We saw Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist who has lit the climate resistance on fire, speak at the New York Society for Ethical Culture at the beginning of her whirlwind American tour. My daughter Kai, then 6 (closer by half to Greta's age than me) and I had nosebleed seats to "The Right to a Future," a conversation between Greta and journalist Naomi Klein, author of "On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal."
After the talk, I asked Kai what she thought. “Well,” said Kai, “she wasn’t wearing her hair in braids.” Alas, it was not the world-reshaping reaction I’d experienced, but Kai is a keen observer of fashion. (Maybe her mom usually does her braids, and Greta was here with her dad, we hypothesized). Following this line of thought, it turns out there's a lot to be learned from the young activist’s appearance, from her trademark double-braids on down.
Greta’s moving fast, about as fast as you can move without setting foot in an airplane. After sailing across the Atlantic to New York, it was onto DC, then back to New York to lead two of the biggest climate marches in world history and to testify at the UN Climate Action Summit. After stops in Montreal (traveling by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electric car) and Iowa City to strike with students, she plans to make her way to Chile for the Santiago Climate Change Conference. But wherever she goes, whatever world leaders she speaks in front of, she’ll be wearing hand-me-downs.
When we saw Greta in person, she was in a black t-shirt that said Galdhøpiggen, which turns out to be the tallest mountain in Norway, stretchy pants and blue sneakers. These decidedly unfashionable kicks are the same ones she’s been wearing since she started school-striking outside the Parliament building in Stockholm on Fridays, when she was 15. The same ones she wore to deliver the speech that launched her meteoric rise, when she dressed down the powers of the free market at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. The ones she refused to change out of when she was photographed for the cover of Time.
Spitting Truth in Clunky Sneakers
In addition to going vegan and convincing her family to stop flying, in her private life Greta practices what she calls “shop stop.” It means you don’t buy new things unless you absolutely have to. She wears what she already has, or borrows clothes from her younger sister, her mom or her dad, whoever. It’s so not the point that her lack of fashion quietly makes its own point.
Shop stop. It had a name! It’s a philosophy I’ve practiced for myself for eight or so years. Other than underwear and footwear, I buy myself only secondhand clothes and nab hand-me-overs from relatives and friends. But honestly, I had started to slip, making excuses each time. Like, It’s not worth hurting my image professionally, just for the impact of one outfit.
Seeing Greta spit truth in those clunky sneakers and random t-shirt that was slightly too big, I was reignited: to rock my hand-me-downs with pride; to keep on doing the little things that so often seem useless. Because as Greta puts it, in her inimitable understated way: no matter how many times we fail, "there is no reason not to go on. We must push and we must act in every situation."
And as Thoreau warns us: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
And as the voice on my shoulder adds: "I mean, who am I trying to look good for?"
As Greta puts it, in her inimitable understated way: no matter how many times we fail, "there is no reason not to go on. We must push and we must act in every situation."