Can stylists really learn to be sustainable?

Photographic illustration: the cut; Photo: Natasha Mays

In the last few years, sustainability has become an increasingly ubiquitous watchword in the fashion industry. Customers say they want to be ethical consumers, buying vintage and upcycling at Depop. The reform calls itself the most sustainable option besides being bare, while Eileen Fisher has pledged to use “sustainable materials” in 100% of her products. Yet, what sustainability actually means in this context has become increasingly hazy. H&M launched a Conscious 2019 collection that was anything but eco-conscious; ASOS advertised non-recyclable pants as 100% recyclable; and Uniqlo has named a cartoon cat as its global sustainability ambassador, while depriving millions of Vietnamese textile workers in severance pay. Eco-conscious marketing goes so far in an industry responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, rapid deforestation and 60 million tons of plastic waste annually, including microplastics that are released into the ocean and atmosphere every time we wear or wash polyester. Not to mention the human cost of the industry: according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, only about 2% of the world’s 60 million textile workers earn a living wage.

This tension is at the heart of the mind of the next generation of fashion students. Nina Alhadeff, a senior at Barnard College who serves as a consultant to the Columbia Undergraduate Fashion Society, says many of her peers are interested in pursuing “sustainability-related” paths: “Not many people say, I want to work for Dior because I love Dior. And I they want to be part of theirs ESG”- referring to the boards of directors that uphold a company’s ethical criteria, including pollution prevention and labor rights.

Most mainstream fashion programs now offer sustainability courses but address the topic within silos – students take biology and extensive offerings on “ecology and environmental issues” – while neocolonial and human rights issues remain unexplored. . The Slow Factory (called a counter-argument of, say, fast fashion) is a Brooklyn-based school that believes students cannot reduce harm without knowing the full context of the damage caused by industry: “Let’s face the impacts of colonialism. , imperialism and white supremacy on the planet, and how those systems were designed to extract and exploit resources and labor, “says activist and designer Celine Semaan, who founded the virtual non-degree school as a way to offer a free sustainable fashion education to anyone, regardless of educational qualification. The school currently enrolls 28,000 students, from Gen-Z fashion students to boomer scientists, and its program offers everything from more traditional topics like ecological literacy to unlearning Eurocentric beauty standards and fast fashion racism. “An 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 the sustainability literacy classes, students shift their thinking away from Western linear systems – where a garment is produced in an exploitative workshop, worn in the West and later donated, only to be transported to a landfill in the Southern hemisphere – to regenerative circuits, where waste is recycled into the earth. Slow Factory students get in touch with waste recycling by visiting landfills and are encouraged to consider the end of a product’s life before it starts.

Many students say they gravitated around the Slow Factory because they were skeptical or alienated from existing sustainability initiatives in the industry, which often seemed like a green wash – organizations that claimed to be more environmentally friendly than they are – and cultural erasure. “White supremacy and capitalism paint this image of white people who are at the forefront of sustainability, when they are just starting to practice what has already been passed down for generations,” says designer Sayo Watanbe. There is also the problem of accessibility. Since environmentally friendly materials are generally more expensive to produce, clothes marketed as sustainable are often luxuries for the privileged few – for example, a tank top from Reformation costs $ 128, while a sweater from sustainable designer Gabriela Hearst costs nearly $ 2,000. “As a black woman and single parent with 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 now attends classes at the Slow Factory. For the school’s Waste-Led Design challenge, Mays made trench coats with festival curtains for UK landfills, turning them into jacket shells which he filled with old shredded baby clothes. Charlotte Bohning and Mary Lempres, industrial design students at Pratt, created biodegradable charcoal nipple pastries (the Wastie Pastie) from food waste that you can compost after wearing them. And Watanbe reused the mailing envelopes for food delivery to make bags.

However, good intentions only go so far. Recycled material is not necessarily biodegradable or compostable, and some experts suggest that fashion companies need to go beyond 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 the slow fashion if you don’t have the hype of eco-friendly brands like Reformation (which still doesn’t pay 100 percent of its workers a living wage) or Everlane. To actually get sustainable products at competitive prices takes time, and there is always a problem: you can study eco-justice, but you are still working in a field where human rights violations are as ubiquitous as 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 Fashion Institute of Technology’s Sustainability Ambassador, advises students to delve into specific issues, such as water conservation and bio-based fibers. However, it could be a losing battle. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mark an impending climate disaster and we are running out of time to change course. “We can’t buy or innovate to get out of the climate crisis,” says Aditi Desai, who is pursuing a master’s degree from Columbia’s sustainability management program.

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

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