How Sustainable Brooklyn Is Demanding a Redefinition of Sustainability

Photo by Timothy Smith | Courtesy of Sustainable Brooklyn

It all started with a DM for Sustainable Brooklyn co-founders, Whitney McGuire and Dominique Drakeford. The duo celebrates five years of sustainability-meets-social justice efforts with their grassroots organization this year, however, their draw toward fashion began much earlier for both, who discovered their passions as kids in their respective hometowns. They’ve since expanded that interest beyond aesthetics, acquiring higher education in African Studies and fashion law for McGuire, alongside a master’s in Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Fashion for Drakeford. By educational standards, the two are well-versed on the many facets of fashion and sustainability. Coupled with their personal experiences as Black women, it’s the precise reason they’re committed to redefining just exactly what “sustainability” means across the fashion landscape. Their work has included consulting, educational initiatives, collaborations with brands like Mara Hoffman, Levi’s, and Eileen Fisher via workshops and youth programming, as well as being in actual campaigns for sustainably-led initiatives. Judging by what’s in store, Sustainable Brooklyn isn’t slowing down. Below, the founders detail their mission to contributor Nia Groce, their most rewarding moments, and what’s next for the organization.

Interview – Nia Groce | Editor – Irene Ojo-Felix

Photo by Timothy Smith | Courtesy of Sustainable Brooklyn

Where did your interest in fashion first begin for each of you?
Whitney McGuire: ​It started for me from a very early age. Dayton, Ohio in general, was just a fly city. I grew up on the West side of town, in a predominantly Black neighborhood. My aunties were always fashionable, my mom, my grandparents. I realized early on that we weren’t wealthy, so we would go to Value City or thrift stores. But my mom was always able to find the most beautiful sequined outfits because she was an entertainer. I picked up on that, and I would pore over Vogue, InStyle, and even teen magazines. Then I would recreate those outfits from the thrift store and secondhand stuff. When I got to college, I started writing more about fashion and its nexus with the law. [At] law school, I specialized in fashion law, and that opened me up to the industry in a more granular way.

Dominique Drakeford: Similarly, growing up in Oakland, California there was a beautiful marriage between fashion and culture. I think the culmination of the Black Panthers—who were radical, pro-Black militant, but very focused on fashion as a form of articulating politics—but also, MC Hammer played a big role. The eclecticism and the vibrancy of that genre of music. Then my loving Missy Elliot created a unique fashion sensibility where I felt like fashion was an important extension of who I am, just harnessing the Leo energy and being flamboyant and outgoing.

How and why did Sustainable Brooklyn start? I think you said you slid in her DMs, and from there, you had an event, right, Whitney?
WM: So almost a decade before I met Dominique, I was focused on fashion law, throwing events with Howard University School of Law students, even though I didn’t go there. They were the first group to have a Fashion Law Symposium and I was producing events with them for four years. Then when I moved to Vegas for a couple of years, I was still in that mode of educating the public. I started to do workshops for design students. I posted that photo [from the workshop] after I moved back to the East Coast and a couple of friends said, “Do you know Dominique Drakeford? Y’all should meet.” ​The rest is history.

Sustainable Brooklyn was born very organically from that because we both had this interest in centering our community on the understanding that fashion is a cultural driver for sustainability and change. That we, especially as descendants of enslaved Africans and people from the African diaspora, have a unique and tenuous relationship with fashion. A lot of the discourse surrounding fashion has excluded us and our contributions, but we understand that this is a distortion of the truth, and we wanted to reclaim our just power in fashion and its importance in our culture through sustainability.

Photo by Camila Falquez for Porter Magazine | Courtesy of Sustainable Brooklyn

What would you say is the biggest thing your organization sets out to do?
DD:​ It’s so multi-pronged, the work that we’re doing. Community building is huge. I think that would be the epicenter of what we focus on. But also information sharing, resource sharing and cross-pollinating with the different vanguards across sustainability in our circle of influence. Because we work from a bottom-up, but also a top-down approach, we’re also dismantling systems. So [going] into spaces where we don’t typically have agency and sharing our truth in hopes that it manipulates those who have certain privileges and power in those ecosystems.

How effective do you guys feel that you’ve been at achieving that mission since starting?
WM: ​I think we’ve been really successful. We’ve seen other organizations take the approach that we have championed, or at least try to. Before Sustainable Brooklyn, yes, there were sustainability-focused orgs within fashion, but they were just talking about the environmental side. No one was making the connection between what happened to Trayvon Martin, or Latasha Harlins, or what happens to our communities as a result of environmental degradation of our respiratory symptoms. How fashion is connected to a lot of these unsustainability issues that we face. Now the discourse is starting to encompass a lot more environmental justice, the social justice side.

DD:​ One of the strongest things we’ve been able to do is demand a redefinition of sustainability. Pushing not only the mainstream but specifically the Black community to redefine sustainability. What Whit said, it’s always been from the vantage point of the environment, from the plainest sense, but from a political, social, and economic emphasis, we’ve been pushing a lens that’s more holistic.

The fashion industry is having a self-reckoning moment because it’s no longer cool to hide behind profits and popularity…What is lacking is uniform standards across the board and a complete definition of what qualifies as sustainable and what doesn’t.

What’s your analysis of the current state of fashion as it pertains to both your work with sustainability and social justice and in general?
WM:​ I’m encouraged that there’s progress, but bare minimum. People are talking about sustainability, whereas before, it was an outlier. The fashion industry is having a self-reckoning moment because it’s no longer cool to hide behind profits and popularity. Now we have more savvy consumers, so fashion has to respond. What is lacking is uniform standards across the board and a complete definition of what qualifies as sustainable and what doesn’t. There are way too many.

I’m encouraged to see legislation being introduced, but underlying all of this is still the omission of the people, communities, and cultures that are first and most impacted by the climate crisis. It feels hollow at this point. I don’t give a f—k about Patagonia when Mississippi doesn’t have clean water. It’s not that nothing is good enough. It’s just that the fashion industry keeps circumventing the root of the crisis.

Photo by Timothy Smith for Elemental Symposium Earth | Courtesy of Sustainable Brooklyn

How much does “Brooklyn” tie to your mission? Did you always want to focus your efforts locally?
DD: ​For me, growing up in Oakland, I was very connected to my community, the local initiatives, new developments; the energy and culture was so important to how I took up space. Moving to Brooklyn, in order to—I would say, intentionally exist here—I needed to create or be part of that same connection, and sustainability had to vibrate locally first. Whether I was thinking about it from a Black Panther point of view or looking at my ancestors, like how Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farm Cooperative operated, it was hyper-local.

WM:​ Sustainability is a localized concept for us. We wanted to see this as a template for other sustainable [orgs], like a Sustainable Oakland or Sustainable Dayton, we want this to be a blueprint to some extent. But Brooklyn, for me, has been a place that has provided the most sustenance. We have elders doing acupuncture from their brownstones, churches that put out food every week. Brooklyn has hit the nail on the head when it comes to reclaiming sustainability through the lens of culture.

​What moment has been the most rewarding for you throughout this work? Whether collectively or individually?
WM:​ I think there are two moments. One being when my dad—who is a formerly incarcerated person who had to build his life back from scratch—said, “I see what you’re doing, and I’m so proud of you. Because our options were so limited when I was younger, and even more limited for women.” His affirming that was deep for me. Then the work that we do with young people will forever be fulfilling.

DD: I’m going to mention three. Everyday testimonials that we get from our community [or] having somebody tell us how the work that we’ve been doing has impacted their lives is beautiful. The second would be our very first Elemental Symposium Earth, which was at Mara Hoffman’s Studios. After that event, I remember crying. It was an experience. We completely changed the way sustainability conversations in the quote-unquote, “event space” was held. We had breathwork, we had Black and brown experts, and beyond. ​The third would be our Rent Relief Fund, which we did in 2020 during the pulse of the pandemic. It was our first mutual aid effort. And we were able to provide relief for 13 families.

What do the next steps look like for Sustainable Brooklyn?
WM:​ We are developing an app that connects Black consumers to businesses in gentrifying communities that prioritize their safety. It’s modeled after the original Green Book. The purpose is to collect data on Black consumers’ experiences with businesses to show that this is another level of sustainability that is being ignored. George Floyd was killed right after he was racially profiled in the corner store that he frequented for over 20 years. Eric Garner was killed right outside of the bodega where he sold loosies. John Crawford III was killed in his local Walmart. We have too many examples of the fact that Black people are disproportionately surveyed and susceptible to harm in places of business. Greenish Book is our response to that. We are launching our pilot this month in Bed-Stuy. Developing a community school is our next step, Sankofa Community School. We want to focus on elementary-age students to embed this knowledge…and support in their efforts to take control of their own sustainability.

Photo by Timothy Smith | Courtesy of Sustainable Brooklyn

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