Interview: Working Towards a More Sustainable World with Katie Roberts, Sustainability in Style

Katie Roberts is an Environmental Scientist and the creator of Sustainability in Style, a platform for discussing and sharing insight into consumerism, consumption, fashion and sustainability in the wider world.

Why did you start Sustainability in Style?

Sustainability in Style started as a series of clothing swaps at the University of the Sunshine Coast. It began because I could see a way to use my knowledge of fashion and my love of sustainability to help people consume more mindfully.

My career began in fashion after I studied Clothing Production for Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Industries. It was something I initially pursued as a way to tangibly apply my love for art and design. After a successful few years in a variety of roles, including an international stint, I felt a niggle about how environmentally damaging the industry was. I was also dissatisfied with the limits to creativity. Many labels just replicate designs from the catwalk or the street with a few adaptations or changes. It’s not all that creative when you are simply following trends.

The planet doesn’t need us, we need the planet.

A turning point for me was when a friend died in a car accident in a car I should of been in. I rode through Cambodia and Vietnam on an OXFAM fundraising mission in her memory visiting textiles micro industry funded by OXFAM. At the end of my journey I decided to study Sustainable Tourism. I packed up, moved from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast to study and had my sustainable tourism course shut down after the first year. The alternative offered was Environmental Science and I majored in Sustainability. Since graduation I’ve been working as a Plant Scientist and a research technician. I’m in the middle of a Masters of Environment majoring in Sustainability Education. However my sustainability education department was shut down last year and I’ve been trying to move University which may mean starting a PhD in Sustainability Education.

The blog Sustainability in Style was started to record my journey of a year-long shopping ban for clothing. This ‘Wardrobe Workout’ helped me re-discover my style after having worked a year in several casual jobs in fast fashion – where they make you buy clothes for ‘uniforms’ – when the government changed hands and our funding for plant science was cut. I had so much clothing from years of working in fashion already so the items I had to buy for work had my closet full and my style confused. It was such a wonderful challenge to spend a year shopping my closet for what I had and for some reason people really wanted to talk to me about it.

Why is it so important that we support sustainability efforts?

My experiences in sustainability haven’t always been positive. I moved states to study sustainability and they discontinued my course, then my research unit at my current University was closed before I got to start my major research project. Sadly the way our economic and governmental systems currently operate don’t really work with the long-term and future thinking nature of sustainability. For projects, businesses, policies etc. to be sustainable they need to be financially sustainable and have the capacity for long term planning and monitoring. We need to support sustainability because it’s the only way we can ensure the future of our planet for us as a species.

We don’t have a ‘Planet B’ to escape to.

If we wish to survive as a species on this planet we need to change our systems, specifically the economic and governmental systems, to operate in a way that doesn’t exploit, pollute or abuse the natural systems on which we rely. Sustainability is about ensuring our lifestyles and livelihoods as a species. If we don’t look after what we have, clean air, water and food, then we don’t get a do-over.

In which areas can we become more aware of sustainability?

Sustainability is not something to be viewed in isolation. It’s a holistic concept and it should be applied to ALL areas of our lives. Governing bodies should make long-term environmental sustainability the underpinning goal of all their policy making. Businesses should work together industry-by-industry to put in place sustainable technologies to revolutionise the way that manufacturing systems work. Designers should work from the concept of cradle to cradle, taking into account the birth of an item, it’s lifespan and how it can be repurposed at the end of use to make a new product. No waste.

How does your day job motivate you to make better choices?

In my day job I am surrounded by academics and students who are working hard to find the answers to some of our big problems. I’ve personally had the opportunity to work on projects where I’ve grown vulnerable and endangered plants to help save populations, worked as a small part on plant-based drug development, helped find ways to make the hardwoods industry more profitable and eco friendly, just to name a few. At the moment I’m also working as a general lab tech which shows me that as good as science can be, it can’t be relied on for all the answers. Science is messy business and usually comes with a lot of non-biodegradable rubbish and a whole lot of mistakes. Technology and science has some answers but can’t be relied on to solve all our problems. Prevention is better than a cure.

What are your top five tips for making lifestyle changes that support a more sustainable world?

Think critically: If you can ask ‘who, what, when, where, how and why’ about your purchases, decisions, values and actions and how they impact on the environment then you are off to a great start. Critical thought is key to creating new patterns of behaviour and ideas.

Start small: Don’t try to change everything at once. It will overwhelm you. Try one small area and work up from there.

Avoid non-biodegradable disposables: If you can avoid single use plastics you are a sustainability superhero. These items will be around long after you are gone so opting out makes your eco footprint a whole lot lighter.

Research: You can’t make educated decisions without some research. You don’t have to make researching boring. Check out some documentaries on Netflix and entertain yourself while getting an education. The True Cost is a good documentary for those wanting a fast-fashion education.

Be Kind: Being a kind human will get you far. Kind people don’t purposely exploit people or the planet. If you can foster kindness and compassion in your day, with yourself, family, friends and strangers then you break through the fear that the media perpetuates and get us one step closer to the unified species we need to be to work together for our shared future.

As consumers it’s our job to think critically about the items we buy. When we demand more sustainable options we force brands to find ways to supply them.