To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph and activist Emily Barker, return to the full list here.
Céline Semaan-Vernon is sparking radical environmental justice reform through, perhaps, an unlikely lens: fashion. Semaan-Vernon, an advocate and designer who uses she/they pronouns, aims to transcend the aesthetic and visual functions of garments, and instead foster urgent political and sociological change through the design and production of clothing.
At present, they are the co-founder and creative director of the Slow Factory Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on generating climate change solutions and systemic change for social and environmental justice through fashion. Through their work at the organization, Semaan-Vernon has been credited with coining the term “fashion activism.”
“Slow Factory started as a way to explore this intersection of social justice and environmental rights within the fashion industry,” they said. “I coined the term fashion activism, which is the idea of using fashion as a medium for social and environmental justice. Fashion is very powerful because the fashion industry impacts global processes including agriculture, imports, exports, labor and the supply chain.”
In April, Semaan-Vernon and journalist Sophia Li launched “All of the Above,” a new short-form video series on YouTube, focused on sustainability solutions “for anyone that has taken a first step towards achieving climate justice.”
During the past year, the Slow Factory Foundation has developed One x One, an incubator project partnered with Swarovski and the United Nations, which pairs New York City fashion designers with scientists to work on the production and discovery of sustainable materials. The results have allowed designers to incorporate socially responsible practices and regenerative technologies into their operations.
At just 4 years old, Semaan-Vernon fled Lebanon for Canada with her family, and later moved to the United States. Semaan-Vernon’s global journey, first as a refugee and subsequently living and working in cities including Paris, Montreal and New York, has fueled their passion for environmental awareness around the world.
“The work that I do is inspired by my lived experiences of having been a first-generation war survivor, as well as a refugee,” they said. “Going back to my country after the war ended, I witnessed the cost the war had on my country, both from an environmental angle and from a human rights angle.”
Of returning to Lebanon, Semaan-Vernon recalls disturbing images of waste that reflect the urgency of her cause of sustainability.
“Memories of garbage have impacted me tremendously. The industry of waste is causing immense damage on ecosystems around the world,” they said. “Waste does not exist in nature, it is a human construct introduced by colonialism.”
One of Semaan-Vernon’s focuses has been shifting away from compounds and materials that contribute to the abundance of harmful wastes that pollute the Earth.
“Many waste structures that exist are extremely toxic,” they said. “And so, for instance, when we’re looking at microplastics, that is a waste structure that directly comes from the fashion industry and its excessive use of polyester.”
Bridging the gap between beautiful designs and ethical production remains a priority for Semaan-Vernon. They continually seek to make products that are unique and dazzling, but also contribute to the advancement of human rights and social equity. In the past, Semaan-Vernon has shifted away from contributing to global waste by working with upcycled materials like plastic bottles to create garments.
“In New York City, for example, there is waste all around you. It is unignorable, which is what inspired me to start the project ‘Landfills as Museums,’” they said.
“Landfills as Museums” is an initiative launched in 2019 by the Slow Factory Foundation, wherein a group of designers, organizers, creators and students from design school Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology were taken to various landfills on the East Coast to experience the grim realities of landfill waste firsthand. Through visits to landfill sites and subsequent workshops, Slow Factory aspires to provide students, designers and climate activists a piercing understanding of the scale of litter and debris — and how they can begin to develop sustainable strategies to protect our Earth.
In the era of COVID-19 and the proliferation of racial justice awareness, Semaan-Vernon’s work has become more prescient than ever.
“The fashion industry was built on a system of exploitation and white supremacy that continues to exploit today,” they said. “There is no justice without acknowledging the harm of the past. My movement is a call to action for the fashion industry to reckon with its colonial past and to rectify it through developing new ways of manufacturing and producing.”