Modeling Sustainability: GS Student Fuels Passion Through Ethical Fashion
At age 13, Heide Morris ‘21GS began her career in modeling when an agent approached her at a Britney Spears concert. After spending over a decade in the fashion industry, she found herself craving something new, where she could be more certain about what opportunities lay ahead.
“I just genuinely felt like I had no control over my own life or destiny. I was always waiting for a phone call,” Morris recalled.
Today, her focus lies in her entrepreneurial ventures and completing her final semester at Columbia GS, where she is majoring in psychology. Below, Morris discusses her work with organizations REBUILD globally and deux mains, sustainable fashion, and her plans for the future.
How did you get involved with REBUILD globally and deux mains?
My entire life I’ve felt this desperate need to somehow be involved in making the world a better place. I believe this is first done via our daily actions and choices, but I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger that had an inherent, built-in goal of positive impact. In the summer of 2014, I traveled to Haiti with a group of friends to help out at a school called English in Mind (EIM). The great thing about EIM is that we would help out with classes in the afternoons, but in the mornings we would travel around Port au Prince visiting with and learning about different groundbreaking companies there, and one of our stops was REBUILD globally. REBUILD’s mission was born out of the women in the community who, after the traumatic earthquake of 2010, sought to rebuild their lives through employment rather than depend on limited aid. They started collecting tires off of the streets and used a knife to hand carve the tires into sandals—something REBUILD’s founder had seen done in Africa. When I met them, they were making beautiful flip-flops and I knew I could use my fashion industry experience to help. I finally found a place where my unique set of tools and life experiences fit.
I knew the brand needed more fashion-forward designs to expand their audience, sell more products, and thus be able to hire more people in the Port au Prince community. While working with artisans on a new design later that year, they received notification that the for-profit fashion brand they had been working on establishing, deux mains, had been approved by the Haitian government. As a result, REBUILD could continue focusing on education and job training opportunities for vulnerable people, and deux mains could focus on developing a more competitive line of fashion products in order to be sustainable in their efforts to create meaningful jobs in Haiti.
As an ethical fashion brand, we provide consistent living-wage employment that we have seen single-handedly allow artisan after artisan to pull themselves out of poverty, put their kids through school, buy homes, and hire more people as they set up their own side businesses. REBUILD, as a non-profit, provides job training and education (expenses, tutoring, etc.) and deux mains guarantees employment upon graduating.
Why is sustainable, ethical fashion important to the industry, but also to you?
There is no denying that we live in a time of excess. The forces of industrialization coupled with so many other historical and cultural phenomena have delivered us into a completely unsustainable way of living. To look cute and stay trendy (at affordable prices) we are sacrificing the planet, as well as humanity, through toxic and unethical labor practices put in place to do one thing: cut costs. I found myself struggling with this both as an individual consumer and as a model. The psychological distance allows us to see “pretty and trendy and cheap” before our eyes, while we remain blind to the human rights and planetary abuses affording us these luxuries. That’s why the existence of brands like deux mains is so important—to show that there are other ways of doing things. We can dress and feel good about ourselves while having a positive impact on the planet and improving—not degrading—people’s lives.
My entire life I’ve felt this desperate need to somehow be involved in making the world a better place. I believe this is first done via our daily actions and choices, but I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger that had an inherent, built-in goal of positive impact.
How do you think the pandemic has impacted the growing movement toward a more eco-friendly, sustainable fashion industry?
Like most businesses, deux mains felt the direct negative impact of the pandemic as a result of economic uncertainty and the closing of many storefronts. The timing was particularly challenging because, prior to the pandemic taking its grip, deux mains decided to focus on wholesale accounts, where high-volume orders allow for more consistency of income for the company and the opportunity to hire more people. While the U.S. provided stimulus packages, options for unemployment, and other forms of relief from the government, Haitian people do not have these same support structures. This is why our partnership with REBUILD, and the general model of the for-profit and non-profit sectors working together, was and still is so crucial.
While deux mains worked to shift focus on direct-to-consumer, REBUILD provided our team with unemployment support. We have learned time and again that consistent paychecks are the key to a person being able to rise up out of poverty. We knew we didn’t have time to regroup; people’s lives were at stake and support was needed urgently.
Now that deux mains has shifted models, we have noticed a buying trend that is very encouraging. People are working to make their hard-earned dollars count, even as they feel their own versions of the pandemic’s impact. We have seen people voting with their dollars by investing in their local communities and looking to support each other more, in general! We have seen this translate into ethical fashion as well. Consumers are thinking more about who their money directly impacts, and rather than support huge conglomerates, they are making choices with their dollars that they can then feel good about.
How has the pandemic affected your humanitarian work, and also your modeling work?
Pandemics and crises of all kinds always hit the most vulnerable the hardest, and I think it’s safe to say the pandemic has left humanity straddling an impossible question of how to “let the show go on” as we witness the economic consequences of shutdowns—and how to keep as many people safe and healthy as possible. That tension has been reflected both in my work with deux mains and REBUILD, as well as in my work as a model. I have recently done photoshoots for both deux mains (in Haiti) and other brands from my modeling career, and everyone is doing their absolute best to strike the right balance and keep people safe while moving business forward.
On your Instagram, you talk a lot about gratitude, kindness, and discovery. What are some things you’ve discovered about yourself and the world around you in the time you’ve been at GS and Columbia? How has this impacted your work and what you want to do after you graduate?
My time at Columbia has taught me so much. The gift that is being a GS student within Columbia is immeasurable for many reasons, but what sticks out most in my mind is the incredible diversity of knowledge and experiences that one accumulates here, through the people you meet, the topics you learn about, and the people you learn from. You discover just how small you are in this world and I mean that in the best way!
Understanding what a huge variety of everything there is out there helps you see how there’s no one right way to be a human, which opens up the opportunity to accept yourself and even to love yourself as a result of the uniqueness you bring to the picture. We can all easily fall into circles of people who look, think, and act like us, and that sameness can distract us from the beauty of different perspectives while also making us feel like maybe we don’t fit if we’re not just like everyone around us. I’ve struggled with that my whole life, from the friend circles I had growing up to the modeling industry I’ve spent 20 years in.
I never felt like I fit or had much of anything to offer. Being at Columbia—and especially at GS where being nontraditional is celebrated—showed me that I fit because I am unique and that I have valuable insights and experiences and thoughts to offer. It’s been the biggest gift of my life to be here and I hope to be able to take the changes it’s made in my life and carry them into both my personal and professional careers where I hope to bring lightness and belonging and an understanding of self-worth to others.
Being at Columbia—and especially at GS where being nontraditional is celebrated—showed me that I fit because I am unique and that I have valuable insights and experiences and thoughts to offer.
Speaking of graduation, which is right around the corner, what are you hoping to do after graduating?
I’m both excited and anxious, as I’m sure many of my classmates can relate. I know I want to go to graduate school eventually, as having a therapeutic private practice one day is my ultimate goal, but I know right now is not the best time for that.
I just moved to Idaho as a result of a series of life circumstances and I have been exploring so many unique forms of therapy out here through volunteering, internships, and work on myself. I really want to spend time getting to know these modalities and understand how I might bring them into my own practice one day. For example, I have discovered climbing to be a surprisingly intense, gratifying form of therapy for myself and have been in touch with some groups who are researching its effectiveness as a therapeutic tool and finding some really impressive results! I also have been participating in dance and yoga therapy for differently-abled individuals, as well as equine-assisted therapy.
I also hope to do some work with a group that utilizes white water kayaking as a therapeutic tool for veterans. I believe very much in all the traditional forms of talk therapy but I’m blown away at how bringing those practices into a full-body practice can be exponentially healing, especially for those people for whom traditional therapy might not be the right fit. I want to help people for whom their own mind is their biggest challenge—something with which I can strongly identify.