The fashion industry has the creative power to shift how we make and buy clothes in an environmentally friendly way – and now is the time to do it. Model, actress and activist AMBER VALLETTA talks us through the industry’s new mission, while demonstrating the allure of sustainable and upcycled brands
Photography by Theo Wenner Styling by Alex Harrington
Interview by Hanna Hanra
Depending on how you interpret the burning over 250,000 acres and destroying countless figures, only the oil industry pollutes more than fashion. Think of a garment and its manufacturing process. Take cotton; sadly, despite being often touted as organic and therefore good for the world, it’s actually one of the worst culprits for pollution. Creating the space to grow it leads to deforestation, then there is the crop itself, which needs insecticides and consumes a vast amount of water. Then there is the process of refining it and turning it into a fabric, which again uses more water and releases dyes and other chemicals. This fabric is then packaged and shipped; all of this and it’s not even been turned into a garment yet. And once that garment is made, and shipped to the store – or to a warehouse, waiting to be delivered by a van (also a pollutant). It’s recently also been discovered that synthetic fibres release micro particles of plastic while being washed.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Amber Valletta spent her summers playing in the creek that ran through her grandparents’ farm. “We called it the Riviera, even though we didn’t know what that was – it just sounded fancy.” Her mother taught her daughter to give back to the community, despite the family often fighting to make ends meet. “She didn’t want us to feel sorry for ourselves and we were obliged to give back to the community.”
At the age of 17 she was discovered at a modelling agency in Tulsa, and moved to Europe for the summer. After two weeks in Milan she’d got an advertorial for Italian Vogue under her belt, and the cover of French Elle swiftly followed. Throughout her career she has graced the cover of American Vogue 16 times and has been the face of nearly every luxury brand thinkable, from Prada to Chanel to Louis Vuitton and Gucci, as well as co-hosting MTV’s ingenious fashion show House of Style with Shalom Harlow. During the 2000s, Valletta moved into acting, with roles in Will Smith romcom Hitch and box-office smash supernatural horror What Lies Beneath.
In the 1970s, her mother had stopped a nuclear power plant being built on Native American land, and watching the effects of activism first-hand, paired with her conscientious upbringing, meant that over the years Valletta felt a disconnect with the fashion industry and wanted to do something more. “It wasn’t until I was nearly 40, and I’d moved to LA, and I’d been acting and had this epiphany, that I needed to feel like I had something of my own that I could put all of my values into,” she says. “A friend of mine became my business partner of sorts and we spent six months hammering out my core values, figuring out creatively what that meant and how to work from that.”
In the days before we meet, the biggest wildfires ever have roared through a very dry California,
“It wasn’t until I was nearly 40, and I’d moved to LA, and I’d been acting and had this epiphany, that I needed to feel like I had something of my own that I could put all of my values into”
homes, businesses, structures, hospitals, churches, schools, cars – not to mention the loss of life. It took more than 17 days for them to be fully contained. Caused by a combination of high winds and dry brush, it is indisputable that the fire was driven by extreme weather conditions – California had not seen rain for 200 days prior to the first sparks igniting. Although it’s not known for its wet climate, this statewide drought was undeniably related to climate change. The impact of climate change is no longer subtle: record heatwaves, fires, floods and storms swirl across the earth.
In the Gulf of Mexico, a floating island of trash the size of Texas makes up just a part of the 10 million tonnes of plastic dumped in the ocean every year. Smaller particles of plastic choke marine animals. The oceans can no longer absorb carbon dioxide. Deforestation too, adds to this. As the planet becomes hotter, it leads to an increased rate of evaporation – moisture is lost through the earth and through plant leaves, leading to the rapid drying of soil, which is then heated up by the increasingly hot sun. Hotter, drier summers are not the friend of dry brush.
Consumerism has been marketed to us as a way of life. In postwar America, “cool consumerist culture” was used as a way to bolster the economy. Your life could be better, you could be more attractive with this washing machine, this car, this suit, this hamburger. It is hard to change an entire society’s way of thinking – but this change must happen, even if it’s in tiny increments. We have got into the habit of spontaneously wanting something, ordering it, and expecting it to be delivered to us – without thinking what the actual cost of that item is. And when we are done with it, we just throw it away.
Some brands have started to tackle sustainability in fashion. But how can you achieve true sustainability and still make people consume regularly? That is the question. Whether it’s looking at how the garment is made, how the fabric is grown, what standards the factory adheres to, or perhaps ensuring that the fabric can be recycled – it’s a conversation that should be happening a lot more.
Having witnessed the fashion cycle first-hand, Amber Valletta knew that she had to do something. It’s hard to stick your head above the pulpit, but much like her mother, back in 1970s rural Oklahoma, she knew she had to do something to protect the earth.
It was surprising to me that fashion is pretty much the biggest pollutant.
Yes. Only one percent of clothing is recycled. The numbers are really scary. But you have to look at the positive: fashion is an industry that thrives on innovation and creativity, which are also the key components to make change. But really, for the most part, the change will come from society. We need to strive for a circular economy and a circular industry rather than pushing for “How much more can we consume? How many more seasons can we produce?” And that is hard because it’s my job to sell things.
Do you feel conflicted with your day job as a model?
Yes, but if I checked out of the industry it wouldn’t benefit anyone. I need to be in the trenches and, you know, I need to make a living. I don’t consume a lot. I try to be smart about what I buy, and I buy better, but at the end of the day it is still my job to sell things. I would like to work for more brands that are doing the right thing; there are a lot of good people, for example, who are changing their corporate responsibility but they aren’t talking about it. Which is fine if you don’t want to talk about it as a marketing tool – but at least put it on your fucking label so that I know. We should have transparent labels that trace the journey of each garment. You could scan it with your phone or whatever. There are so many factories that could present to their customer that they are doing the right thing, recapturing waste, or not forcing labour, or not using chemicals.
Why don’t you think more brands do this?
I think people are afraid to dilute their brand. The frustrating thing is that it should just be part of the brand’s DNA. It’s fair. The fact that we are not able to see, even with a barcode, where everything was made, and that process… I think that people are afraid that if they are not doing it perfectly, they will come under scrutiny. We need to be able to be vulnerable and admit our mistakes and say, “Hey we are trying to do better” or “This is the best we can do.” I am not perfect, and I am not going to present a perfect life.
Modern life doesn’t lend itself to the same very ethical, circular life of 100 years ago. It’s hard to live like that, particularly if you don’t have the resources.
Most people in fashion don’t understand. They don’t understand that you can’t throw garments away – they don’t get recycled, they end up in a landfill. Municipalities need to make it a requirement that textiles, not just clothing, should be able to collected and sorted and be made into new fibres. I know some people are doing it, but doing it single-handedly. It should be a requirement that is available.
How big a part of this is people indulging in fast fashion?
The younger generation don’t know. Most people just don’t know how toxic and wasteful and non- discardable clothing is. They just don’t think about it. Blame it on people who have the money to invest in decent fashion – you shouldn’t be blamed if you can only afford to shop at a high-street store. But, until a high-street brand makes their entire line sustainable, we are fucked. But that won’t happen until it comes from the top, which is partially why I cannot quit my job, because I have to also show people that they want it because it is beautiful and aspirational – and then we have to make it attainable.
What’s your involvement been?
I knew I wanted to involve fashion and storytelling and once I’d worked out my core values I was like, OK, it has to be about the environment and collaborative and have integrity and be innovative. We have a little film- production company and have produced a couple of shorts on fashion and sustainability and right now are fundraising for a cool little short for the masses that will educate and excite and hopefully activate change within fashion and consumerism. I also speak on a lot of panels and go to things, you know? I am just trying to find out what will be the most impactful.
I could sell out and do a bunch of crap and license my name and make a bunch of money, but I just can’t do it. I talk to brands when I work with them. I find out in what way they are sustainable. I have put some of them on the spot and asked them why they produce so much. There’s a lot of diplomatic ways they get round answering!
Is it up to luxury groups like LVMH and Kering to take the lead in making change, do you think?
Kering is ahead, at least. [According to a quote from its CEO, Kering is working with the CEOs of all of its luxury houses to embed sustainability as a core value and develop a new phase in its sustainability strategy.] Nobody is trying to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. But I think at a certain point we all need to be part of the change. It’s great to see cool young emerging brands working on being sustainable, but if you don’t have big names doing it, and coming out and saying that they are doing it, then things won’t change.
Like the old saying goes, you need to take a risk before you can grow.
Totally. Sustainable fashion needs to be aspirational and also available for the masses. You have to make the best choices. We need to think about the way we make things. Things will change, new opportunities and new jobs will be created. We have to start designing in a circular fashion, which means literally from the resource all the way through to the end of life of a product. If it is reusable it goes back into the system, so you are not extrapolating new natural resources. We should be using sun, wind, the rotation of the earth. I think it’s cool.
For full shoot, please purchase our print edition at select retailers
Model: Amber Valletta. Hair: Teddy Charles at the Wall Group. Hair assistant: Virginie Pineda. Make-up: Fara Homidi at Frank Reps. Make-up assistant: Pircilla Pae. Manicure: Tracy Clemens at Opus Beauty using Jin Soon. Photography assistants: Dave Sweeney and Ryan Moraga. Fashion assistant: Luca Galasso. Set design: Heath Mattioli at Frank Reps. Set design assistants: David Spacone and Devin Tolentino. Production: Brachfeld