Twenty-one-year-old climate activist Maya Penn is one of those people whose impressive résumé may make you wonder, What the heck have I been doing with my life? While the sheer quantity of her accomplishments to date may be dizzying, it’s the quality of her endeavors that sets her apart from hustle-culture-minded peers. In each of her undertakings, she is driven by her goal to improve the environment or cater to social good or the arts.
Penn is an environmental (and eco-justice) activist, sustainable fashion designer, author of You Got This!: Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change the World, three-time TED speaker, founder of the nonprofit organization Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet (which, among other things, sends eco-friendly sanitary napkins to menstruating people in need), sustainability consultant working with Fortune 500 companies, and recipient of a commendation for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship from former President Barack Obama. She’s also an animator with her own production company focused on tackling environmental and social topics through animation, an artist, and a filmmaker, too. What’s perhaps most impressive about Penn, however, is that she’s been at it since she was just 8 years old, when she launched her sustainable fashion line.
When I spoke with her recently, Penn broke down her enviable and seemingly innate ability to parlay concern into action, what specifically keeps her up at night with respect to the climate emergency, how she manages to remain hopeful in the face of disheartening environmental updates, and more.
W+G: What led you to become so passionate about environmentalism at such a young age?
Maya Penn: I grew up in an eco-conscious household. My earliest memories are of me and my mom going to the thrift store and shopping secondhand. We also had an organic garden starting when I was 7 or 8 years old, and I grew up knowing that everyone has an impact on the environment and on our communities in some way. I channeled that knowledge into my sustainable fashion line and all the activism that has come from that.
Why did you specifically fixate on fashion at first?
I was curious about what kind of impact the fashion industry has on the environment, so I started doing my own research, and [I discovered] that the fashion industry contributes to 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year [which accounts for about 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming]. So, I thought, What can I do to make a difference and also show people clothing can be sustainable while educating them about the importance of sustainability in the fashion industry?
I started my own sustainable fashion company in 2008, when I was 8 years old, called Maya’s Ideas by creating items from vintage clothing and fabric that we had around the house and selling them online. I came to the fashion industry not from a fashion industry standpoint, but from more of a creative, artistic, and mission-driven standpoint. If somebody had asked me, “Who is your favorite designer?” I could not had given the answer because I was focused more on the artistic part of it. I’ve always just been painting and animating and basically tackling every form of visual art and taking inspiration from nature and the environment. My favorite designer is Mother Earth.
This was way before sustainable fashion was even anywhere near mainstream, and I started getting sales from all over the world—Italy, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Japan, you name it.
Why do you think it’s been such a success?
I put sustainability first, so I never wanted to scale my business in a traditional way or make a ton of inventory for no reason. Instead, I wanted to zero in on creating designs that were eco-friendly and had a story behind them. In terms of scale, I thought, How can I get my items more known in other parts of the world instead of just creating tons of inventory for no reason? I think that’s what made my voice unique within the sustainable fashion space. People love the design and they also love the sustainability aspect.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to funnel their creative, intellectual, or professional passions into activism?
Figure out your message or your goal and then figure out the medium or the vehicle through which you want to push that. Look at your interests and passions, and then look at the topics that really drive you, whether that’s environmental issues, women’s rights, or humanitarian issues, and then figure out how you can combine those two sides. That’s essentially what I’ve done: I’ve taken the passions and interests that I had, and the passion for the various causes that I wanted to support, and I put them together.
It doesn’t matter if what you’re passionate about is not the trending hashtag…. If it’s important and integral to the movement or to your mission, then be the one to start amplifying that message.
Also, don’t be afraid to speak to the topics that might be overlooked in a lot of spaces, either. When I started talking about sustainability in the fashion industry and environmental justice, people looked at me like I had three heads. Now these topics are at the center of movements, so one piece of advice that I always love to give is that it doesn’t matter if what you’re passionate about is not the trending hashtag or buzzword or the front-page story. If it’s important and integral to the movement or to your mission, then be the one to start amplifying that message. Own that and own being more unique in the topics you speak on, because every piece of the puzzle within activism is relevant.
Do you have any insight into how to mobilize people with respect to the climate emergency?
I’m a solutions-based activist, somebody who’s looking towards what we can do. I think it’s important to make sustainable living welcoming to people and accessible to people as much as possible.
Maybe you want to do meatless Mondays—that makes a huge difference. Maybe you just want to shop secondhand or at thrift stores or vintage or to support sustainable brands like mine and others—that makes a difference. If you’re working from home, you’re reducing your carbon footprint [by not driving]—that makes a difference. People feel discouraged when others push this idea that there’s no way to win. The way to win is to do what we can, and that looks different for each person.
If I see somebody who’s using a plastic straw, I won’t just be like, “Hey, here’s why plastic is destroying the world.” I’ll be like, “Hey, maybe instead you can use a reusable straw or just not use a straw.” I think it’s important to come to people with the “Here’s what you can do instead,” because that drives them to be like, “Oh yeah, I guess I can do that or make that swap.”
I’ve started talking about the importance of looking at ableism within sustainability, too, because there are a lot of people who can’t use some of the harder reusable straws and need straws to drink, for example. And so I encourage people to start figuring out solutions that are sustainable but also cater to the needs of people who might need assistance from these kinds of items.
It’s also important for people to figure out why sustainability should matter to them instead of telling them why it matters to you.
We have to continue to hold the leaders of industry that are contributing to these issues—or aren’t speaking up about them or engaging in tangible actions—accountable. But it’s also important for people to figure out why sustainability should matter to them instead of telling them why it matters to you. [The climate emergency] is something that will impact pretty much every facet of our lives, and so when you start educating people and making it personal and showing them what they can do, that makes all the difference.
Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are already most affected by pollution and will be most affected by climate change. How can and should we be centering them?
BIPOC folks are the most adversely affected by environmental issues—by climate change, air pollution, water pollution, and environmental racism—and it’s absolutely critical that BIPOC voices are at the center of the environmental movement. Not only do they need a platform to speak from but they also need opportunities to be able to make decisions around climate solutions and to be able to have the resources to continue to fund and support their community and grassroots projects.
Is there one thing that concerns you the most about the climate emergency?
It’s hard to narrow it down—there are obviously a lot of things that concern me. I’m worried about people, about animals, about ecosystems. I’m worried about climate migrants—how are we going to be able to serve people who are having to flee their homes because of floods and droughts and and everything else? How are people going to be able to help climate migrants move to safer areas to live, because that’s already necessary? [A significant percentage] of Bangladesh is underwater, and there are droughts in Guatemala that are forcing people to leave their homes because they can’t grow any crops. This is happening right now. So that’s something that definitely concerns me—how will we be able to help people in these instances? Even just looking at how, nationally, a lot of extreme weather events have not been handled great in terms of community response—that’s a big concern.
Everything concerns me, everything scares me, and even though I’m somebody who’s also very optimistic, I suffer from climate anxiety and eco anxiety. In many ways, COVID was a test run—not to make it sound scary, but I think it did open a lot of people’s eyes to just how fragile the world that humans have built is, and how this normal, everyday life and society that we’d thought was so bulletproof, isn’t. It’s shown how important it is to be on top of this stuff and to be making change, implementing the right precautions, and doing what we can now so people won’t have to suffer later.
To end on a more positive note, what’s exciting you the most about the climate movement right now?
We’re at a point in time where people are getting educated about environmental issues and what they can do to make a difference, and more and more people are starting to implement some of these changes.
We’re also at a point where there are so many people seeing through the BS of some of these industries that are massively polluting, and people are demanding real, tangible change. As long as we continue to maintain the hope that we can make a difference, and continue to hold people accountable, and continue to be kind to the Earth, be kind to ourselves, and just keep moving forward, we can make change.
So many innovations are happening with sustainability, too—from natural solutions to tech solutions, and everything in between—that people are learning more about every day and implementing in unique ways. So I think the combination of more people being educated, more people being motivated, innovation happening, and sustainability becoming a mainstream and not a niche issue is exciting.
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