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Stephanie Dickson wants to change the world

The founder of Green is the New Black isn’t waiting for the world to change – she’s doing it now, for the world. And she wants you to know that living more sustainably is a journey
 

Photography Darren Chang Stylist Karin Tan, assisted by Teo Shiyun Hair Ash Loi/Sonder Hair, usIng Keune Makeup Zoel Tee, using YSL Beaute Jumpsuit & Dress Qlothe/Design Orchard Location Straits Clan

As a child, she dreamt of working in fashion. “I fell in love with the glamour, the clothes, how fashion can help you represent your personality to the world,” the 30-year-old explains. 

Born in Sydney, Australia, Stephanie ended up going to high school in Singapore because her family moved frequently, thanks to her dad’s job in finance. She returned to Australia for her degree studies, but her love for fashion never waned.

She attempted to sew, but her impatience soon made it clear that she wasn’t cut out to be a fashion designer.

After her family doctor (Dr Georgia Lee, before she became a physician with an interest in aesthetics) swung her an interview to work for Singapore Men’s Fashion Week in 2011, Stephanie found her dream job in running fashion events.

It was a The Devil Wears Prada kind of life where work entailed flying to Paris hand-carrying a couture wedding dress, and returning to Singapore on the same day. Her purpose then was to give designers a platform in Asia, and she loved every second of it.  

Then, she discovered fashion’s dark side: the wastage, pollution and poor working conditions. She was so shaken by the knowledge that she left her job. And she didn’t just make a career switch. She overhauled her entire life. 

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Her mission now: to educate people that our planet is in distress, and encourage them to make small, achievable changes (“little green steps”) to live more sustainably. A day in the office involves organising the Singapore-based annual Green is the New Black (GITNB) eco-conscious festival – which congregates ethical brands and panel speakers – or working with companies to help them be more carbon-neutral. 

You could dismiss her as just another eco-warrior, but you’d be closing your eyes to the truth. In May this year, the United Nations released a comprehensive 40-page report compiled by more than 450 experts from 50 countries over the past three years.

The assessment is shocking.

A million species are at risk of extinction. National ecosystems have declined by 47 per cent. Some 60 billion tonnes of resources are extracted from our planet every year. 

It’s overwhelming and scary. But Stephanie is here to point out the positive. 

The stark awakening

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Stephanie Dickson (@stephldickson) on

It was the documentary The True Cost (2015) that hit Stephanie hard. The film deals with the collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building in Bangladesh that housed garment factories. Even though cracks were seen on the pillars the day before the building went down, workers were ordered to work or have their pay docked. Then the building collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people. The film looks at the negative impact of fast fashion on developing countries, from working conditions to environmental contamination. 

Stephanie describes how she was “completely blindsided”, saying: “I had no idea what was happening behind the glamorous curtain [of fashion].” 

Other stats alarmed her too. A 2013 World Wildlife Fund report stated that it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton shirt, and, partly due to cotton farming, the Aral Sea in central Asia has shrunk to 10 per cent of its volume. 

Also, the legal minimum wage of garment workers is rarely enough to live on, says the Clean Clothes Campaign, which aims to improve their working conditions.

 

A different kind of fashion festival 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Stephanie Dickson (@stephldickson) on

Stephanie still loves how fashion is an outlet for self-expression. But she wants to champion style that is both sexy and supports the planet. Even better if she can encourage the fashion industry to make positive changes for the environment.

That’s why she gives credit where it’s due, citing H&M as an example of a fast-fashion brand investing in circular systems and being more transparent with customers. She talks about the rise of platforms like Style Tribute and Covetella, where one can buy pre-loved items or rent outfits. 

It was Stephanie’s lifelong love for fashion that led to her starting GITNB. She had begun wearing clothes from sustainable brands, and a statement necklace from Twin Within caught people’s eyes. “I would tell them it was made ethically and share about the brand,” she explains. “They loved it but told me they didn’t know where to find such brands.” 

An idea started to form: Curate a group of ethical brands, throw in a panel discussion, and invite people to show up. 

The idea went from thought to action in six weeks. Stephanie assembled a lean team, including her co-founder Paula Miquelis, to turn the inaugural GITNB festival into reality in November 2015. Held at The Working Capitol, it involved 40 environmentally responsible brands, a panel discussion, a few workshops, and 600 people. “It was crazy and stressful but we were so passionate about it.” 

That first year, Stephanie did social media marketing consulting and ran events as side hustles to stay afloat financially. But by the second year, she wanted to commit full-time. 

The festival has grown. Last year, GITNB welcomed 70 brands, 50 speakers and 3,800 attendees. It is also expanding – it launched in Hong Kong in 2018. “We asked if there was anything like this in Hong Kong. The response was no, but that they needed it. So we just did it. We’re looking at going global eventually.” The inaugural HK GITNB attracted 70 brands, 55 speakers and 4,500 people – the largest numbers across all its festivals. This second year, it garnered 80 brands, 50 speakers and 3,600 attendees.  

 

Getting visual and creative 

A huge part of what Stephanie does is sharing information and encouraging people to take steps to change. “We don’t want to shame or guilt-trip. We give people knowledge and encourage them to do more.” 

Delivering knowledge takes creative forms. On Earth Day in April, GITNB teamed up with communications agency Dentsu Singapore for a campaign called Plastic Salt. A Greenpeace East Asia report had found that 90 per cent of table salt contains microplastics. “That report was all over the news when it came out, then it died down,” says Stephanie. 

 But it was too important to let go. GITNB and Dentsu hit on the idea of creating miniature 3-D versions of common plastic objects such as straws, bottles, takeaway boxes and cups to put into salt shakers. These were placed in some cafes in Singapore (including Food Rebel, Hrvst and Vegan Burg), and customers’ responses were filmed as they picked up the shakers and did a double take.

The subtle message here: Plastic consumption isn’t just killing the planet, it’s reached the point where we are ingesting it. In June, a study done by  the World Wide Fund for Nature and the University of Newcastle reported that people could each be consuming 250g of plastic a year on average.

One-off initiatives aside, GITNB is also a green partner, helping companies make moves to ease up on their environmental footprint. With its guidance, the five-year-old local music festival Garden Beats became the first carbon-neutral festival in Singapore in 2018, and subsequently switched to using biodegradable cups and cutlery in 2019.

The GITNB team is also working with The Loco Group’s restaurants to help them become more green. The group has since phased out plastic packaging, saving 4,500kg in plastic. Some 15,000kg of glass bottles have been swopped in for filtered water, and 144,000 plastic straws reduced through a straw-on-request policy.

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