4 Questions with Michelle Gabriel

2022 10 Michelle Gabriel

The DWIH New York had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Gabriel, one of the speakers of the FUTURE FORUM: Fabricating the Future on October 7. Michelle is the Graduate Program Director, Sustainable Fashion, at Glasgow Caledonian New York College (GCNYC).

Hello Michelle, tell us a bit about your background. Where did you start your career and how did you end up in New York?

I’ve had quite a winding path to my current role and certainly not a typical career to becoming a researcher.

I grew up in Ohio and was enamored with the transformative power of fashion and clothing. I didn’t grow up with money or access to fashion and I was always acutely aware of being outside of that world. From a young age I knew the way you dressed allowed you to navigate the world differently and allowed you access to spaces that, without certain kinds of clothes, you might not have access. I was a talented painter, illustrator, and sculptor and also loved to sew; fashion design seemed a pragmatic path compared to ‘artist’. It also seemed like a great ticket out of Ohio and a way to be ‘cool’.

After fashion design school, I moved to New York following a brief stint in California and worked various design and production roles across the fashion industry. I worked at the lowest priced, mass market brands as well as at the higher end of the market, working my way into leadership roles. I had the opportunity to travel around the globe in the service of producing clothing. I was able to see the most sustainable, top of the line factories and the ‘factories’ that were little more than a few individuals doing work without basic infrastructure. I had assumed this would be my ongoing path, mostly because I had no understanding of an alternative.

Increasingly, I was finding myself unable to put aside my growing existential dread about making clothing. I didn’t feel I was adding anything to the conversation and the world certainly didn’t need more clothes. What was it all for? I was looking for a way out of the fashion industry but not knowing what the right move might be. At the same time, I was thinking of going back to school and got an amazing opportunity to do so at the graduate institution I now work for, Glasgow Caledonian New York College (GCNYC), where I could study sustainability and impact for the global fashion industry.

The final, and maybe most impactful, step on my career journey to date has been beginning my PhD focused on policy for the global fashion industry at Glasgow Caledonian University Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health in Scotland. Investigating fashion at a leading research center of social innovation, social enterprise, and public health has been a great experience, allowing me to approach the issues and challenges of the fashion industry from a unique vantage point. My work there is focused on the relationship between fashion and capitalism and the geopolitical implications of the world’s largest, and oldest industrialized sector.

On October 7, you will be on the Main Stage for our “Stakeholder Talk Show” with New York State Assemblywoman Dr. Anna Kelles. What can attendees expect from the discussion?

Dr. Kelles is an endless font of knowledge and is extremely passionate about the legislative work she does. She is also a scientist who not only understands the issues of our time through a legislative and governmental lens, but through the lens of biologist and environmental scientist. My perspective is informed by my research, my role as an educator in the space of fashion and policy, as well as my experience in the fashion industry. Attendees can expect a really informed, evidence-based conversation. This may sound like a standard baseline for any expert conversation about a topic as urgent as the sustainability of people and the planet, but unfortunately the fashion and fashion sustainability spaces are plagued by misinformation, poor data literacy, and greenwashing.

What is the so called “Fashion Act” and how are you involved in it?

The Fashion Act is a groundbreaking bill introduced earlier this year in New York State which aims to be the most significant pieces of environmental and social legislation for the global fashion industry to date. This state bill will have a global reach using a similar mechanism to California’s fuel efficiency legislation. The Fashion Act requires that all fashion businesses with more than $100M in revenue – regardless of nation of operation – adhere to the environmental and labor standards outlined in the bill to do business in New York State, one of the most significant global fashion markets. The bill aims to create a global floor of acceptable environmental and social practice within the industry where none currently exists using a legally required risk-based framework.

The Fashion Act has the potential to be transformational in part because it would require businesses to improve upon their environmental and social risks into perpetuity, not simply until they reach an arbitrary goal which may not be flexible enough to apply to the operations of all global fashion businesses.

Today, I support The Fashion Act by leading the coalition of all-volunteer supporters – individuals, businesses, non-profits, labor organizations, advocacy organizations, industry professionals, the list goes on – to engage in the activities the state democratic system requires to pass a bill. There are many, many, many stakeholders who must be involved if a bill is to pass within any level of the US system. Lawmakers can’t pass bills without diverse coalitions of supporters who help do the advocacy work which illustrates to other governmental stakeholders that this is important to their diverse constituents.

Could you name one aspect of living sustainably (in regards to fashion or in general) where you excel and one other aspect where there is room for personal improvement?

I try in my own life to live conscientiously, and I think the most important way any individual can be effective in living sustainably is to simply purchase less, especially for fashion but any area of consumption can help. I do not think the burden lies on individuals to make sure every possible thing they do is sustainable; that responsibility lies with business and governments who have made the choices which have led to our urgent need for sustainability and who have the biggest impact. It is more important for you as an individual to be sane and present as a citizen than to have made the exact right choice with your last purchase. Since leaving the day-to-day business of the fashion industry, it has been easier for me to shop less, limiting my fashion purchases to a few times a year.

I struggle to make wholly sustainable food choices. However I might want to, I live deep in Brooklyn in a community that does not have access to all the same services or farmers markets that wealthier areas of the city do. Unless I would like to spend a whole day going to other parts of the city, I just simply don’t buy as sustainably as I could. I am privileged in that I could purchase more sustainable options, but the inaccessibility makes the hurdle sometimes too high. This is a bargain I strike for myself, and I encourage others to do, too; we can’t do everything perfect. There is no such thing as fully sustainable in the world we live in. What are your reasonable tradeoffs and what are the things that are most important to you?

Thank you, Michelle, for the interview. We look forward to meeting you at the FUTURE FORUM in October!