Teen activist Sophia Kianni is trying to make this possible through a new translation initiative.
Teen climate activist and Climate Cardinals founder Sophia Kianni outside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office while demonstrating with Extinction Rebellion.
Photo: Courtesy Sophia Kianni
If you have any interest in the environmental and social impact of your clothing — and the fact that you clicked on this article suggests that you do — think about where that interest started for you.
Was it through a news piece on labor abuse in factories? An Instagram post about how much water it takes to make jeans? A TikTok about fast fashion and microplastics? Whatever it was, the facts in question had to be communicated in a language you understood.
Now imagine that none of the information that’s helped inform your current outlook was available in your language(s). It wouldn’t just bar you from participating in the sustainability community or make it hard to Google the most eco-friendly place to buy your underwear. It might keep you from recognizing the urgency of climate change at all, making it hard to realize that sustainability is worth caring about in the first place.
This scenario isn’t imaginary to teen climate activist Sophia Kianni. As an Iranian-American who grew up visiting extended family in Iran, Kianni was surprised to realize as a kid that the things she was learning about global warming in school weren’t common knowledge for some of her older relatives. This was true even though temperatures in the Middle East are rising twice as fast as the global average, making the issue particularly relevant to Kianni’s family.
“I was in sixth grade and I was talking to my much, much older relatives. For me to have knowledge on the topic when they didn’t was pretty surreal,” she tells Fashionista on the phone from her home in Virginia. “I set about trying to educate them. But I realized there was a lack of information available in Farsi about climate change.”
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Kianni’s solution was to work with her mom to translate some information into Farsi, which could then be shared with her family members. But the experience revealed a problem that goes far beyond Kianni’s kin. Climate change is the greatest challenge that’s ever faced humankind, and it will require extraordinary collaboration across the globe to address it. That level of international coordination is unlikely to happen if information about the crisis is hard to come by for those who don’t speak the languages most climate change literature is printed in.
As she advanced through middle school and high school, Kianni’s interest in climate change prompted her to join groups like Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future and Zero Hour to get more involved in activism. But the niggling feeling that whole swaths of people were being left out of the movement simply because they weren’t born into English-speaking nations wouldn’t leave her alone.
Jane Fonda and Sophia Kianni posing together at a Fridays for Future demonstration on Black Friday, which Kianni helped organize.
Photo: Courtesy Sophia Kianni
“I felt like the climate movement as a whole wasn’t doing enough to cater to people like my relatives who didn’t speak English, because all of the content we produced, all the people we talked to, they were all English-speaking,” she says. “I thought that was a shame because we’re definitely ignoring a large sector of the population.”
This summer, as the 18-year-old graduated from high school, she decided to do something about it. She started a nonprofit called Climate Cardinals out of her parents’ house that recruits volunteers from all over the world to translate information about climate change into a host of languages.
So far, over 5,500 volunteers have signed up to translate information into more than 100 languages, and the nonprofit has started partnerships with two larger translation-focused organizations, Translators Without Borders and Respond: Crisis Translation. Climate Cardinals is also partnering with media companies to disseminate information once it’s translated. Radio Javan, a Persian radio station Kianni grew up listening to that has a reach of 11 million, is just one example she’s particularly excited about.
Many of the Climate Cardinals translators are Kianni’s peers — the average age is 16 years old — who have found themselves suddenly without opportunities to get job, internship or service experience as they graduate into a pandemic-altered world. (She says that Climate Cardinals’s TikTok call for volunteers has been viewed over 300,000 times.)
And while the nonprofit is translating a whole range of climate crisis-related information, Kianni’s personal interest in fashion meant it was an obvious place to start. Like many people her age she doesn’t have unlimited funds to spend on “sustainable” brands, but shopping secondhand on sites like Depop and Mercari has become her go-to. She found Condé Nast’s recently-released Sustainable Fashion Glossary while browsing sustainable fashion sites online, and thought it provided a “great up-to-date explanation of the climate emergency.”
Fashion, in other words, provided her with an accessible way into the world of climate change education.
“It wasn’t too difficult or technical,” she says. After discussing it with her team, they agreed it should be the very first assignment for Climate Cardinals volunteers. “We thought it was something that would be easier for them to dip their toes into.”
Kianni thinks fashion can provide a starting point for people just beginning to learn about climate change.
Poto: Cheryl Crim/Courtesy of Sophia Kianni
When asked how she feels about doing this labor for free for a large multinational corporation like Condé Nast that could theoretically afford to pay people to make such information more accessible, Kianni admits that it’s a problem — but it’s not contained to the Condés of the world. She was recently named the youngest member of the UN’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, and she says that even the UN could improve in this area.
“They are the biggest example of a global entity, and yet even they don’t do a great job of translating,” she says. “They only translate into the six UN languages, which I think is honestly kind of absurd with things like the IPCC report — that’s relevant to everyone in the world. So I don’t know why, with their vast resources, they haven’t put more thought and effort and energy into translating.”
The report she referenced was the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, which communicated that the world needs to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees of warming to avoid disastrous impacts. And though official UN scientist communications might seem more weighty than a glossary put out by a fashion media company, Kianni’s point about both comes down to one thing: the importance of people’s ability to educate themselves. That applies both to climate science and to buying clothes thoughtfully.
“I really wish people did more research,” she says of the latter. “I don’t think it ever hurts to Google a company and make sure they use ethical labor, or that they’re mindful of their emissions, or that they’re taking measures to be more eco-conscious and sustainable.”
But that leads her back to her main argument — that there needs to be researchable material for people to find in languages they speak and understand in the first place. Beyond translating climate change materials from English to other languages, she’s also mobilizing her network of volunteers to search for climate change info that may already exist in their language so that it can be gathered in one place, making it easier to find for native speakers.
To that end, her plan is to keep running Climate Cardinals as she starts college online this fall, and she hopes to find a way to turn this extracurricular activity into a full-time career. As much as she loves fashion, there’s nothing she finds more aspirational than being able to make a positive impact on the world.
“It is not accessible to assume everyone in the world speaks English, especially when you’re dealing with an issue as big as climate change,” she says. “We should be trying to reach as big a portion of the population as possible.”
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