Stephanie Dickson is a woman who needs purpose in her life.
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 agriculture. 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.
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 percent. 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
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 percent 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
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.
Private members’ club Straits Clan holds a place in Stephanie’s heart. She’s organised multiple events here, from documentary screenings to talks, and started many conversations about how one’s actions impact the environment, making many friends and connections in the process.
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 percent 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.
Talking, not arguing
Change is never easy, even for those who are willing. It isn’t that people don’t know the planet is in distress, but that the knowledge isn’t fully hitting home.
“Everyone knows about things like plastic pollution and saying no to straws, but it doesn’t breakthrough,” Stephanie points out. A nature lover, she remembers going to a beach in Thailand and seeing a “sea of plastic” in the water. Distraught, she and her family tried to pick up the plastic, while the other visitors at the beach did not seem perturbed.
Stephanie remembers her first online detractor, who posted a negative comment about one of the partners they were working with. “I was crying and so upset. At the start, haters broke my heart because you’re just trying to do good and it feels like someone is trying to tear you down. Now, I think it’s great, because they’re challenging us to do better and address what they’re saying.”
Being the change
Stephanie wants you to know that she, too, struggles to live more sustainably. She wound up having “eco-anxiety” and becoming too militant on matters like going vegan. “I was the girl who loved fashion and bought clothes online every month. To break that habit was challenging.” Other steps, like cutting out beef, came more easily. She also stopped eating chicken, pork and seafood, and is reducing her dairy consumption. She carries a water bottle, and has swopped tampons and pads (which aren’t biodegradable) for period cups and washable Thinx period panties.
“I’m still working on things like food delivery, with its plastic packaging. Sometimes I’m so busy and exhausted that I just need food. But I’m kind to myself – I know I do a lot.”
When she moved house, instead of throwing away unwanted items, she went to the Facebook group Art Don’t Throw to pass on what she no longer needed. To give away her old furniture, she looked to Freevo Nation, also a Facebook group.
In June, Stephanie and Paula went on an expedition to the Arctic Circle to witness the effects of climate change, such as the disintegration of ice sheets, loss of habitats and wildlife, and rising sea levels. The mission, Climate Force: Arctic 2019, was led by Robert Swan, one of the world’s greatest living explorers. Stephanie will share her experience through a documentary called The Naked Arctic Adventure at GITNB’s fifth festival in November.
Today, she only wears sustainable fashion, citing Matter Prints, Reformation, Veja, Eleven44 and Eden + Elie as favourites. For our photoshoot, she checks with our stylist if the clothes selected for her were sourced ethically. To be sure, she runs her own checks on her phone.
She’s not trying to be difficult, but it’s important to her: If she’s going to stand for something, she can’t be seen in clothes that don’t align with her message.
“You don’t have to be perfect,” she emphasises. “Sustainability is a journey, and as long as you keep taking these little steps, you move forward.” She is paving the way, but she can’t do it alone. It’s a mission she’s been called to do, and she’s asking us to join her.
STEPHANIE’S MUST-WATCH LIST
The True Cost (2015) “One of the very first documentaries I watched that had a life-changing impact on me.”
Before the Flood (2016) “I had previously seen a documentary about climate change and food, but found it very confrontational. This documentary was much more digestible and gave me the first big push into giving up beef.”
A Plastic Ocean (2013) “This eye-opening film tells us about plastic in our oceans and the impact it has on us, our children and our future. It does leave you with hope at the end and actions you can take.”
Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017) “These two are a must-watch. They really show the impact of climate change on our planet and the damage that is being done.”
THE GREEN WARRIORS
Every year, GINTB curates a list of 30 eco-heroes around Asia. They are celebrated with a photoshoot to make a strong visual statement that sustainability can be sexy and luxe. In 2018, trash from Singapore and Hong Kong was upcycled into the outfits you see below.