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Sustainable Brands: in conversation with Taja Feistner @ Sándor

Sustainable Brands: in conversation with Taja Feistner @ Sándor

If you haven’t noticed yet, the word sustainability is becoming more and more important in our everyday life, it is a word that the new generations, more than rightly, cannot do without. Among Generation Z and Millennials the search for brands and companies that respect the values of sustainability is on the agenda. We are talking about generations that are no longer satisfied to read on the label of a product ‘green’, ‘bio’, ‘eco’, but that daily inform themselves on what are the real meanings of these words, able to notice when a brand is greenwashing, which means it’s proclaiming its sustainability based on a few acts actually sustainable, often going to omit actions that are anything but sustainable.

It is therefore not surprising that, in a world that increasingly feels the need to adhere to these values, and as a consequence of the research and awareness that is becoming more and more widespread among these young people, independent brands of fashion, beauty, food, jewelry, design, etc., totally focused on having a sustainable footprint, are emerging.

“When we take time to ground, love and nourish ourselves, only then can we bring positive change to the world around us”

One of these young people is definitely Taja Feistner, model activist – born and raised in the Midwest, who not only worked for brands like Mulberry and Prada, but also studied Energy and Sustainability Policy at the Penn State University. With a passion for vintage even before her sustainability studies, (always remember that vintage is a great option for sustainable shopping!), Taja has really realized the impact that the fashion and beauty industry have on our planet through her work as a model.

So, together with hair stylist Sabrina Szinay, in 2019 she founded Sándor, a sustainable hair care brand, which aims to create great styling products in a conscientious and responsible way, in order not to be destructive to the unstable balance we have with nature.

We at Eesome were very lucky and managed to have a word with the gorgeous Taja, ranging from topics such as her studies and career, to getting an insight into her sustainable hair care brand.

It comes naturally to ask where your love for sustainability comes from, what made you decide to study this field in college and make it your vocation?

It’s difficult to pinpoint where my love for sustainability actually came from. I think it’s a combination of nature and nurture. My dad says that when I was about 3 years old I insisted on watching Snow White 7 times in a row. Looking back, I feel that this personification of animals in Disney movies bled over into my perception of creatures in real life. I have always had an intense curiosity about the world, compassion for the innocent, unsilenceable moral compass, and desire for justice.

From a young age when I began discovering environmental issues I couldn’t just ignore them. That’s why when I started working in fashion, sometimes for fast fashion brands, I had to find a way to balance the guilt I felt being part of a process that was having such a huge negative impact on the planet. I wanted to take the money I was making in the fashion industry and put it toward something I felt could change the world for the better.

I think traveling the world is a must for those who work as models. As a student of sustainability you will surely have noticed how the behaviors towards this matter change from country to country. What do you think are the best habits that we can take from different countries around the world, to be as sustainable as possible in our daily lives?

While no country is on the path to true sustainability currently, there are so many people I’ve met through my travels who have taught me sustainable practices and mindsets. One of the first trips abroad I made as a model was to Colombia. What I recognized in Colombia, that tends to be true for many Latin American countries that I’ve been to, is that you don’t need money or materialistic things to be happy, generous, and fulfilled in life.

People there place so much value in family, relationships, experiences, and enjoying each other’s company. This made me realize that I need to understand and unfold the ego or mentality behind my consumption – why do I feel I need to purchase this, is it fulfilling a need, am I in the right headspace to make the decision, or am I acting on impulse or feeling insecure, could this “void” be filled by a friend? I think this is one of the best lessons we can have in living more sustainably – realizing the root of our consumption and that we likely already have all that we need.

We know about your passion for vintage and how shopping for used items is a good option for staying sustainable. Can you give us some tips on how to invest in the best vintage shopping possible? Also how do you think the sustainable side of buying vintage could be maximized?

As someone who loves fashion as a form of self-expression, I can often find myself convinced that I need something ridiculous that I really may only wear once or sometimes not at all. It is really easy to become an impulse buyer in a vintage boutique or thrift shop because you’re faced with the thoughts “I may never find something like this again” or “if I leave without this it may not be here when I come back.”

What I’ve realized, after going through the vintage hoarding phase, is it’s better to spend more on something that is made with quality and timeless appeal, than buy a large quantity of “trend-heavy” things of lower quality. Another piece of advice I have in general is don’t shop with friends, you can browse with friends but I always recommend coming back to a shop alone if you have seen something you love. Sometimes friends make you more impulsive or convince you that you should get something that you regret later on that doesn’t feel true to you.

When it comes to curating your wardrobe in general I really recommend mood-boarding your style. Analyze things that you really love, that feel genuine to who you are, that you keep coming back to throughout time. When you still love a style concept after six months and shopping around, then it’s likely something that you’ll cherish and take care of. One thing I have always done as well is run a little Etsy/Depop/Ebay shop where I can find new homes for things I don’t want anymore.

It is easy to just go dump bags of clothes at a charity shop, and obviously it is great to give things away we aren’t using, but if you hold yourself responsible for where the things you buy end up then it makes you a more aware consumer. Quality vintage that is taken care of either gains or holds its value over time. Your wardrobe can become a revolving door as you buy and sell and this teaches you to cleanse what you don’t need in a sustainable way. My motto: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

As we have already said, you work in the fashion sector, so in your opinion, what are the most harmful behaviors that this industry has towards the planet?

The first things that come to mind are pace, quality, and production. Do we really need fall/winter, spring/summer, cruise/resort, pre-fall, holiday, couture, etc – each with corresponding fashion weeks in several different countries, destination shows with hundreds of people flown in from far and wide, thousands flocking from city to city to be a part of the chaos and frivolous fashion events designed to wine and dine without a lick of the waste generated in mind.

This is the pace of high fashion currently and fast fashion is right behind, hanging on the coat-tails, always trying to stay on top of knocking-off the latest “trends.” The whole concept of trends and the pump-and-dump factory mindset of constantly having to be generating new collections is just fuel to the consumerist fire. The pace itself is unsustainable on many levels and it keeps everyone on the “Keeping up with the Jones’” treadmill of constantly needing more.

Quality and production are a product of pace and the corporate, bottom-line, financial pressure for high profits and low cost. Fabric choice has a huge sustainability impact – we have to think about its production process, how much water/land/pesticides did it take to grow, is it made from plastic and thus requiring fossil fuels and generating micro-plastics every time it’s washed? We have to consider where the fabric is made, the distance to where it is cut and sewn, to where it is distributed and how is it packaged for distribution – likely wrapped individually in plastic. That being said, it is no wonder that fashion is chalk full of green-washing. There are so many factors that a design team must consider and even then, is it ever truly sustainable?

A life between sets and fashion shows accompanied by an awareness of how one should behave in a sustainable way. We’re curious, are there any behaviors you adopt to work in the fashion industry to be as sustainable as possible?

It is definitely a near impossible task to be sustainable at all times in this industry but I try to do my best to reduce my impact. One of the greatest impacts is air travel so I always try to opt for a train where possible. Often times when you add up travel to the airport, getting there 1-2 hours before takeoff, and travel from the airport to your destination, it can also be just as fast if not faster to take the train.

One of my favorites is the train from Milan to Paris – it takes about 7 hours but you pass through such beautiful countryside on the way. No matter where I am traveling I always opt for public transit over an uber/taxi. It’s the best way to feel like a local and get to know the layout of a city while massively reducing your carbon footprint. Some little things I always do is bring a portable coffee mug and water bottle to set and I usually have utensils on me so I don’t have to use any single-use plastic. Depending on the production there can often be a ton of food waste so if there are leftovers I usually try to take some home for myself or any homeless/people in need I may run into on the way.

We know that there are many brands working to become more sustainable. Can you tell us if any green habits are being adopted during jobs like shoots and fashion shows?

It has been really refreshing to work with some production companies that are taking sustainability into consideration. I’ve worked on some jobs where they’ve hired production teams that have reusable cups with interchangeable name labels so you know which is yours, sustainable cutlery and farm-to-table foods, plastic-free packaging, etc. Some shows will utilize caterers who use biodegradable cups and food packaging or greener options backstage but overall, I would say the attention to detail isn’t all there. Sometimes corners get cut when you have to consider packaging things individually for health/safety – especially now with COVID-19 it seems some of this progress is taking a step back.

I imagine that one of the non-sustainable issues that can arise in the fashion industry is closely related to the world of beauty and the products that are used to make, for example, make-up and hair styling for you models. Could this be a wake-up call that made you decide to found your sustainable hair styling company Sándor?

Every day that I am on set I am personally affected by the products chosen for me – I have no say in what chemicals are being used on my hair and skin. I have no say in how much aerosols are sprayed into the atmosphere, whether the products are tested on animals, or what gets washed down the drain when I remove it all at the end of the day. I would consider hair and makeup one of the factors that lead me down the path toward studying sustainability but to be honest, I never thought I would be involved in creating a sustainable hair care company.

My business partner, Sabrina, had this wake-up call when she saw the hairdressers she grew up around getting eczema on their hands from handling these products daily. When she came to me about how to do hair care in a sustainable way we each saw the opportunity to make a difference in people’s daily lives and the environmental impact of our industry as a whole.

This brand was born from a collaboration with hair stylist Sabrina Szinay. How did you two meet and how did this collaboration come to be?

It’s quite a random story actually! Sabrina and I had worked together on a couple jobs where we became acquainted and started following each other on social media. After some time I made a post about this project I was working on where I would melt down pop cans I found on the street to obtain the aluminum alloy. I think that’s when she realized I was studying sustainability at university so she asked if I’d meet for a coffee to discuss how to make her concept for a hair care brand sustainable. Being the sustainability nerd that I am, I came with a bunch of crazy statistics and a brief impact comparison for different materials – of course one of them being aluminum for the bottles which stuck with us!

Taking a tour on Sándor’s Instagram page we notice that the posts that are published do not only promote your products, but a real lifestyle based on the connection with nature. What are the messages that are most important to you to give through your brand?

Firstly, it is really personal to me, coming from a modeling background, that our brand breaks down the repressive beauty standards that are so prevalent in hair/beauty – not in a “we’re so inclusive and politically correct” sort of way but in a way that just feels pure, natural, and genuine.

I think so many companies and marketing tactics now-a-days feel so forced and corporate, like a ploy to get you to buy into what they’re selling as they prey on your insecurities and vulnerabilities. Our focus is always people and the planet even if that means sacrificing profit when making decisions. We’d rather be the “company” you keep by your side than the corporate interpretation of the word “company.”

We’re named after Sabrina’s grandfather “Sándor” who was a friend more than a barber, a light felt by everyone who encountered him – his clients were friends, neighbors, and ultimately his family. This is the legacy that guides us and the sense of community we aim to create through uplifting each other and highlighting people who inspire us.

Overall the message is to co-exist with nature and with each other. But to do this we believe you must first be grounded in yourself. We encourage you to see hair care as a meditative ritual of self-care. It’s a time to disconnect from the outside world and reconnect to ourselves and the true meaning of life. When we take time to ground, love and nourish ourselves, only then can we bring positive change to the world around us.

The connection with nature also comes from the choice of ingredients used for the formulation of your hair styling products. What raw materials do you use to make your products both efficient and environmentally friendly?

In order for something to be sustainable, all of its parts must be – every decision made along the way. With each ingredient we have to consider: can it be quickly replenished, does it require a lot of land/water/pesticides, is it biodegradable, where is it grown and processed? This is why our first goal when choosing ingredients was to source everything as locally as possible. Of course, it would have been cheaper to fly in Jojoba oil from India and Aloe Vera from Mexico, sourcing ingredients based on unit price – it’s still “natural” – but these decisions would skyrocket our carbon footprint. Reducing our carbon footprint was one of the main factors in sourcing.

Another factor was toxicity for both humans and nature which is why we only chose ingredients that are safe, non-toxic, and non-disruptive according to EWG’s (Environmental Working Group) research and strict standards. We don’t typically think about what happens to the water that goes down our drains carrying all of our personal care products and perfumes with it. This is why choosing ingredients that biodegrade and are non-toxic to marine life are so important.

What we realized when starting this brand is that there are countless chemicals that are common in our daily routines that actually can’t be cleaned from our wastewater, ending up in our waterways. Some of the common ones you’ll likely find in soaps and shampoos are sulfates, parabens, phthalates, etc. It was a top priority for us to find natural alternatives that were effective for people to use while protecting the environment from irreversible damage

As we have repeated several times in this interview, your subject of study is precisely sustainability. As someone who is therefore becoming an expert in the field, what is your role in making Sándor a brand that succeeds in being environmentally friendly on multiple fronts?

Sándor began with sustainability at the foundation of everything we do and create – I wouldn’t have felt comfortable introducing a product or company to the world that I didn’t feel was pushing the limits of what it means to be sustainable. This is why Sabrina is the perfect business partner for me. Growing up in Denmark her standards of eco-friendly design are something deeply embedded in her being. Actively learning and studying sustainability is the way I ensure that we are constantly utilizing the most sustainable practices possible as a company – since this is our overall goal. My process is analyze, innovate, repeat.

Your bottles are 100% infinitely recyclable, your packaging is biodegradable, your ingredients are researched to be sustainable and you try to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible. So finally we would like to ask if you have any plans to continue on the path of sustainability and to make your products even more in line with this value?

There is still so much to be learned, created, and explored on our path toward sustainability as humans. I’m enthralled by this challenge of achieving true sustainability and co-existing harmoniously. So as long as there are rocks to be unturned and trails to blaze, I’ll be on this journey for myself and for Sándor.

words & interview by Sara Ugramin
images courtesy of Taja Feistner & Sándor
coordination assistant Roberta Lacarìa
artwork by Eleonora Casalini