My name is Laurise McMillian, and I lead R29Unbothered’s social media team. Welcome to About My Business, our brand new career column. For years, I was getting tons of DMs like “How can I negotiate my salary?,” “I don’t know how to discuss mental health with my boss,” and “Why does this white woman insist on asking me everything just because I’m Black?” This is a safe space to answer your questions while spilling my guts, tips and tea.
This installment of About My Business is dedicated to our good sis, Mother Earth. This April, I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with the great outdoors. As a suburban Maryland girl, I spent a lot of time outside. I’m blessed to say my parents still live in the house I grew up in, and in the backyard there’s a great big oak tree that would tell a thousand stories if it could talk. It would speak about long afternoons of me reading underneath it with my mom. It would tell you about the countless nights my cousins and I spent hunting fireflies after spending the whole day swimming. After my sister and I moved out, my daddy carved our names into it. It brings my heart joy to go out there now, as a grown woman: light a CBD joint, pet a pup or two, and stare at the endless heaven of acorns and leaves above my head.
Last year while inspo-scrolling I found @greengirlleah AKA Leah Thomas’s Instagram. At the time, she was working at a large (and very white, I might add!) sustainable fashion retailer, while also sharing her knowledge of intersectional environmentalism with her 10K followers. During the panorama last year, Thomas took a leap of faith and left her stable job with no BIPOC leaders (yeahhh… more on this to come) to found her own media and environmental resource hub, Intersectional Environmentalist or IE, that explores the intersections of social and environmental justice. Oh, and obviously this nonprofit is Black owned (support ‘em here!). Since the June 2020 launch, she’s grown the resource hub’s Instagram account to 318K followers and has even penned public letters to President Biden’s Administration. I hit her up for this piece because it’s been such a joy to watch her journey, as a peer and as another Black woman.
Laurise McMillian: Leah, you’ve become such a bridge for millennials and the environment. How can Black millennials and Gen-Z reclaim a relationship with nature?
Leah Thomas: Some of it just starts with [recognizing] what we’re already doing, and realiz[ing] that that is kind of an experience of being outdoors in nature. Whether you’re sitting out on your front porch, or just going for a walk, or just having a kick back in your backyard. Those are all experiences connecting with nature. Sometimes, we think we have to go out to these National Parks or Summit Mountains to be able to be an environmentalist, and you know I think the truth is that Blackness, in particular, is the blueprint for a lot of sustainability practices. Within our culture, we have a lot of reusing, and repurposing and reinventing and making do with what we have. So I think that’s a fun first step. Especially for BIPOC millennials or Gen-Z people, to just see what cultural traditions are already there that might be sustainable. And maybe it’s not been given that title, but I feel like it’s a great first step.
LM: I read a piece on your site about how Black and Brown people were sustainable before it was cool. Let’s unpack that.
LT: When you look at Indigenous cultures around the world, or more specifically indigenous cultures in the United States, as well as when you’re looking at historic and current farming practices all across Africa, it is more sustainable than what we see in our every day. And I think we can learn a lot from the ways Black and Brown have been able to coexist with the environment. A lot of people are like “Oh the climate crisis... and we’re all just contributing to this and that,” and it’s like, “Hold up, hold up. Who is actually contributing to this?” We have to be real about that so we can find solutions that are not exploitative. Not extracting these solutions from Black and Brown communities but really giving them a seat at the table and allowing them to show us how they've been able to coexist with the land.
I guess that’s more so specific to climate solutions and agricultural solutions, but in addition to that, just little things like when I look back at my Grandma and the way that she keeps her old cookie tin to hold all her sewing materials. She always reuses her plastic bags. Those are all sustainable traditions. And in addition to that, my family thrifted before it became gentrified. But it was kind of out of necessity. However, I think that if someone is shopping at a thrift store out of necessity, they should also be praised because it’s also a sustainable practice. For some reason, when I see thrifting on Instagram, I see white, eco-influencers who are kind of seen as this hip thing, and I remember being younger and being ashamed to even talk about thrift shopping. But, I think to make sure we’re empowering all people when these new things — not even new things — when things of necessity become gentrified.
And I think that has a lot to do with environmental movement being largely white, or people with higher income, because they’re like “look, we have these beautiful, eccentric, like glass tupperware,” and it’s like, okay my grandma’s container is just as good and it’s also sustainable. It’s kind of a weird thing where you have to buy your way into sustainability, when that’s really not the case and kind of ironic in the first place.
"[People] may not be ready to admit that the type of environmentalism that they’re practicing isn’t advancing disability justice or BIPOC justice, if it’s not intersectional in nature."
leah "green girl leah" thomas
LM: IE prides itself on dismantling systems of oppression in the environmental movement. Can you talk about some of these barriers or the ways sustainability has been white washed from a business standpoint and how you deal with that in your workplaces?
LT:I’m very thankful for the experiences I had really early in my career, so working as a National Park Service intern and dabbling in that world. Also working at Patagonia, which is a sustainable apparel community, and you know, being involved in the climate movement and going to Fridays For Future climate strikes, because in each of those spaces, there was a really severe lack of representation of BIPOC – in particular in positions of leadership –and I saw it in all these different sectors. Like at the top of all these different sustainability companies or the top environmental nonprofits, there were no Black people. [I asked myself] Where are they? and What’s going on? because I know we’re here, but we’re not actually being promoted and given positions of leadership.
The biggest hurdle is really trying to talk to the [white] environmental community about why this is important. Because, you see, the thing is, there’s a lot of sensitivity specifically with environmentalists. They’re usually liberal people, they care about recycling, they care about the planet, and then if you have me coming in and I’m like “okay, recycling is great but we also need to advocate for Black lives because it doesn't make sense to advocate for the smallest of endangered species, and then with your environmental philosophy, not care about Black and Indigenous lives.” There’s also this younger generation of people saying, "y'know that doesn’t hold up. You’re not actually caring about marginalized people, because what kind of environmentalism is that? Is it to advance climate solutions for white people in particular?”
I think there’s been kind of a battle there, of defensiveness and fragility within environmental circles. They may not be comfortable or ready to admit that the type of environmentalism that they’re practicing isn’t actually advancing disability justice or BIPOC justice, if it’s not intersectional in nature. So I think it’s a big wake up call. Honestly, our [sustainability] community is our biggest hurdle because other groups seem to get it. When you go to BIPOC communities and you start presenting some of this data and you say, “Oh that makes sense, that’s why we have higher instances of asthma, or I live right next to a highway — that totally makes sense that that impacts our health and that’s a result of redlining.” It can be easier to convince people outside of the environmental movement than to confront white environmentalists who have largely avoided race for years, and sometimes decades.
LM: I started this Career and Creatives Facebook Group for Unbothered, and there are hella girls in there with their own Black-owned businesses. Candle makers, fashion designers, jewelry makers. They are so talented! With initiatives like the 15% Pledge, we’re seeing white businesses, and mainstream consumers pay more attention to Black-owned brands (As they should). With this newfound spotlight, how can those creators be more mindful of their own footprint as their business scales?
The truth is that Blackness is the blueprint for a lot of sustainability practices. Within our culture, we do a lot of reusing, repurposing, reinventing, and making do with what we have.
LEAH "GREEN GIRL LEAH" THOMAS
LT: I have a nuanced perspective. I worked at one of the most sustainable manufacturers that other companies look up to, and when I was in there, internally, there’s a lot of racially insensitive sentiment as well as no BIPOC in positions of leadership. And then we’ve also seen other brands like Reformation, a sustainable manufacturer, however, their founder was eating fried chicken to celebrate Black History Month and thought that was appropriate to post. So it’s kind of complicated, because there are sustainable brands yes, in terms of their supply chain, but then when it comes to the health and happiness of their own BIPOC employees, or even just whether or not they care about Black lives, oooooh it’s not always there. I also know that those price points are also inaccessible. Sometimes fast fashion is just what’s accessible to certain people. So I think there’s a couple things that need to happen. A lot of people just don't know. If they see a $5 shirt from Forever21, they might just think it's normal. They might not know that there might be things as extreme as slavery along the supply chain and environment degradation, so I feel like part of it has to be awareness campaigns about what’s exactly happening and the true cost of a $5 tee shirt and a $15 tee shirt.
And in addition to that, I feel like some of these brands like Fashion Nova can move the needle. I know some people don’t really like sustainable collections, they think it’s like greenwashing. But, for me it’s a way in. People aren’t just going to stop buying from Fashion Nova, or some of these companies, but because they have such a large audience, at least try to release like one sustainable collection, because then their consumers will have an option..
I don't know if I feel like there’s lots of different solutions, but there’s also accessibility that is at play. But people like Meg Thee Stallion who is a self-identified environmentalist. She did a beach clean up a couple years ago. I think that’s a way she can use her platform. So if she does more collabs with Fashion Nova, even if it is a brand notorious for fast fashion, kind of setting some boundaries of, “I don't want to work with you if you’re utilizing child labor or slave labor. How can we use recycled materials for this collection and make the price point somewhat accessible?” Because that is doable, a shirt might not be $5 if it’s made sustainably, but you can potentially get it to that 10-15-20 dollar price point. It doesn’t have to be a Patagonia shirt that’s somehow one hundred dollars. There’s room to grow and there’s flexibility.
LM: How can young Black businesses be more socially responsible in their day-to-day?
LT: One of the easiest things to do that will also help cut costs is repurposing materials as much as possible. Whether you’re a jewelry brand or a clothing brand — and the kids, the Gen-Z-ers, they like it! It makes for such cool unique styles. I would encourage Black owned businesses to upcycle. It’s really “in” right now. Also if you’re looking at consumer behaviour, there’s this really great study by Sutra, a sustainable marketing agency, that said people want to buy from brands that stand for something. And that shouldn't be the reason why you should want your business to be sustainable, but numbers don’t lie! Tying in some of these sustainability initiatives might actually help them get more followers for their business’ Instagram. Also repurpose found materials to cut costs, instead of continually having to make your own fabric and things like that.
LM: You are coming with the gems. I called the right one! Which Black-owned brands do you think are getting it right and not leaving such a huge footprint?
LT: It’s this really cool one from a company called Seed. They use packing peanuts that are made of cornstarch that just dissolve. They’re really firm, but as soon as you put it in water it dissolves. You can actually eat their packaging. I have, and it doesn’t taste bad! But there are really cool solutions and the price point is going down on some of these items. And the more people use them, the more the price point drops. And it’s just fun to receive in the mail. You just throw it into water!
LM: Wow that’s really cool. I really love Jade Swim. They use No Issue packaging which is completely compostable. Not only are they Black-woman owned, but every product is made in the USA by workers who are paid a living wage, after a full life cycle assessment is conducted to ensure sustainability from production to use. I see a lot of beauty and fashion brands putting more thought into sustainable products and packaging and it gives me hope!