The Common Thread Between Green Chemistry, Environmental Justice, and Sustainable Fashion

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By Ashley Baker, Scientific Content Manager (Contractor) at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute

Jaye Wilson, graduate student at Yale University, spoke with us about her love of fashion, passion for sustainability, and tips for STEM outreach that includes and retains students from diverse backgrounds. Read about her perspective on the role green chemistry has to play as part of the greater environmental justice movement.

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Jaye Wilson wasn’t expecting her life to change the moment she stepped out of her organic chemistry lab final. For her, a first-generation college student, the goal of her studies had always been simple: finish. But when an advisor pulled her to the side as she stepped out of the exam and suggested she pursue research, that shifted. 

“It was the craziest thing in the world,” Jaye said. “He was like, ‘You should join the lab! You could do research.’ And I had never thought about research at all.”  

This first research opportunity led to others, as well as internships with 3M and the Environmental Fellows Program with Earth Day Network in which Jaye learned to look at materials through an environmental justice lens. The internship, combined with her personal early life experience of witnessing and volunteering with the clean-up of a BP oil spill, revealed a new pathway. Now, Jaye is working at the intersection of sustainable fashion, green chemistry, and environmental justice (EJ).  

“I just kind of fell in love with sustainable fashion. I have always enjoyed fashion and styling; truthfully, a good outfit can make my whole week. It’s awesome the unique blend of art, joy, culture, and lived experiences that we have in apparel…they’re captivating vehicles of expression,” Jaye said. On the other side of the coin is fashion’s environmental footprint and the pressure put on common consumers to do something about it. She hopes to balance traditional learning with more practical involvement and authentic engagement, which she feels is at the heart of innovation.  

“There are a lot of fear-mongering statistics that we are bombarded with, as a generation. Random things like that you eat a credit card’s worth of microplastic a week. That’s a crazy statistic that we have. But I wanted to find a way to be a strong environmental steward and also be a creative in the space.” 

In Jaye’s research, she considers the balance between the business bottom line and other facets of fashion, like recycling, the psychology of fast fashion, and changing consumer bases. For some, the complexity of this field might be overwhelming. But for Jaye, it’s exactly what makes it so exciting.  

“There are so many awesome things at this intersection!” she said. “Currently, our ‘recycling’ methods are affecting so many people, like the amount of waste that’s going to different countries. It’s tons and tons of clothing that most of the time isn’t really wearable. And what happens after that? How do we maneuver from there?” 

Now, in the second year of Ph.D. studies at Yale, Jaye is looking for her next step. For someone passionate about community engagement, working at the vertex of multiple issues, and who is highly empathetic, traditional graduate-level chemistry studies can feel overly rigid. As a student of color and a first-generation college student she feels particular pressure, with interests and passions pulling her in many different directions.  

To better retain students of color, first-generation students, and students of different socio-economic backgrounds, Jaye feels that academia needs to be more flexible; for example, by adapting curricula to accommodate various learning styles and life commitments, being more forthcoming with available resources, and being more genuine about integrating diverse experiences and perspectives. For her, regularly going to high schools or community centers to talk about what it can look like to be a chemist or engineer and sharing available resources is of the utmost importance. For many students, barriers include limited access to educational materials, laboratory equipment, and local/demographically similar experts or mentors. Jaye says if it wasn’t for mentors all along the way she might not have applied to university. 

“I don’t know if people realize how powerful representation is. I feel like I am a bridger. I think that academia is very fragmented, and the focus is of course on specializing,” she explained. “Some of us can’t afford to be focused only on one thing. Even being top ten percent of my high school class, no one was talking to me about college. I was taking AP classes, and no one was talking to me about what those things meant. I just happened to have a mentor say to me, ‘What are you doing? You can do more.’”  

Jaye notes that in addition to a lack of resources, there are social and cultural barriers to minority students pursuing green chemistry and environmentalism in general, including misconceptions about the available career paths. High schoolers she works with often think that sustainability is something they would do only when they have more resources or later in their careers, rather than a first step. 

“Their focus is: ‘I have to take care of myself, and I have to take care of my family,’” Jaye said. “So how do I show them with their specific socio-economic demographic that ‘Hey, this is actually for you?’ How do I motivate and provide relevance? Sometimes it means connecting and making jokes about how sustainable we naturally are as people of color. Like, okay, your mom reusing that plastic bag is actually sustainable!”  

Last year, in line with her passion for environmental justice, Jaye co-authored a paper in Nature Sustainability, “Green Chemistry as Just Chemistry.” The paper connects green chemistry and environmental justice, focusing on how reliance on polluting chemicals and processes disproportionately harms disadvantaged communities. The authors argue that prioritizing sustainability and safety in chemical, product, and process design is an important part of addressing environmental injustices and is a critical part of creating a safe, sustainable planet for all.  

“I was glad it was a paper I was a part of,” Jaye said. “I really wanted to speak to the effects on people of color, specifically of black folks and those of lower socio-economic status. I haven’t seen too many papers in chemistry and engineering that address this outright. STEM is very conservative with our language, but the effects are not. I had so much pushback trying to talk about race. But this is exactly what we should be talking about. And we should be asking, ‘Why are these things happening?’” 

As a materials scientist, Jaye sees green chemistry as being a tool in the box for advancing environmental justice, but not the answer to every problem. For example, she recognizes how difficult it is for her white colleagues to incorporate activism work and community-based environmental stewardship. Her primary recommendation for her peers who want to get involved in environmental justice also involves bridging - across disciplines, across departments, across as many intersections as possible. She emphasizes that people need to bring genuineness to their community outreach. In addition, she suggests that those who want to do more community outreach take classes or workshops that help them hone in on what message they want to share and the best way to convey the message. 

“You can’t go in with just a mindset of ‘I want to teach science,’” she explained. “When I go in, I do want to teach science. But that’s not it. I want to connect. People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. For students to learn from me and for me to share these resources that I have, they have to be open. Usually, I’ll do something interactive to get the juices flowing, to get them talking to me, to get them talking to their peers. Sometimes your language is more important, sometimes how you enter a space is more important than you being a green chemist.” 

Jaye emphasizes that everyone can integrate environmental justice into their professional practices and practice reflective allyship, but she cautions against burnout.  

“As a chemist, there are definitely ways in which you can contribute to positive change even if it’s incremental,” she said. “Try to integrate it where you can, when you can, how you can. I don’t want it to be something that’s super stressful.”  

For black and brown leaders and students, especially, Jaye emphasizes that it’s not an obligation to answer the calls from the institution or system.  

“You are doing the best you can, and as you continue to try moving the needle and helping others, keep in mind that your presence in these spaces counts as work, as progress,” she said. 

Now, Jaye is looking ahead to a career in conservation science, possibly working with museums where she can contribute her skills in organic chemistry and exploring curation. Again, it’s an option that she said she never would’ve considered if the right person hadn’t shared resources about it with her. 

“I’m currently putting together a list to share on LinkedIn just for fun about creative pathways for chemists,” Jaye said. “I want to share it with other people. It might be helpful, it might not. But if it reaches the right person, I’ve done a good job.”  

When asked if there was anything she would like to add, Jaye laughed and said, “Amplify marginalized voices! And I don’t mean that in a retweet-a-motivational-quote way. I’m talking about their work, their leadership, and the movement that is happening. Because the movement is happening, whether you are seeing it or not.” 

 

Our sincere thanks to Jaye for taking the time to share her perspective for the Nexus! You can learn more about sustainability at Yale by visiting the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale & Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale. More information about Jaye's projects can be found on her website