Living a sustainable lifestyle is a personal pursuit—and should be approached as such. My Sustainable Life reveals how eco-friendly pioneers, entrepreneurs, and businesswomen weave mindfulness into their daily routines.
This week is Fashion Revolution Week, formed out of collective contempt of the Rana Plaza collapse and as a call to action for western consumers to act in solidarity with exploited workers worldwide. The factories that churned out cheap clothing for mindless consumption relied on employing low-wage workers under the duress of untenable conditions both physical and mental lead to the death of 1,134 people. The anniversary of Rana Plaza should be a time for serious contemplation and asking oneself, “Who makes my clothes?”
Jemma Finch, along with Ella Grace Denton, founded Stories Behind Things, a platform that celebrates the stories behind our clothing. Jemma is a sustainable fashion influencer whose passion for ethical clothing began as a way to combat her own mental health issues. She shows us that the reach of the damage caused by fast disposable fashion stretches from garment workers in faraway places, to the environment that surrounds us, to our own closets, hearts, and minds. Her willingness to examine her relationship with consumption, and the eventual health and happiness she experienced by simply slowing down, serve as a valuable reminder that the joyful resistance doesn’t need to be fast and loud can be slow and healing.
I grew up outside of London in Surrey, with my mom, dad, and sister. We lived close enough to London to experience the excitement and energy of the city, but also the green space, trees, and country walks [of Surrey]. Looking back now, I feel very lucky to have had the best of both worlds with the hustle and bustle and the opportunities that the city brings, but be able to really value time in nature from a young age.
My granny is my first memory of fashion. She’s not with us anymore, but she used to absolutely love fashion. She would wear all colors in one. Her favorite color was purple, and she used to just dress all in purple. Or, all in green. Or, like all in beige—everything down to jewelry, stocks, trousers—everything. I used to think it was so cool. From a young age, I really admired that, and I think that’s where my love for fashion started.
I studied fashion marketing and business at university—from a young age I knew I wanted to do something creative. Half of my brain is super creative, and the other half really enjoys unpicking the story and the strategy behind things, piecing those two things together, fashion school made sense. I studied fashion, and then I came to sustainability, halfway through my university degree.
A life-altering connection
Ella (her co-founder) and I grew up in the same area, so we had lots of friends in common. We’d always see each other out. We were both going to the same [university], and became much closer because we shared the love for vintage clothing. We also confided in each other about noticing how our surroundings were very disconnected in terms of consumption. It started early for us to just bond going vintage shopping, second-hand shopping, taking a day to look around in shops to find things, and not just go to Zara and go out clubbing. We bonded over the slower things in life that students may not have been so drawn to.
The path to slow fashion
I’ll put my hand up—I used to shop in all those [fast fashion] stores. It was the environment that you grow up in. Both of us did, me more so than Ella, because I came from that “fashion scene,” I worked at Matches, I had this experience of the luxury fashion world of buy buy buy. Obviously, as a student, I didn’t have the budget to go out and buy like a beautiful piece for 200 quid, so I would definitely go into the fast-fashion stores, but I think after a couple of years of doing that and living that life, it really had an effect on me mentally.
Everyone’s journey is very different, but mine came solely from a mental health point of view. I had a couple of illnesses within my family and halfway through university, I was very aware that I was struggling to cope with the every day, the fast consumption, the busyness, the buy-buy-buy, the not looking after things, and I just realized it was having an effect on how I was feeling.
Then, looking into my wardrobe—you know we wear clothes every day—it’s an everyday relationship that we create, I noticed that I was only looking after the things that had memories, and meant something to me. All the pieces that I bought from Zara, Topshop, H&M, were the ones that were on the floor, that I hadn’t ironed, the ones that just get stuffed to the back of your cupboard, and for me, that’s where it all started.
How did Stories Behind Things begin?
In my last year of uni, Ella and I sat down, we wanted to put energy into something positive, surrounding this issue that we felt was affecting us in terms of the consumption and the lack of care that people were putting into things. We wanted to celebrate the slow, and decided, let’s just make a page, just for ourselves, call it Stories Behind Things and tell the stories behind pieces that we own. We made the Instagram page, bought the domain for the website, and we went to our wardrobes, picked out the pieces that we loved the most, hung them up, took an image of them, and we just told the story, like, “This Kaftan was when I went to Ibiza, I got it from a market, and love it because of the charcoal beading.” We started to grow a community on Instagram just surrounding telling stories about things we already owned.
For us, it instigated that connection that we were looking for, like an emotional connection to what’s around us, but also a connection between people. Like if I had a memory with Ella about a piece of clothing we both bought together, or were hunting for a couple of days in vintage shops and finally came across this amazing dress—that’s a memory. It’s something to be celebrated, and that, for us, was a positive feeling. The clothing that you wear is an extra layer of yourself. It will undoubtedly make you feel good if you’re wearing something that you care about, that has a story.
On slow style and slower shopping
I think my wardrobe was definitely streamlined, like I just had less stuff, which meant I was wearing pieces over and over again. I think that’s an interesting thing in itself, re-wearing clothes. In the fast-paced fashion creative industries it’s not "cool” to wear things more than once, and I think once you get over that it’s actually really awesome and cool to wear things over and over again. My wardrobe got smaller, but I wouldn’t say my style has changed, I just take longer to find the pieces that I want to welcome into my wardrobe.
My style is relaxed, a bit boho. There are classic elements to the way I dress. I love a good tailored coat. I like mixing up the feminine and masculine in that sense. My [preferred] colors are earthy: beige, khaki green; if I could wear one color for the rest of my life it would be khaki. I just love it, it makes me feel calm. It’s really interesting once you start noticing that your clothing colors are affecting your mood. Like, if you’re feeling a bit tired, wear a bright color and watch how it makes you feel. It’s kind of fun to experiment with it.
I wouldn’t wear more than one vintage piece in an outfit, I like to mix vintage with modern. I think in terms of sourcing vintage, you just have to be prepared for it to take a while, not just jump on the first thing that you see. And yes, vintage is more expensive, but I promise you you’ll look after it better. It’s an investment piece, but also it’s a piece of art, and I think, just imagining the life that that piece has had before it’s come to you, it’s like seriously special.
Clothing holds emotions, especially when it’s second hand. It’s really beautiful that there is a new narrative with lots of brands now, that the journey that a piece has taken before it gets to you is really special. It’s lived its own life, and then for you to take it on that journey onwards I think is really magic.
There is an online retailer called Reve en Vert, and they sell only sustainable brands, and their whole movement is to redefine what luxury means. If you are going to pay that high a price point, you should know the story from A to Z, know what factories the clothing is made in, by who, and what’s the ratio from men to women in the factory that your top is made. It’s a seriously cool website, and something like that should really be celebrated in today’s overcrowded market.
On giving clothing new life
I repair, I’m not a talented embroiderer or anything, but I can sew on a button, I can increase or decrease a hem. I have the basic skills to look after my clothes, like patching up a pair of jeans. We actually do workshops to teach these basic skills, our thought behind it is to encourage and celebrate self-expression through your clothing so, if you have a pair of jeans that you know you don’t wear, but they fit really well, and you want to give them a new lease on life, we invite people in London to bring them to our workshops and embroider them, and try to encourage upcycling the clothing that you already have.
Self-care for a generation
For me, it’s definitely about my routine. I can’t not have routine, so I make sure that I get up in the morning, I have half an hour with no phone, I put my phone in a different room and I spend a half-hour waking up and making a cup of tea. I don’t go to millions of yoga classes a week or anything like that. I go on lots of walks. For me, my mental health is about giving myself space, clearing my head, going for a walk for ten minutes during the day at lunch rather than sitting on my phone; my mental health regime is very much do with separating myself from technology. I think that growing up with it everywhere, is a generational thing. It’s so important and so connected to our mental health, our relationship to like physical connections, making that effort to actually going to see someone face-to-face.
Every time we do a panel, probably seven out of ten times, the questions are about mental health. The questions are: “I don’t know how to have a healthy relationship with my phone, with my clothes, with the material things around me, I feel overwhelmed.” Overwhelmed is the keyword that comes up, and I think the act of reconnecting to the material things around you and taking the time to make conscious decisions, not just impulse decisions, will have huge beneficial impacts on your mental health.
What about beauty?
What’s my beauty routine? I suffer from psoriasis, and it’s been a process for me to understand where it comes from and how to deal with it. My beauty regime for my face is very natural. I just cleanse and put an oil moisturizer on my face daily, but I’m not a huge like, beauty product fiend, I have a couple of things that I use.
I use Kjaer Weisz for foundation, they’re totally natural and organic. For color, I use RMS Beauty. I always have gold on my eyes, or like an orangy-bronzy gold if I’m going to wear makeup. It’s called Eye Polish and the color Lucky, and I just put that on my eyes if I’m going out in the evening. For lip balm, there's a brand called Dr Paw Paw, it’s organic, and you can use it for your lips and nails. My stuff is very on the go. And in terms of other products, I have this women’s balance oil that I use on my temples in the morning, it’s from Neal’s Yard and it’s this blend of lots of different herbs that are supposed to be relaxing and balancing for female hormones so I use that. The other thing that I use is my CBD oil, which I use every day. It helps with anxiety.
Joy and inspiration
Meeting people and creating our events where we bring like-minded people together is definitely the best and most inspirational thing for me. We do these clothes swap events, where we invite people to bring up to five high-quality items that they don’t love anymore, swap them for tokens on arrival depending on the quality, and then we have an archive of second-hand and vintage clothing that we pop-up as a store for the day. We hang it all up and then everyone gets to trade their tokens for new pieces, and watching people’s expressions and faces and interactions with the clothes is seriously amazing. It’s all about, for us, these events, redefining what new actually means to you. New doesn’t have to be new from a fast fashion store, it can be second hand and just new into your life.
*interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Words: Laura Jones
Photographer: Karolina Kaczynska