BEMIDJI -- Sarah Kessler has always been interested in fashion, but only recently did she come to understand the negative effects the fast fashion industry can have on factory workers and the environment.

The more she learned, the more she felt she had to share. Recently, she found a way to expand her audience and hopes to help bring about real change, starting in northern Minnesota.

From Park Rapids to Grand Marais, Kessler mapped out dozens of stores she determined sold sustainable goods, based on her phone calls and interviews with more than 80 northern Minnesota businesses.

Kessler, a 16-year-old from Grand Rapids, did so as a Girl Scout working toward her Gold Award, the highest award a Girl Scout can earn, similar to the rank of Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts of America.

One of her maps highlights stores carrying responsibly made, locally made, and/or Fair Trade Certified products, and the other map highlights stores which carry second-hand goods.

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The inspiration

“When I kind of learned about how badly we need sustainable fashion, I was just really shocked, because I’d been into fashion my whole life, and I’d never heard about this before,” Kessler explained. “I was just really amazed, and I wanted to give people the opportunity to know how their actions affect so much more than they think it does.”

When Kessler -- who has been a Girl Scout for five years -- began to think about working toward her Gold Award, she thought this would make the perfect topic. Gold Award projects are earned after recipients can prove there is a lasting impact in the community and will affect change to a real problem. Kessler’s award focuses on spreading awareness about sustainable fashion through a PSA video, shopping maps, social media awareness and public speaking.

“When I was thinking about starting my Gold Award this cause just came to mind because I was really passionate about it,” she said. “I’ve really been wanting to tell people about it for a while, and this (project) was a good way to expand my circle of people outside of my family and friends.”

Kessler began in February by making a short video explaining what fast fashion is, how to shop sustainably and some easy steps toward a more responsible closet.

In her video, Kessler asks viewers to think about when they last bought new clothing.

“Did you think about who made it? Or how much water it took to make it? Chances are, the answer is no, but that needs to change,” she said. “You are the only way this gets better.”

Kessler describes fast fashion as “disposable clothing” -- cheap clothes made quickly and sold at mass market stores.

“Most of the people making our clothes are being exploited,” she said. “This is not OK. When we buy from a brand, we directly support everything they do. Even their environmental and social crimes.”

The process

Sarah Kessler's sustainable shopping for Northern Minnesota. Submitted photo.
Sarah Kessler's sustainable shopping for Northern Minnesota. Submitted photo.

For this project she reached out to more than 80 stores within a 300-mile radius to identify their level of sustainability. She chose to include only northern Minnesota, within a distance she herself would feel comfortable driving to shop for clothing.

First, she emailed the stores; when that didn’t work, she reluctantly began calling each and every one.

Kessler admits this made her nervous, but she was surprised at how friendly and encouraging many of the business owners were.

“It was really inspiring to see how many stores did have responsibly and locally made stuff,” she said. “The more we know, the more we can make informed, ethical decisions.”

She asked owners if sustainability was important to their stores, taking into account whether stores were paperless, using plastic bags or printing receipts.

Based on their responses, the stores were considered for one of two maps: one listing stores that sell sustainable products, and one with stores that offer second-hand or consignment products.

She defined sustainable clothing products as either responsibly made, locally made or Fair Trade Certified products.

Sarah Kessler's secondhand stores map for Northern Minnesota. (Submitted photo)
Sarah Kessler's secondhand stores map for Northern Minnesota. (Submitted photo)

Kessler plans to distribute the maps through visitor centers and chambers of commerce.

Currently, the map is available on visitgrandrapids.com and her project is showcased on her Instagram account, @fashion_or_planet_choose_both.

In the future, Kessler hopes to work toward a bachelor’s degree in general business. She’s not sure yet how business, sustainability and fashion will interact in her career path, but she hopes they will.