Like a lot of 8-year-old girls, Maya Penn was all about fashion. Unlike most 8-year-old girls, however, she had an idea to change the industry rather than just buy from it.
With a dad who won NASA awards for solar energy projects and a mom who loved to garden, Maya was always encouraged to be eco-conscious. When she decided to start her own clothing line, she knew she wanted it to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
Of course, like any savvy businessperson, Maya recognized this meant doing a lot of research first.
"I did a lot of research about fashion and the environment and how the fashion industry has such a negative impact," Maya explains.
In fact, she learned the fashion industry is the second largest planet-wide polluter, right behind oil.
In order to shrink her clothing line's carbon footprint, Maya first began creating her own designs using vintage clothes she had around the house.
My newest vintage finds are now available for purchase on mayasideas.com!! ✨💕 Just click on the Vintage section! 👗💎 . . . . . . . . . . . . #vintage #vintagedress #vintagefashion #ecofashion #ecochic #vintagejewelry #sale #vintagestyle #vintageshop #vintageclothing #vintagestore #vintagesale #womensfashion #fashion #fashionista #clothing #dress #dresses #jewelry #buyvintage #cute #mayasideas
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"I love vintage so much," says Maya. "Every piece has its own story to tell you."
It's also a great way to repurpose cool fashion, which means you're not using energy to make it or creating waste.
"I thought, let me try something different that won't create as much of a strain on the planet," Maya recalls.
Once she'd amassed a number of revitalized vintage pieces, Maya opened her own store on Etsy. It didn't take long for her to get noticed. After all, how many 8-year-olds are running a fashion line — and an eco-friendly one at that?
The buzz around her store snowballed, and by the time she was 10, Maya had been featured in a number of publications.
Maya in Essence Magazine. All photos via Maya Penn, used with permission.
Naturally, that led to a huge spike in sales, so she decided to start her own website. By herself.
Since she's a "bit of a techie," Maya decided to learn how to code and construct her own website. She called it Maya's Ideas. The end result was more than Maya could've ever hoped for.
Once it was clear she's a wunderkind of many talents, Maya was asked to speak at a number of tech organizations, including Google and IBM. She's also the youngest woman to give back-to-back TED Talks — in fact, her latest is one of TED’s official top 15 TEDWomen Talks of all time.
Mind you, this is all before she turned 20.
Despite all this early notoriety, Maya's not taking her eyes off her main goal — to offset the environmental impact of fashion. That's why she started consulting with major brands on eco-friendly practices.
creating environmental awareness has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember, before I started my eco-fashion brand in 2008, I was always creating new initiatives and projects surrounding giving back to the planet, protecting our ecosystems, and reducing waste and pollution locally and globally. everyone can make an impact, every action big and small makes a difference. being conscious about the impact we have on our planet is now more than ever a vital necessity. #tbt to my feature in @grist in 2014! go support at grist.org and get one of these awesome “I cared about the climate before it was hot” shirts ✌🏽
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The fashion industry is starting to move in an eco-friendly direction largely because consumers are becoming more and more conscientious. However, there's still an accessibility issue — either eco-friendly products aren't available locally, or they're too expensive for the average consumer. Maya is helping brands tackle this by showing them how she's made it work on the boutique level.
Along with the recycled vintage materials she initially used, Maya creates fashion pieces from 100% organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo. She's always working on fabric production methods to make her carbon footprint even smaller. What's more, she sends 10% of all her profits to local and global charities and environmental nonprofit organizations.
Needless to say, she's on the cutting edge of eco-fashion (pun intended).
And she hasn't stopped there. Maya also has an ongoing project where she designs eco-friendly sanitary pads for people in developing countries.
Maya's eco-friendly sanitary pads.
It's just one aspect of her nonprofit, Maya's Ideas 4 the Planet.
"Many [people] don’t have access to [sanitary pads]," Maya explains. "It prevents their ability to work and get an education for days out of every month." Not only are the pads organic and durable — they're washable and biodegradable.
Anyone else thinking this girl is a real-life superhero?
After working 10-plus years in eco-friendly fashion, Maya's still finding new ways to advocate for sustainability. But her mission is about more than the environment now.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Photo Via Roosevelt Skerrit/Flickr.
"I think now more than ever people are starting to realize that environmental issues are human rights issues as well," explains Maya.
Climate change is already affecting the human race on a massive scale. Just this past year, there have been a monumental amount of catastrophic weather phenomena that devastated entire island chains, inspiring a new and terrifying term — climate refugees.
While that may sound overwhelming, thankfully there are brilliant young people out there like Maya who are working tirelessly to help clean up our act and slow the change.
That said, she can't do it alone.
The next time you want to pick up a new outfit, try looking for eco-friendly brands, or head to your local secondhand store and hunt for an awesome vintage piece. It's one fashion-forward way you can do your part to protect the world we call home.