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Magazine — 24.02.21

Coming Of Age In The Era Of Environmental Decay

As a second-generation Iranian-American growing up in Baltimore, I never knew much about environmental issues. I went to an art high school for writing, and daily we’d joke about how the school’s recycling was a sham. There were recycling bins throughout the school, a hazardously blue bin at almost every corner, at the end of a long, skinny hallway. It was common knowledge that these bins were dumped in the trash at the end of each day.

There was no actual recycling; just the illusion of a system in place. Perhaps, in the end, that’s a metaphor for something bigger, something grander about the society I lived in. We recycled at home, but only the basics: milk jugs, Amazon boxes, Diet Coke cans.

I was a shy, awkward kid. My mother didn’t know how to do hair and would gripe every time she had to put my hair in a ponytail for soccer. We didn’t talk about appearance, outside of the body-shaming I occasionally faced.

It felt like no one wanted to listen to me, so, if I was seen visually, they could understand me. I began shopping, spending all of my pocket money at Forever 21 and Sephora, buying cheap flannels and polyester dresses, Kat Von D lipsticks I’d toss a year later. It was an addiction.

My father would always tell me he dreamed of owning an entire mansion, one with rooms full of clothes. He’d proudly show me his shoe collection, over sixty pairs, and clothes he had kept for over twenty years. Soon, I too began to want that same thing. I saw clothing and makeup as a way out, a way to express myself where words couldn’t.

The first time I had been exposed to an extensive recycling programme was in Seoul, South Korea. I received a scholarship from the U.S. government to live and study there for a summer, and so I lived with a family of four in Anyang, Gyeonggi-do. The first night, as my roommate and I gathered at the table with our newfound family eating Korean tonkatsu, wincing as we tried kimchi, we failed to notice the five different bins that were tucked in the narrow back room, where the pantry was located.

The next day, jet-lagged and wiping at my eyes, I tried to throw a bag of chips I had hoarded from the flight to Incheon away in the regular trash can. “No!” My host sister, Go-won, had screamed, lunging for the trash and shoving her tiny fist inside. She withdrew it. My chip bag shimmered in the morning light, despite being all crumpled up. “Yeogi!” She demanded, pointing at the third bin from the right. I remember looking at her, confused, as she dumped the bag into the bin.

With the help of my host parents, who had studied in both New Zealand and the U.S., along with Naver Dictionary, which is a Korean to English online translator, I discovered that Korea had six different types of recycled products: almost everything was recycled in the country. It blew my mind, and I soon started noticing sustainable habits everywhere I went.

When ordering delivery dishes like jjajangmyeon, they would be delivered in actual bowls. Once you were done eating, you’d place them outside your door, and the restaurant delivery member would come back to pick them up. You would use your chopsticks, which were metal. At restaurants, they would serve drinks in metal cups. And, on the streets, I rarely saw trash. It was so clean.

I moved to New York City three days after coming back from Korea. It was my freshman year and I was a Fashion Business Management major at one of the most prestigious fashion schools in the world. Everyone around me was dressed so well, with outfits mixing pieces from Zara and high-end designers. Chanel bags and earrings, Gucci belts, a YSL blazer—people were savvy with what they wore.

The more dorm closets I saw, the more I wanted to be like these girls. My closet was nearly empty; my family was working class and I had never really wanted clothes like that. I was hungry. I started buying excess garments from Forever 21 and H&M, which were all I could afford. My closet, too, started to fill up. We’d talk about sustainability in classes, but it would be offhanded. By the time my last year at FIT announced itself, sustainability became a more significant concept to many of us, something more important, but in the beginning, the word felt kind of meaningless. Fast fashion seemed like it was the only way to go, for both my closet and career.

I forgot what I saw and learned in Korea as I kept buying clothes. Then, one day, I woke up and just stared at my closet, at everything I owned, the excess of makeup and random home décor. I felt disgusted. I felt sad. And, above all else, I felt empty being surrounded by all of these products.

I will admit, going to fashion school completely changed my perspective about sustainability. Because I was in New York City, I was embedded in the heart of the industry. There were clothing stores everywhere, sample sales to go to, showrooms to work in. There were just so many clothes and there were mountains. As my international trade textbook discussed how millions of pounds of clothes were sent to Africa each year, I went from being apathetic to disgusted. 

I still miss Korea’s recycling, and now, when I do shop, I buy exclusively from Goodwill. I choose to be mindful of my consumption, which, in turn, has made me appreciative of what I do own. Sustainability isn’t a trend when the environment is slowly rotting from the inside—it has to be a lifestyle. And this is what I’ve slowly begun to realize, although my time in this world has been brief.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.

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