them. That's because it is there that people, animals and the planet are all harmed. If we talk about leather, we can talk about tannery workers, slaughterhouse workers, farm workers, indigenous land rights issues, deforestation, carbon emissions, and then cows themselves, everything. The most effective way to create change is if nothing is left out when you're addressing the issues.
D: Do you think that calling your new mission Collective Fashion Justice has opened more doors for you than coming to the table purely as an animal rights activist?
E: Yes, and I felt limited when I worked at an animal protection organisation because I really wanted to talk about the environment and I wanted to talk about people. With Collective Fashion Justice I am able to take a holistic approach. You can't solve a problem unless you look at it holistically and see that that harm is interconnected, so yes that's been really helpful and a lot of doors have been opened because people have appreciated that way of looking at things. That’s the real cultural shift that I want to create in the fashion industry.
More people are starting to acknowledge that you have to care about people if you want to talk about sustainability. But generally, animals are left out of that conversation but so are people most of the time. So, there's a lot of broadening that we need to do.
D: We have to be responsible.
E: We need to be responsible as we can't sustain what we're doing now because it's a mess. But I do think we can work towards having a fashion industry that can be sustained on this planet, while the well-being of the planet is secured.
D: We thought that fast fashion was bad enough, but it's kicked up a gear into ultra-fast fashion, which makes no sense when you know that the other half of tis conversation is the need to reduce and degrowth.
What is your mission for Collective Fashion Justice? What would you like to see? What would that result be?
E: Before I die, I would like the fashion industry to have genuinely adopted the concept of total ethics, where they see that that is the ultimate goal. That they are prioritising the planet, and everyone on it before profit. As part of that I'd like to see that degrowth is happening, that everyone is paid living wages and that we're not using animal skins as materials and commodifying animals for fashion anymore.
D: What is your biggest focus to get you there? Do you have a step by step goal?
E: We have strategic plans that come in 2 year slots, and we are coming to the end of the first one now, because Collective Fashion Justice will turn 2 in December. The goals we have on that are quite broad, and a lot of them are about getting recognition of this concept, and starting conversations. For the rest of the year, for example, we have a series of leather reports coming out. There is one for each issue; one is leathers impact on people, one is on the planet, one is on animals, and then is one on a Just Transition. Those reports are a really important tool for us to have when we talk to brands and talk to legislators to show why it's so important that we have a transition beyond leather. The immediate goal is to have those ready and have those conversations.
We are also working on a course that young people in fashion can work on, because I believe it's a lot easier to speak to the next generation of designers and for them to start designing with these ideas in mind than it is to ask someone who's been in fashion for decades to undo everything they've learnt.
D: The whole fashion business is the same as that really, its like trying to turn a huge ship. It was in the 90s when things started getting faster and faster. When I was growing up this over consumption was not there.
E: That actually gives me hope. The fact that this industry hasn't been the way it is for that long. Even if you look further back to the industrial revolution, in the scheme of human history that was not so long ago. I believe we can sort something out.
D: What's your favourite material?
E: I don't have any clothes made from it. I've only touched it. But I think the existence of Mirum is really exciting. It is a leather alternative that's completely free from animals. It's also completely plastic free, and can be completely circular, because all the plant materials it's made from can be made into something else. I think that those three things, animal free, plastic free and circular is where we have to be. The fact that there is material like that now, that is also aesthetically everything you want it to be, is really promising.
D: Tell us about the work you've done around wool, you have a 3 tier approach, phasing out fur which is almost gone now, leather next, then wool.
E: Wool is the furthest away from going anywhere because people are so wrapped up in the mythology of the industry. There's a lot of work to do here, if people can understand the real harms caused by wool, they will inevitably understand the same for leather and every other animal material. People don’t realise the wool industry is in slaughter industry. Even if people didn't routinely mutilate the animals, the whole industry is based on killing animals when it's most profitable. When they are no longer profitable alive, then they can be profitable dead. So, I don't think there is any way you can put the term ethical around something like that.
It's also hugely land inefficient; it causes harm to biodiversity and produces huge amounts of methane emissions. Also in Australia, shearers face a lot of working rights issues.
Recently we tabled a petition in Parliament in NSW in Australia to ban mulesing. That's not an end goal, but it's a huge amount of harm that could be reduced.
Wool is also something that is of particular interest to me, I have fostered lambs and have really seen on an individual level, the reason why it’s important we do not participate in that system anymore. The lambs I fostered would have died in winter lambing, (which is a whole other topic,) had they not been rescued. We have created a report with the Centre of Biological Diversity called ‘Shear Destruction’, which is all about the environmental impact of wool.
The short film we talked about earlier Willow and Claude, is named after two lambs, and explores why wool is not the solution as part of the future of fashion. It then explores why plastic fibres aren’t either. Then it follows a proof of concept supply chain for something that's actually better, that's plant based and completely traceable and highlights the farmers involved.
Wool is the part of the SLAY film, and I was line producer for that portion of the film.
So it’s something we have spent quite a bit of time on.
D: Tell us about your book ‘How Veganism Can Save Us’. How did that come about? Has writing always been part of your creativity?
E: I've always really liked writing and mum is a writer, among other things, that she does really well. Watching her showed me that that was something I could also do if I wanted to.
I saw a book as an important mode of transportation for an idea. ‘How Veganism Can Save Us’ is supposed to be an entry level look at veganism. The title is probably quite provocative to a lot of people, but the idea is that veganism can save us if we acknowledge it as part of a broader movement for social justice and total liberation, it's not something that exists on its own. We can't work for the goal of a collectively liberated world if we're not also acknowledging that veganism is a part of that, because of the ways that the animal industrial complex that commodifies animals harms them, but in turn harms us and harms the planet. It's at the core of so many things, and the book aims to unwrap that issue because there are a lot of interconnected issues that people don't necessarily think about.
There is a portion of the book that talks about the link between feminism, patriarchy and eating meat. It also looks at how we have dehumanised some people in order to justify oppressing them and to dehumanise is to animalise someone, to see them as an animal. When you see anyone as an animal, that's when they can be exploited. So if we keep seeing animals as worth nothing and able to be exploited then we will continue to see issues everywhere. The book tries to make those connections, it’s split into a section on the planet, a section on people, and then on animals, and then at the end on collective liberation, and how all of those issues are our issues collectively.
D: When you show how everything intersects like this it really helps towards a deeper understanding.
What sort of shift in thinking would you like to see? I know you're working on a lot of legislative change. We talk about the fact that the fashion movement and fashion industry move slowly as far as change is concerned, governments can be the same, or worse. Then when legislation is put in place, it's not necessarily always adhered to.
E: To create change you must create it across the board. There has to be cultural change, legislative change and industry change all at once so they all bounce off of each other. I don't think there is 1 silver bullet solution. I do think that if we took anti speciesism to its core and saw it in the same way as any other form of oppression, I think that that would result in a lot of legislative change, and a lot of industry change, also a lot of change in how we engage with each other too.
For the book at least, the goal there is to have that cultural shift.
D: How long did it take you to write the book?
E: Actually, I wrote a different book first, which is coming out later. They swapped places because this one is the more entry level one. The first one I wrote took longer to write because of the research, which then helped to inform this one.
I wrote them both in that 2 year period of lockdown where I had plenty of time because I couldn't do many other things.
D: As we speak you're in Europe, you are here to promote SLAY with Waterbear. Are you also getting time to promote your book ‘How Veganism Can Save Us?
E: I mention the book when I can, but it's not why I'm here, I'm here to promote SLAY. At the same time, I am using that and using the engagement I'm having with friends at screenings to build connections within the fashion industry, with designers and corporate social responsibility managers who I can get to think differently about animal materials in ways they might not have thought about before and help them set targets for moving beyond them.
D: How has the trip been, has it been productive?
E: It's been very productive. I've had really good meetings with large fashion organisations that represent lots of different brands in different countries. I've had meetings with luxury brands, with retailers, with people all across the board in different parts of the fashion industry, also with other organisations working to do good things. Because I believe collaboration is such a critical part of trying to create change.
The screenings have of all being really good. I have been surprised by how open brands have been to SLAY. Even with people from the brands I've been sitting next to while the logo of the company that they work for has popped up on the screen. A lot of people would be uncomfortable about that and would make them want to run away and not particularly want to talk to me again. But lots of brands where that has happened have come up to me after and said ‘when can we have coffee?’ I really respect that.
There is one brand who came out of the film and said I can't believe we're part of the problem. I really respect people who can take in new information and go okay, we need to do something about that. I think it's also testament to Rebecca, the director and to what the film has become.
D: It's great that you're getting that sort of response and that the conversation is happening. What a powerful way to show some people for the first time the supply chain that they are sitting in the middle of.
E: Sometimes I'm kind of amazed by how unaware they are. The number of brands I've spoken to about wool, for example, and when I've said ‘the wool industry’s a slaughter industry’ the fact they have no idea what I mean by that is phenomenal. Really that should be something that you should know about in order to source wool and profit from it. But it's not, and it’s not only the case in animal materials, it’s across everything in the world, bad things continue to happen because people are either oblivious to them, or choose to remain oblivious to them. Having something that forces people to think ‘OK, we're not going to do that anymore, and we're actually going to address this’, is important.
D: I think that the way that you phrase it when you said, that the wool industry is a slaughter industry, for people to actually think of it in that way will help shift perceptions and allow for change.
E: Then you can't see it anymore as just a happy little haircut. Even if the shearing wasn't bad, which it so often is. Do you want to be a part of a system that sees animals as so worthless, that when their wool is not profitable anymore, they would prefer to kill them to get profit from the skin. It’s all about money.
D: The wool becomes unprofitable as the sheep gets older?
E: Wool degrades and brittles the same way our hair does, then has no value. Even if a lamb is 6 to 9 months old, and maybe even a Marino lamb, if they are really fattened up for the spring season, farmers might still decide ‘actually, I think it’s going to be more profitable to send them straight to the slaughterhouse now, and I'll get a really good skin that has new wool on it, that's really valuable, and the meat will also be sold to the prime lamb market’. So it's always about which step is going to make the most money.
D: What drives you, Emma?
E: I feel the only way I should really spend my time here, is to make it a place that is better. I don't necessarily see it as a choice that I've made, it’s what I'm doing, and I don't see that there's any another way. Of course, I've chosen the way that I'm working to eliminate suffering, but, within that, that's what I'm doing and I don't see that there is another option.
D: What’s next?
E: I am at the very, very beginnings of working on another book which is about total ethics fashion, which I think is important to have. Emma’s project is going to reach its next phase when I get back to Australia. Collective Fashion Justice has many, many things coming, so there's lots to continue working on.