Sustainable Sparks: Ava Torkaman on weaving together community and fashion

McGill undergraduate student and Sustainable Youth Canada activist working towards sustainable fashion show
“If you are thinking consciously about the way you’re consuming, and you’re doing the best you can within your current circumstances to live within your values, then you are living sustainably,” says Ava TorkamanSiddhi Aubeeluck

In the past 15 years alone, the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36 per cent. With fast fashion on the rise, it’s no surprise that there are now 92 million tonnes of textile waste produced globally every year (source). However, like many contributors to climate change, talking about and changing how people purchase their clothing proves to be a challenging task.

Sustainable Youth Canada (SYC) member and McGill university student Ava Torkaman is working on increasing visibility and discussion around fast fashion by hosting a zero-waste fashion show in November. Torkaman has been on campus since 2019 and has experienced the ups and downs of student action, even receiving funding from the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF). The SPF is the largest fund of its kind in Canada, valued at $1 million annually and has the mandate to build a culture of sustainability on McGill’s campuses through the seed funding of interdisciplinary projects.

Read Torkaman’s take on conversations about fast fashion, and the role she sees youth play in a sit-down with the Office of Sustainability.  

Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get into sustainability?

I’m from British Columbia, so I grew up spending time in nature. I think my first memories of being worried about the environment were when I would see old growth forests near my family’s home being cut down. It was one of those moments that really stuck with me and has kind of kept me paying attention to sustainability no matter what else I’m doing. I’ve also been so inspired by other people along the way who weren’t afraid to vocalize their concerns and work towards change.

I started volunteering with SYC because I wanted to focus more on ways I could act on climate change and sustainability. It’s an amazing non-profit that provides opportunities for high school and university students to get involved in environmentalism. It’s been three years now with the Montreal branch, and I love it.  I have been introduced to such passionate and driven people, and there is a real focus on building community.  I think it represents a lot of the possibility for success with youth-led initiatives by offering a space for us to just explore how we want to make an impact.

What types of projects are you working on with SYC right now?

This year we have focused a lot of energy on addressing fast-fashion. Currently, we’re working on a slow fashion show called Slow the System, which aims to promote sustainable consumption and create a space for people to question and discuss the current systems and think of solutions. We’ve partnered with Design Lab who is helping with the fashion aspect of the show. We are also working with another non-profit called Trash Talk who will be making art from collected waste, and we’re working with a local sustainability influencer Tracy Valentine, who recorded a podcast episode on the effects of fast fashion which will play at the event. Also, we are having a clothing swap, so be sure to bring your clothes to get a sustainable, free wardrobe refresh!

Our experience with [receiving funding from] the SPF for this project has been amazing. We’ve worked closely with [the Office of Sustainability] the entire time, and from the beginning the team made it very clear they were here to support our project in any way they can. If I were to tell the McGill community anything about the SPF, it would be to check out the projects that are funded, because there is some amazing stuff happening on campus thanks to some truly talented people, and to not be scared to apply! I definitely had no idea what the outcome would be when I filled out the application, but no idea is too small, so I really encourage it.

What are some of the challenges when discussing sustainable fashion with people?

It can be so easy to get wrapped up in this very big pressure we feel societally to constantly be consuming and to always have overturn in our wardrobe, and it’s one of the big topics we will be focusing on in the fashion show. But it’s not the whole story.

Fast fashion extends beyond the environment, and that’s a big thing we want to emphasize. There can be some discourse in sustainability spaces – especially online – where people are shamed for buying fast fashion, which is tricky. Sustainable clothing stores tend to be more expensive than fast fashion, and thrift stores don’t consistently have size inclusive clothing, so this blame can be misplaced on marginalized communities that don’t have other options. The last thing we want to do is produce guilt and recommend solutions that aren’t realistic.

We don’t want to be putting all of the responsibility on individuals, we just want to be making a space for everyone to be thinking about fast fashion and coming up with changes that are realistic for them to achieve in their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, Slow the System is going to be a place to open up the conversation about why we feel that social need to partake in overconsumption, and how we can practice ethical consumption given all of our unique circumstances.

Why do you think students are important in these types of discussions?

I think youth sometimes underestimate the power of their voice. It’s really important that students be a part of this conversation, because brands and companies are looking at what youth are doing, since we are the next generation of customers.

It’s really amazing what social change can happen when youth come together and decide that the way things are currently set up isn’t working.

Even if you think the efforts that you are making aren’t enough, that’s okay. It’s enough that you care and show up to this conversation. If you are thinking consciously about the way you’re consuming, and you’re doing the best you can within your current circumstances to live within your values, then you are living sustainably. I wish more youth knew that even if someone else around you seems like they are doing more, your efforts are noticed, appreciated, and so, so important.

Slow the System will be hosted by SYC on December 2. To learn more about this event, visit SYC Montreal’s Instagram.