It’s not common to hear the terms “fashion” and “environment” used together to discuss sustainability. In fact, the fashion industry is considered to be one of Mother Earth’s greatest enemies. After all, when it comes to helping to save our planet, fashion is often wrecking even more havoc.
A self-described fashion environmentalist, Runa Ray is trying to change that. A fashion designer, sustainability consultant for the New York Stock Exchange and founder of the Peace Flag Project, Ray is sort of a renaissance woman in the industry. Her versatility developed naturally during her time as a designer for various ready-to-wear and haute couture brands.
“I have witnessed mink being found and skinned, being brought into the atelier, but not being respected,” said Ray in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I have witnessed people who work in the fashion industry be subjected to occupational lung disease, for example, when it comes to the denim industry.”
The plethora of tragic disasters in the industry helped Ray realize that she could not simply remain creative in the way she approached clothing design. She also needed to also help those less seen — such as migratory tailors and garment workers — and resolve the problem of waste in the fashion industry.
To begin, during the design process, Ray began to incorporate nature itself to mitigate the carbon footprint her clothes had on the environment. One technique employed by the fashion activist is Suminagashi, a paper marbling technique employed in 20th century Japan.
“What they did was they had a trough that they filled with water and seaweed as a coagulant, and they would splash the ink on the surface, then the inks would get transferred,” Ray said. “If you do that in the fashion industry, you are not wasting water because you are not running the water.”
In addition to changing the impact of her own designs, Ray also wanted to address the tons of fashion waste ending up in landfills across the world.Thus, the Peace Flag Project was born as an attempt to use fashion’s waste for a social cause.
“I don’t know who’s made this sweater of mine, you don’t know who’s made those boots of yours,” said the environmentalist. “At the same time, there is so much prejudice —racial prejudice — that happens, but we willingly just go and buy clothes, not bothering about who are the faces behind making those items.”
Made out of old bed sheets, square canvases are written and drawn on by people from all different walks of life.
“With this project, I have traveled to various countries: pastoral communities, schools, nomadic communities,” said Ray. “People who understand the project have drawn written commitments when it comes to not just towards peace, but also across sustainable development goals.”
These pieces of fabric are then sewn together to create a large mosaic-like panel, which the designer takes with her to different locations around the world, a symbol to inspire and support communities.
“In honor of the [Half Moon Bay] killings that happened and to use the peace flag as a healing project, we are trying to see how we can get the communities again together to be part of this on a large scale and see how we can exhibit it,” Ray explained.
Endorsed by the United Nations, the project “flips the script” to find the positive in the negative. With multiple flags already displayed in San Mateo County, Half Moon Bay and New York, to name a few, the major presentation will take place at either the Interfaith Center or at the UN Headquarters on Sept. 3, the International Day of Peace.
When asked about what students can do to help these efforts, Ray understands that students often cannot afford to invest in sustainable brands and has two pieces of advice: extending the garment’s lifespan and upcycling. Learning simple sewing techniques, getting items mended and washing on cold settings to decrease the amount of microfibers released are all steps that go a long way.
“I’m not gonna be like ‘Oh, you’re a Christmas sweater, so I shouldn’t wear you now,’” Ray said. “I’m still wearing it because it’s a sweater and it keeps me warm, irrespective of trends, irrespective of what is happening in the fashion industry; it doesn’t matter.”
She also suggests exploring different ways to upcycle garments, such as converting them into plant pots, new designs or even useful items like a mouse-pad.
“The beauty of being a student is that you can still be creative with what you have,” Ray said. “Be really creative because it’s the age to be creative.”