Can fashion designers really learn to be sustainable?

Photo-Illustration: The Cup; Photo: Natasha Mays

During the last years, sustainability has become an increasingly ubiquitous buzzword in the fashion industry. Customers say they want to be ethical consumers, buying vintage and upcycling on Depop. The Reformation is called the the most durable other option than to be naked, while Eileen Fisher is committed to using “sustainable materials” in 100% of its products. Yet what sustainability actually means in this context has become increasingly nebulous. H&M launched a 2019 Conscious collection that was anything but eco-conscious; ASOS non-recyclable pants advertised as 100% recyclable; and Uniqlo appointed a cartoon cat as its global sustainability ambassador while depriving the Vietnamese garment workers millions in severance pay. Eco-conscious marketing doesn’t go that far in an industry responsible for 10% of the global market carbon dioxide emissionfast Deforestationand 60 million tons of Plastic waste per year – including microplastics that are released into the ocean and atmosphere every time we wear or wash polyester. Not to mention the industry’s human cost: according to the Clean Clothes campaign, only around 2% of the world’s 60 million people garment workers earn a living wage.

This tension is on the minds of the next generation of fashion students. Nina Alhadeff, a Barnard College senior who is an advisor to the Columbia Undergraduate Fashion Societysays that many of his peers are interested in following “sustainable development” paths: “Few people say, I want to go to work at Dior because I like Dior. It is: I want to be part of their ESG— refers to governance boards that respect a company’s ethical criteria, including pollution prevention and labor rights.

Most mainstream fashion programs now offer courses in sustainability, but approach the subject within silos – students take biology and general offerings on “ecology and environmental issues” – while issues of neocolonialism and human rights remain unexplored. The slow factory (named as a counter-argument to, say, fast fashion) is a Brooklyn-based school that believes students can’t reduce harm without knowing the full context of industry harm: “We address the impacts of colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy on the planet, and how these systems were designed to extract and exploit resources and labour,” explains the activist and designer Celine Semaan, who founded the No-Degree Virtual School to provide free, sustainable fashion education to everyone, regardless of academic qualifications. The school currently has 28,000 students, from Gen-Z fashion students to boom scientists, and its curriculum offers everything from more traditional subjects like eco-literacy to unlearning Eurocentric beauty standards and racism to fast mode. “Open education is what they won’t teach you in school,” says Semaan. “In real life, you can’t omit human life when you talk about climate justice. This is not how our ecosystem works. During sustainability literacy classes, students move their thinking away from linear Western systems – where a garment is made in a sweatshop, worn in the West, then donated, then transported to a Global South dump — regenerative loops, where waste is recycled back into the earth. Slow Factory students learn about waste recycling by visiting landfills and are encouraged to consider a product’s end of life before it begins.

Many students say they turned to the Slow Factory because they were skeptical or alienated by existing sustainability initiatives in the industry, which often looked like greenwashing – organizations selling themselves as more environmentally friendly. environment they – and to a cultural erasure. “White supremacy and capitalism paint this picture of white people at the forefront of sustainability, as they are just beginning to practice what has already been passed down for generations,” the designer says. Sayo Watanbe. There is also the issue of accessibility. Because environmentally friendly materials are generally more Dear to manufactureclothes marketed as durable are often luxuries for the privileged few – for example, a camisole to Reform costs $128, while a sweater by a sustainable designer Gabrielle Hearst is nearly $2,000. “As a black woman and single mother on government benefits, I’m not the target market for brands that create truly sustainable fashion. I wanted to find my tribe,” says Natasha Mays, a former London College of Fashion student who is now taking classes at Slow Factory. For school Waste-centric design challenge, Mays made trench coats from festival tents bound for the UK dumps, turning them into jacket shells that she stuffed with shredded old baby clothes. Charlotte Bohning and Mary Lempres, industrial design students at Pratt, created biodegradable charcoal pasties (the Wastie Pastie) from food scraps that you can compost after wearing them. And Watanbe salvaged food delivery envelopes to make handbags.

However, the good intentions do not go further. Recycled materials are not necessarily biodegradable or compostable, and some experts suggest fashion companies need to go further than just using recycled materials to truly reduce emissions from textile factories, which account for 76% of a garment’s carbon footprint. It’s also hard to scale slow fashion if you don’t have the hype of eco-giants like Reformation (who still don’t pay 100 percent of its workers living wage) or Everlane. To obtain products that last up to competitive prices takes time, and there’s always a catch: you can study eco-justice, but you’re still working in a field where human rights violations are ubiquitous like Shein crop tops.

Instead of getting lost in buzzwords or vague idealism, model Amber Valletta – who has been involved in sustainability activism since 2014 and was recently named the Fashion Institute of Technology’s sustainability ambassador — advises students to focus on specific issues, such as water conservation and bio-based fibers. Still, it can be a losing battle. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change point to impending climate catastrophe – and we’re running out of time to change course. “We can’t buy or innovate out of the climate crisis,” says Aditi Desai, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia’s sustainability management program.

Professor Barnard Anne Higonnet, who teaches a seminar on clothing, wonders if what could have the most impact for students is a change in value from the current culture of waste, where we buy more clothes than ever but never keep them long. For their final assignment, Higonnet students write essays on clothing memories, whether it’s putting on a deceased relative’s sweater or a dress that gives them confidence. “They think about how many precious memories they have associated with the clothes,” Higonnet says. It makes them more likely to think of a wardrobe as something that’s meant to last a long time — and something that should be designed for.

About Carl Schroeder

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