As much as I appreciate films, podcasts, articles and social media feeds, none of them have changed my life as consistently or dramatically as books have.
There is a depth of research and singularity of focus possible between the covers of a book that is hard to attain in a Twitter thread. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I can still point to the novels that shaped my imaginative landscape, the poetry that sustained me through low points and the nonfiction that forever shifted my worldview, even if I forget about half the tabs I save in my web browser.
Interestingly, some of the books that have most directly impacted how I report here at Fashionista aren’t actually about fashion at all. Last year, for example, Anand Giridharadas’s book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” challenged my vision of how social good is accomplished, and shifted how I write about the role brands can and can’t play in advancing sustainability. And “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace Wells, which was my pre-show reading during NYFW a couple seasons ago, changed the urgency of language I used when writing about climate breakdown.
I had a hunch that a lot of other sustainability-minded fashion folks might have had similar experiences, so I decided to ask a range of industry professionals — stylists, models, designers, PR people, influencers, activists and more — what books have been game-changing for them. Their answers were widely varied (although “Braiding Sweetgrass” emerged as a clear favorite for many) and got me excited all over again about the prospect of learning to better live in harmony with our planet.
Whether you’re looking for educational reporting, encouraging poetry, spiritual guidance or a way to introduce a kid in your life to the concept of ethical fashion, there’s something ahead for you. (As for me, I’ll be over here working my way through Wendell Berry’s “The World-Ending Fire” and hoping to find people to discuss “The Overstory” with.) Here’s hoping this list helps you find your next sustainability deep dive — happy reading!
Aditi Mayer, sustainable fashion blogger
“My rec is ‘Earth Democracy‘ by Vandana Shiva. Shiva is an activist and environmentalist, known as one of the leading critics of conventional agriculture and biotechnology, particularly the impact of GMOs on India’s farmers. ‘Earth Democracy’ interrogates the governing values in our democracy. Shiva explores four types of insecurities — ecological, economic, cultural and political — and how each results in violence.”
Alec Leach, consultant and founder of Future Dust
“To me, it’s important to really look at the ‘why’ behind our shopping habits, not just the ‘how’ — the psychological impulses and urges are too often left out of the conversation. ‘The Dharma of Fashion: A Buddhist Approach to Our Life and Clothes‘ is a series of conversations between Parsons professor Otto Von Busch and Josh Korda, a Buddhist teacher. Together they examine consumerism through the lens of Buddhism. Why do we love clothes? The Buddha would say we’re just distracting ourselves from the impermanence, suffering and loss that are an unavoidable part of life.”
Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake
“I would recommend ‘A Harvest of Thorns‘ by Corban Addison. Addison is a lawyer-turned-fiction writer who writes about the most pressing human rights abuses of our time. This book is a fictional reimagining of the tragic Tazreen factory fire and what would have happened if workers had their day in court. The novel’s dedication chokes me up every time: ‘For the woman of Tazreen, whose stories will never leave me. On behalf of a forgetful world, let me say I am sorry.’ I love this book because I’ve personally worked against many of the abuses he covers from Bangladesh to Jordan to Malaysia, but as a work of fiction these complex human rights issues feel really approachable.”
Benita Robledo, ethical fashion advocate and content creator
“My pick is ‘The One Straw Revolution‘ by Masanoubu Fukuoka. It was written as an introduction to natural farming, but it really proposes a whole new philosophy of life. It challenges the model of constant growth (both in farm production yields and in our own lives), and instead asks us to stop and consider why we’re trying to have constant growth in the first place and at what cost. Fukuoka challenges the notion that technology will save us, asks us to learn to do less and in doing so create better crops and more fulfilling lives. This book gave me the confidence to step away from a work schedule that was burning me out and find a way to move through the world with greater ease and purpose.”
Cameron Russell, model
“I’d recommend reading Audre Lorde’s ‘The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power‘ because it’s one of the best critiques of capitalism I’ve ever read, and I think [it] is a good guide for where we can go, and how we get there.”
Céline Semaan, founder of Slow Factory
“What Naomi Klein exposes in her book ‘No Logo‘ is the very systems that perpetuate oppression and exploitation justified by marketing or branding values. It’s the concept of a ‘hollow company’ — one that isn’t vertically integrated, but functions as a distributed system where accountability isn’t easily traceable in a complex web of middlemen. Where branding and the message is king, the logo becomes the ultimate symbol of connection between the public and the company.”
Dominique Drakeford, chief curator at Melaninass and co-founder of Sustainable Brooklyn
“I really love ‘Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors‘ by Carolyn Finney. It’s one of the most important educational pieces that challenges mainstream environmentalism and is a foundational blueprint for dismantling the whitewashing of sustainability. She does a stellar job of showing how Black people historically have been stewards of the land but also the complexities of that relationship due to an American collective identity of racism and manipulated power relations.”
George MacPherson, communications consultant
“David Wallace-Wells’s book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘ is furiously articulate, data-driven and yet poetic at the same time when talking about climate science. I read this book in early 2019, just when it was clear to me that I had an obligation to know more than I did, and perhaps know more than I wanted to. DWW’s writing has a sense of measured drama in cooly laying out facts with a building urgency that is meant to provoke action in the reader.”
Jasmin Malik Chua, fashion journalist
“‘Where Did My Clothes Come From‘ by Christine Butterworth. What’s not to love about this book, from the darling illustrations to the surprisingly comprehensive description of garment manufacturing? It’s never too early to learn that clothes don’t just emerge from a machine whole cloth, and about the complex social, agricultural and environmental systems that power our closets. I probably enjoyed this more than my child, who cannily (and accurately) suspected that I was trying to impart a capital-l Lesson.”
Kestrel Jenkins, host and creator of the Conscious Chatter podcast
“I couldn’t imagine a more poignant book to be reading right now than ‘Braiding Sweetgrass‘ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. There’s a quote I’ve been coming back to throughout these intense times — ‘we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.’ ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ is a powerful ode to indigenous wisdom, reminding us how important it is to be connected to plants, and to be open to listening and learning from them. I love how the author fuses oral histories with scientific information, demonstrates how the dominant food system is inherently colonial and urges us to rebuild reciprocal relationships with nature.”
Kim Cam Jones, creator of the Fore
“In ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson took on the chemical industry and tells of the destruction of the delicate balance of nature caused by the use of DDT (since banned in the USA). She details the effect of a single application and the ripple effect that has on animals, human beings and our natural world. ‘The Sixth Extinction‘ by Elizabeth Kolbert concludes that human behavior is on the verge of causing the sixth mass cataclysmic extinction. It is a study on the relationship between human and environment and how the history of life is punctuated by periods of catastrophic transformation. More importantly, Elizabeth Kolbert details what we can do to fix it.”
Korina Emmerich, designer and founder of Emme
“One of the books that largely shaped my views on our current sociopolitical situation is ‘World War Z.’ The book explores this sham hierarchy we’ve created within society from a capitalist lens… We’re propping up the ‘living dead’ like oil companies who now can’t even earn enough to stay in business. What does this have to do with fashion and sustainability? We are facing a worldwide slowdown. The consumer ideal that items must arrive with near immediacy is changing. We need to rebuild our systems and recognize that we are not the supreme being of this land. It resonates with me, recognizing that my own traditional skills as an Indigenous woman from Coast Salish Territory should never be forgotten or erased… my survival skills will never be deemed frivolous [in a crisis], whether it’s a zombie apocalypse or total capitalistic or economic collapse.”
Laura Jones, celebrity stylist and creator of the Frontlash
“In ‘We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,’ Alice Walker reminds us that creating change requires patience, compassion and hope. She reiterates to us that we are of the natural world, not above or beyond it. I refer back to the poems in this book when I feel overwhelmed by despair or like change will never come. And ‘Hope in the Dark‘ by Rebecca Solnit covers topics like war, politics and environmental destruction, weaving together a picture of how the injustices in our world are interconnected and systemic. Her writing is graceful, filled with hope and a pleasure to read. I read this book in one sitting and revisit it often.”
Matt Stockamp, sustainability lead at Nisolo
“My recommendations are less educational, and more about personal experiences with nature and how it shapes us: One, ‘Paddling My Own Canoe by Audrey Sutherland, who writes “Go simple, go solo, go now.” We are at our best when we have a good relationship with nature. This is a book that encourages you to get out into the wilderness and explore your curiosities. And two, ‘Upstream: Selected Essays‘ by Mary Oliver. We can learn a lot from the rhythms of nature. This book will help you get acquainted with those rhythms.”
Mara Hoffman, designer and founder of Mara Hoffman
“‘Grist for the Mill‘ by Ram Dass isn’t specifically about climate change or fashion but it covers EVERYTHING and the oneness of this experience. I think it’s important to approach these subjects from the spiritual mindset in order to connect the dots. Grief and discomfort are catalysts for great change and Ram Dass is one of the masterful and very ‘human’ teachers of our time who lays out the practice of BEING in order to heal from the inside out.”
Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standards Institute
“Barbara Ehrenreich, author of ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America’ is the OG on a lot of labor issues that are now coming to the surface. ‘Empire of Cotton: A Global History‘ by Sven Beckert powerfully unpacks how clothing drove the global slave trade and our modern economic system. Adam Minter’s new book ‘Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale‘ is a fun read following where things go when we no longer want them. And we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the sustainability labels that we attach so much importance to, which ‘Organic, Inc: Natural Foods and How They Grew‘ by Samuel Fromartz digs into.”
Rachael Wang, stylist and consultant
“‘Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver.’ Some days I feel overwhelmed and anxious and poetry is the only kind of reading I can metabolize. Mary Oliver devoted her life to worshipping the natural world and her work reveals the elusive yet penetrating impact nature has on our individual well-being. Oliver’s poems fill me with reverence for what precious natural resources we have left and the inevitability of our demise, both emotional and physical, should we fail to preserve its balanced abundance.”
Whitney R. McGuire, co-founder of Sustainable Brooklyn
“I’m currently reading ‘Sister Outsider‘ by Audre Lorde. I think it’s vital to read the political commentary and narratives of the descendants of enslaved Africans, especially women-identifying Black people. Because these perspectives not only articulate and analyze, with great depth, the absurdity of white supremacist capitalism and its effects, but embedded in these perspectives are frameworks for sustainable (read: regenerative and equitable) progress. Embedded in the essays I’ve read so far is this theme of care as the antidote to violence… Sustainability requires the utmost care, and the expansion of our capacity to extend care. ‘Sister Outsider’ is a great foundational text for any philosophy based on sustainability.”