“It is very hard to teach your kids something you’re not living.”
Ericka Symonette has the kind of personality that is magnetic. She has, as anyone interested in the impact of ethical fashion can attest, an exceptionally important job. She is a high school fashion marketing teacher. As such, she has the opportunity to equip young people not only to have a marvelous sense of style, but to make ethical fashion a baseline for what they will one day bring into the industry.
Her classroom itself is a hint of the kind of teacher her students will experience. The room has a French flair, a must for anyone taking fashion remotely seriously. The walls contain a hand drawn self portrait of a previous student - a gift from their graduation showing a clear connection to her class - pops of gold for a bit of glamour and fun, and positive messages.
Ericka's ideas challenge and her words stick. She met with us in her empty classroom a few weeks before the commencement of a new school year, where we scored a free tutoring session on raising the next generation of conscious kiddos. The school she teaches at in the Fairfax County School District is ranked among the top 20 in the US. She is clearly teaching something worth learning.
Tell us about your role as an educator.
I am a high school fashion marketing teacher. Our school has two levels. In level 1, we talk about the history of fashion, what it means, the influences and why we wear the clothes we wear. We also talk about marketing aspects from promotions, advertising, events, public relations, to selling, direct marketing, email marketing, social media marketing… basically all of those things in relevance to the fashion industry. Fashion 2 is the second level and is about teaching students to be leaders in their jobs and internships. It prepares them for life after high school and to enter the industry.
When I was in high school, the subjects were math, science, geography, etc., to have fashion marketing is completely out of the box. Is this the new norm for high schools?
The program has been around for over 20 years, but lately there has been recognition in the education system that students should be more prepared for the job market. Even in high school, some of them already know what area they want to go into - making the development of career education more important. They’re now saying, “let’s teach kids business”, “let’s teach them marketing.” There is landscaping, sports medicine, interior design. These options all come from a recognition that we need to start preparing kids for the world and the work field faster and differently.
It sounds like home-ec revamped for the modern world. Is that true?
How did you connect your passion for education with your love for fashion?
It was actually by accident! I never envisioned that marketing in high school was a ‘thing’ until I became a teacher. I was a marketing major in college, so once I found out Fairfax County had a full marketing department and offered fashion marketing, it was an obvious fit.
How did you become interested in fashion?
I always loved fashion but would more consider myself a person with style. I always tell my students on the first day of school, “there is a difference between somebody who knows fashion, and someone who has style and knows how to dress.” A lot of times a girl who knows how to dress thinks that she knows fashion, but she only really knows style. I was that girl who knew style. Over the years of being a fashion teacher and becoming connected to the fashion world has grown my love and understanding of fashion.
I would say that I would be the opposite. I loved fashion and then I have learned how to dress. Mostly in the area of knowing what works for my body type, and the colors I look best in. I love a lot of different styles and trends, but at 5’1”, not all of them are flattering.
Well, we were in high school in the 90’s, and that was a dark time. :-)
Yes! It was totally an existential decade for fashion.
Yeah, it was like this grungy look… and we had to start over, once the 2000’s hit everybody realized: we’ve got to do something different.
And now we’re all chokers and Dr. Martens again :-) In your classroom, you definitely went the conscious consumerism route at a certain point. How do you describe the conscious consumer?
The conscious is someone who is conscious of what they are buying, who is making their clothes, and how much they are buying - to the extent that you can. It also means not buying a bunch of things you are not going to wear, or will wear one one time.
Have there been any moments in your personal or professional life that have impacted how you teach and what you teach about?
Definitely. I watched The True Cost documentary while on maternity leave. Once I watched that, I couldn’t unsee what I had just seen. Then, once I showed my students, I also needed to hold them accountable and dialogue with them about what is going on and the part we play. The documentary was a turning point for me; it shifted me, and became a great opportunity. My students are young. They are in a great place to effect change, they love to shop, they love to buy new things, and they want to have a positive impact.
What does the accountability piece look like?
Initially, we built a project around it. As long as I have them in my care, I bring it up and let the message resonate - even when we’re not doing the lesson on sustainability. Also, bringing people in the classroom to share helps. Stories from real people about what they do and how they got there has a huge impact on young people. They remember stories. So I invite people who are in the fashion industry and conscious about where clothes are coming from into my classroom. By putting those people before them, integrating it into the lessons, it becomes an ongoing thing until it becomes part of our way of life. It is an easy conversation to have, but getting them to buy into it and do it is a separate thing.
I would imagine buy-in would be challenging without knowing where to shop ethically, but I think you have been proactive! Did you make it their homework to research and report on ethical fashion companies?
Yes! They had to find a lot of options, and many of them were surprised that so many options do exist. So it became an education. We are very disconnected from where our clothes come from, and this helped immensely.
What was it about the True Cost documentary that made you shift your own thinking?
I had been in a place of becoming conscious of everything I do. For example, what I eat. Am I eating organic? Is my intake of veggies enough? I’m also a huge huge fan of recycling. It’s super important to me, so I’m already on that thought process.
I think this just exposed me to a different area that I wasn’t really aware of. I had heard of sweatshops and child labor and knew it was terrible. Of course I didn’t want to be apart of that. But, the documentary is like, “you are apart of it" and explains how.
Then, since I am already big on recycling, to learn about the water pollution and the air pollution, and the pesticides on the cotton plants…. It exposed this to me on the fashion level as well.
What is the primary thing you want to instill in your students?
That we have to care. We have to care where our clothes are coming from. There are people who are paying the price, and it’s a price they really shouldn’t have to pay just so we can have a $10 shirt.
The main issue on our end is over-consumption. Factories are trying to keep up with the consumer. Some labels have 10 collections coming out in a year, as opposed to just a seasonal collection. We as the consumer should stop over consumption of things we don’t need. We do need to shop smarter, and buy pieces that are going to last.
Those are just good life lessons...
They are! Even with adults, we shouldn’t have a closet full of clothes we do not wear. That’s not ok. Having a lot of clothes is not something to celebrate. If you’re not wearing them, let someone else wear it. It is very irresponsible to just have a bunch of clothes you're hoarding. I was one of those people, but now I focus on editing my closet to a full closet of things that I can wear, not just a full closet of things without having anything to wear.
Do you have any tips for how to edit your closet?
If you didn’t wear it last summer, you’re probably not going to wear it this summer. If you haven’t worn it in the past 6 months, you’re probably not going to wear it. You’re not choosing it for a reason.
So, we should be honest with ourselves about why we’re not wearing certain items, and realize that particular reason is not going away.
Yes. I give it away if I haven’t worn it in a long time. I am also realistic about things that don't fit anymore. I have been shopping smarter and buying more basics. I am a print, stand-out piece kind of girl, but I can’t wear my fuchsia skirt every week! A black skirt I can. So make sure to build a wardrobe around purchases like that. I do have my pop-pieces, but I also want my wardrobe to be made of pieces I can wear often.
You have 2 girls at home (plus a 1 year old boy!). 2 Tweens, is that correct?
A 12 and a 9.
Are your girls into fashion? Do they know fashion or style?
They know style. They have very different styles. My oldest is very girlie. My youngest is more sporty and casual. She thinks she doesn’t care about style, but she really does. She is very into the latest sneakers. They know style. That’s because I was intentional about teaching them. Even in preschool.
Wow! Start them young :-)
Yes! I showed them first, and then let them float on their own, even if an outfit looked crazy. If it made sense to them in some way, I didn’t make a deal of it and let them express themselves. But I would also say, “maybe try this bottom/top” to teach them just like I taught them everything else, like how to tie their shoes. You have to teach style.
What are some of the conversations you have with them about conscious consumerism?
We talk about it from the standpoint of what I’m trying to do with Pulchritude, and how that affects the changes we’re making to the merchandise we sell because of it. They are very familiar with my ways of recycling and buying organic, and are themselves very conscious. Also, their teachers have planted seeds that are growing.
So it sounds like formal education plays a huge role in all of this.
It does, it really really does. They have become aware.
For parents who want to start talking to their kids about conscious shopping, do you have any tips?
Introduce it just like you would introduce any new concept that you’re trying to teach your kid. A lot of my students have the problem of not feeling like their parents are direct and honest about things they should be direct and honest about. You don’t have to talk about the factory fire [in Bangladesh] that killed 3000 people, but talk about air pollution, or clean water issues. We had already talking about how some kids don’t have clean water.
Also, show them websites! Kids love to be on the internet. Show them websites like ecocult.com. Break it down to a level of whatever age they are on. Challenge them to do some digging themselves. They love to be the internet and their phones.
What are some activities and challenges parents can use to help educate their kids?
Find your top favorite stores! This is a great thing: for every friend birthday, christmas, holiday - whatever we buy gifts - we have decided we are going to buy gifts that are ethically sourced. That is a great way to start.
Another idea is to recycle clothing! When I took my oldest to the thrift store to shop for a thrift store prom, it was her first experience thrifting. She actually found her current favorite pair of pants for just 99 cents! It’s another way to fight the monster when you’re not consuming from [big] stores. You’re recycling clothes. The repurposing of clothes is a huge activity too, when jeans don’t fit us we can turn them into shorts, or a t-shirt into a tank top. My oldest will start cutting up clothing and making things on her own, and I give her the freedom to do that and make it a fun project.
Donating is important, too. My kids are really good with that. When it is time to clean out the closet I ask what they'd like to give to friends/family, then we give the rest to Planet Aid.
As a mom and an educator, what is the top piece of advice you would give to parents about raising the next generation of conscious consumers?
You have to do 2 things: introduce the concept young, and be a good example. It is very hard to teach your kids something you’re not living.