Sarah | Sarah Jay
Let’s start at the beginning, how did your career start?
Well, I started as an intern at Fashion Magazine, but originally, I was on a very different trajectory. I was thinking of going to law school or studying clinical psychology, then when I moved to Toronto, I realized that my house was only a block away from the Fashion Magazine offices. So, it really was the proximity, and the access that moving into the big city gave me. It inspired me to literally dress up and go over there and ask for an internship. I was blissfully unaware at the time of the volume of fashion graduates that were coming out of schools, like Ryerson and many others, every semester, and how coveted internship positions were. If I had stopped to allow myself to be deterred by that, I wouldn't have tried. I really believe that the industry, if not, the world, makes a place for you when you're good at what you do, when you know how to hustle, when you're determined, and when you have the inclination to create.
Over the years your career has evolved. Your work centres on supporting and showcasing sustainable designers and creating awareness about the damage caused by fast fashion. What started you down this path?
Early on in my career I really had an existential crisis, which overlapped with getting sick. I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and eventually developed multiple chemical sensitivity, which was the beginning of my obsession with reading product labels and knowing what I was putting in and on my body. During that time, I had a personal awakening that extended outwards. Viewing the documentary An Inconvenient Truth really helped to blow my mind open and honestly, I consumed my way to awareness. Really. I was styled full time and largely that consists of commercial work. So the volume that I was personally consuming was exorbitant. Being in the malls every day I just started wondering, where on Earth does all this stuff come from? And where is it going after I buy it or make use of their return policy? Starting to ask these questions helped me to get informed about the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion. The other major moment that I'll cite happened in 2007 when I met Kelly Drennan, of Fashion Takes Action. At the time I was styling for the Fashion Design Council of Canada, which used to run Toronto Fashion Week. It was a major moment for me to meet someone else who was also upset and motivated by the situation in our industry. We became allies over the next 13 years while I supported the creation of Fashion Takes Action, Canada’s first fashion-focused NGO which aims to advance sustainability in the entire fashion system through education, awareness, research and collaboration.
Working in this industry, I think about our environmental impact all the time and sometimes I feel like the fast fashion industry is this giant train moving too fast for us as consumers to stop.Do you feel like we're making a difference?
During COVID I actually went back to school to get my Master’s in Environmental Science and the overwhelming message that I'm left with is that there remains a reoccupation with measuring and predicting climate change. We are so preoccupied with measurements and predictions, when I believe we ultimately know what needs to be done: move away from fossil fuels as our energy source and adopt a plant-based diet. THESE are the elephants in the room that we are ignoring. Fashion also likes to ignore issues including: living wages, women’s rights and the rate at which they continue to produce clothing. You cannot substitute sustainable fabrics into an excessive and exploitative business model and call it sustainable. And that's what fast fashion brands are doing. As long as companies are calling all the shots and are able to create, create, create and feed this human vulnerability, or appetite for newness and beauty; until we figure out how to feed that and satisfy that desire in a different way, we will consume ourselves right into mass extinction. Now this isn't to say that I believe even more responsibility should fall on to the consumer, because I don't. Consumers (aka human citizens!) have enough to worry about. I really do believe that change must come from the top down. Until governments get involved and acknowledge the harm that mass production is causing, companies will not stop over producing.
H&M has become a household name when it comes to talking about the how destructive fast fashion is to our environment, but online brands like Shein, Pretty Little Thing, Cider and Revolve are constantly targeting us with online ads, especially the younger generation. Do you think people are seeing these brands as fast fashion?
I am going to choose to believe in the younger generation and in the education system that will keep them informed about the urgency of the climate crisis and fashion’s causal role. I am often inspired by young people and the degree to which they value sustainability and the environment. I can only hope that the generation for whom these brands are targeting will see through these ads, and the excessive clothing in stores. I think you also raise an important point re: H&M, which is that they take a lot of heat and criticism for the destruction caused by fast fashion. The reality is that among the fast fashion brands, H&M is making huge strides in terms of transparency and supply chain disclosures, sustainability reporting, setting targets and ethical sourcing, notably of organic cotton. The question should be, what are all the other fast fashion brands doing? Do they publish a sustainability report? Do they participate in Fashion Revolution’s annual Transparency Index? Are they supporting grassroots NGO’s with youth ambassador programs focused on sustainability? No.
What led you into the beauty world and exploring the toxic nature of the products we all put on our body?
The toxicity of personal care products became of interest to me due to my worsening chemical sensitivities – particularly to fragrance. As a kid and young adult I was a competitive swimmer, so I have definitely suffered from chlorine overexposure. I was also the kid who had all different colours of hair, loved makeup, and was enthusiastic with products. Then the other variable is that I had really bad cystic acne that I treated with pharmaceutical drugs - both orally and topically –and these really altered my microbiome and affected my intestinal health. As a result of these factors, I now have multiple chemical sensitivities. Because I was dealing with this in my personal life it led to a professional focus on cosmetic safety.
Was it a natural leap into a film for your documentary Toxic Beauty?
Around the time that I got sick, I was working a lot on reality TV as a stylist. I had done Project Runway, Canada’s Next Top Model, Eat Yourself Sexy with Gillian McKeith and in the context of these makeover shows, I couldn't help but feel like we weren't improving on the thing that really needs to be improved upon. So ‘Toxic Beauty’ actually began as a green makeover show. I took this familiar format that we love, but the ‘glow up’ with green, and used non-toxic products. Originally it was written to factor in beauty and fashion. Ultimately, even though there was a lot of interest, the TV business model didn’t work because at the time (2009-2010) major beauty brands didn’t have any clean products, hence no advertising revenue. In those early years I was lucky to meet my producer of development, Jessica Jennings, who has a company called Momentum Media that I really can't say enough about. She played a pivotal role in the creation of Toxic Beauty as we know it now. I was in development with a production company for many years. Everyone knew that the content and message was timely and valuable. The question was what “package” are we going to deliver this message in? Eventually we realized the things that work against us in the context of TV, really work for you in the context of film. You want to be controversial; you want to be opening minds. And that is how Toxic Beauty came to be. It was a 10-year journey for me. It was a real learning curve; a real labor of love and a very difficult process.
Do you think that there is another film like this in your future? It seems like after the pandemic people are even more ready to hear what his going into our bodies and on our skin.
I do. I am really proud of Toxic Beauty, but there is more to say and a lot more to uncover. My experience in fashion is very much informing what I hope to do in beauty because there are far more places for corruption and toxicity to hide. If you think back to Joe Fresh and that fact that they didn’t know they were outsourcing their production to Rana Plaza, think about how comparatively complex supply chains get in the context of beauty, where every product is comprised of myriad ingredients that come from all over the world.
You have also founded an organization called All Earthlings and it is educating people on how we are all wearing shark! Tell me about this and what is the goal of the organization?
At All Earthlings we are aiming to shine a light on hidden impacts to species and environments in cosmetic supply chains. The ingredient we are currently focusing on is squalene, which is a very “it” ingredient and highly coveted. It is predominantly used in the beauty industry but also in the pharmaceutical industry as a vaccine adjuvant. Squalene can come from plants: olive, sugar, corn, amaranth, wheat etc., it can be compounded bio-synthetically, but it can also come from the livers of sharks. Regardless of where it sourced, it is called squalene because ingredient origin does not need to be disclosed on a product label. Because shark squalene is the cheapest variety we continue to use it, despite the presence of vegan and cruelty free labels on these products. The cosmetic industry’s use of squalene underscores what we learned in Toxic Beauty: consumers have no reliable way of knowing what they are really applying because of the absence of industry regulation and government oversite. We don’t even have a reliable vegan certification! We have no way to avoid consuming animals, which becomes a human rights issue, and a religious rights issue for many people. I love this ingredient, not just because I love sharks, but because of what it exposes about the beauty industry overall, which is that consumers don’t currently have the information they need to make safe and informed decisions.
What are you currently reading right now?
The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams. Read it.
To say I loved this conversation is an understatement. Diving into topics I think about daily and knowing there is someone else out there fighting for the same things as I am has me buzzing. Sarah is an advocate for all of us as consumers. In fashion and beauty, big brands have been left unchecked for decades and now is the time for us to demand change. I recommend watching her documentary Toxic Beauty, which, if you’re in Canada, is available for free on CBC Gem. It has me rethinking what I apply to my skin in a whole new way and it has empowered me to seek out brands who are transparent. Don’t forget to also check out her styling work. Being raised in the 80’s and 90’s with the influence of grunge, Sarah’s signature aesthetic is somewhere between goth and grunge. “Heavily filtered and retouched imagery has me craving texture and imperfection - even messiness. No matter where I go, those influences are always my foundation. I’m bothered when things look to squeaky clean. I crave darkness and realness.”
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