Síofra Caherty is passionate about sustainability. Her childhood dream was to be a fashion designer. Today, she designs bags from reclaimed materials and leads the way in designing for and advocating a more sustainable future for communities across Ireland: “Sustainability is not about being hippie. It’s massively serious and important. But it’s the same with everything, we only know what we’ve been reared with, so I want to make people aware of the importance of sustainable approaches.”
A south Armagh woman at heart, the dual identities of her homeland are carried lightly. Educated in Dublin, Síofra’s early career included working at Adidas and Levi’s, and feeling like the “ultimate culchie” during an internship in New York. Four years ago, she made Belfast her home: “I want to find ways to help young people learn about sustainability at a grassroots level.”
What is the challenge you’re working to address in Belfast?
I’m in Belfast four years. When I moved here, I was overwhelmed by the number of things that were happening, thinking ‘this is class’. But so many people still have such a negative impression of Belfast that I’ve had a lot of people question me about why I’m here and not in Dublin. Belfast is my community, though. More people are definitely paying attention to sustainability issues here. Full credit to Belfast’s recycling system, because it’s been made very easy to recycle in the city. But we need to get quicker at how we recycle and make people more aware of the human aspect of it all and why it’s important for sustainability. More generally, we’re taught here that we have to engineer everything until there is no creativity left. I lecture part-time and I’m constantly telling my students to “loosen up”. They spend hours drawing something to perfection when they need to have their drawings done in five minutes. Sometimes the things we do quickly, and I heard a good quote from Lisa Hanigan the other day, “before your tea turns cold”, sometimes they’re as good as the things you slave over for hours and hours.
How are you thinking and doing differently?
There are a couple of things. My design business, Jump The Hedges is a big part, where I make a range of bags from reclaimed materials. But it’s also my activism and advocacy around sustainability in general. Jump The Hedges came about because I’d bought a really expensive but badly designed bag for my yoga mat: I knocked coffee out of people’s hands! So I designed a better bag and started to make them from banner material I got from Antrim Council. A couple of things helped shape my thinking around the same time. A Masters in Multidisciplinary Design at Ulster University was an incubator for my business ideas and I read a book, “Cradle to Cradle”, that had a major impact on making me realise that sustainability isn’t just about yoga and vegetarianism but about how we take responsibility for our actions in life. The book is basically about how designers need to look to the end-life of what they’re producing and everyone should read it!
All of my work, both designing and teaching, has become a platform for my activism about educating people about sustainability. I did a Winston Churchill Fellowship looking at how cities are working towards zero waste, and I’m a recycling ambassador for Voice Ireland. That’s had me going round schools, community groups, football clubs down South, just talking to people about recycling and encouraging us all to be aware of our choices. I would love to do that in Belfast. So I’m actively looking at how to create a sustainability education programme based on all of those experiences. Education about sustainability needs to be done from an early age. I obviously do stuff with the University students I teach, but I’d love to be getting to the 6 and 7 year olds!
What will make a Successful Belfast for you?
It needs to be about collaboration, taking each other seriously and treating each other’s work with respect. Everyone’s effort is essential for the eco-system of a city to survive. And, in Belfast, that means there needs to be support for people doing creative things: I would definitely be earning a lot more if I was working full-time in retail. Promoting the people of Belfast who are doing amazing things is really important. I’m constantly meeting people and amazed that they’re doing what they’re doing in Belfast but there’s very often virtually no wider awareness of those efforts. I’d also really love to work with local and central government more to realise some of the sustainability goals, but I’m hesitant because the small interactions I’ve had with them have not been positive or encouraging: people have been quick to say that it’s not in their remit or their responsibility. Basically, I want to do! I believe that if you don’t like something you should change it. We’re sometimes too afraid of failure, too afraid of what people are going to say. But, the beauty of Belfast is the ability to make connections because everyone knows someone who can help. Belfast has this very colourful identity, it’s all a bit mish-mash, and there are lots of crazy things happening. I really like the rough edge of Belfast. It’s a city with a soul, and we need to make sure that it’s a sustainable soul for the future.