Students Get Sustainable

What Should Fashion Students Know About Sustainability?

In the shiny era of hypercapitalism, the typical fashion supply chain has never been so labyrinth-like. While many aspiring designers might find the topic painfully dull, NJAL will attempt to recast the phrase "supply chain" beyond its sleep inducing connotations and activate its global cadre of creatives to understand the complex realities of the fashion supply chain's social, ecological and moral impacts in an engaging and informative way. While most NJAL designers fit comfortably inside the trajectory of sustainable fashion, this discussion is about instigating change amongst the next generation of aspiring designers to equip everyone from students to seasoned practitioners with the tools to do more.

There are some basic questions that need answering in a more accessible language. How can a young designer begin to understand where the beginning of the supply chain begins? How can young designers be activated to consider that the mystical supply chain doesn’t just begin from where they source wool, but to how the sheep in question was raised and even what this sheep has eaten? Should a designer be taught that in school—the fact a sheep’s poor diet would mean that they produce brittle wool and thereby require a synthetic addition? These are basic principles, often lost in the labyrinthine totality of highbrow, slow fashion jargon that can isolate the youngest of designers rather than educate them. 

How can a designer learn to tell the sustainability story behind their product and is it imperative? Is sustainability being included enough in design curriculums today? How can designers keep a top of technological innovations and trends in the context of sustainability trends? What are the challenges and how can these challenges become opportunities? These are just some of the questions NJAL has posited to an array of industry impresarios while breaking down the overwhelming, chain-linking components of producing a garment. 

Let's start with the question of whether fashion students today are even aware of the steps required to create the fabrics they pour over? Or the hydra-headed, mammoth distribution network required that delivers apparel to stores all over the world? At NJAL’s 2015 inter-disciplinary showcase in Berlin, where fashion installations were presented alongside a running program of engaging panel discussions, sustainability was a hot topic. Friederike von Wedel-Parlow, who heads up Esmod Berlin’s MA Sustainable Fashion course bluntly said designers are too often guilty of positioning fashion as a dualistic industry, and hardly ever think beyond its concept/commerce equilibrium. “Fashion is a multi-disciplinary industry that connects with so many other industries at its core—whether it's engineering, agriculture, mining...the list is actually endless,” adds Friederike. The supply chain needs clarification, and a simpler mode of communication but its basic principles need to be understood as well.

For many designers, their concept of the supply chain is naively condensed too; farmers farm, weavers weave, dye is applied, cutters cut, sewers sew; before goods are packaged and placed onto pallets and lugged onto cargo ships or packed into air freight. The chain continues through to a garment's arrival at warehouses worldwide before they're transported once again, to physical shops or to those buying online. It might seem like a multiplex system but it's actually a much narrower conception of the broader supply chain at work, which requires millions of people and metric tons of water, chemicals, crops, and oil.

These sidelined elements produce the devastating environmental impact (not to mention the labour and social issues) and these are the mechanisms which collectively turns a designer’s initial sketch into a luxurious, finished object. They're the criminally overlooked components often swallowed up by this over-simplified conception of the supply chain, that when it does attempt to unfold—only ends up alienating the quivering, third-year designer with its serpentine complexity. In a commercial context, the supply chain is shielded with a carefully manicured seal to ensure that the satisfaction of consumer desire remains as frictionless and ironically, as seamless as possible. 

When people think about design, they sometimes isolate it into one tiny step,” said Nica Rabinowitz, a recent Parsons graduate. “They’re not thinking about the manufacturing, or the farm where fabrics came from, and then the process—whether it got woven, or crocheted, and what happens after a customer buys it. How are they going to wear it, how will it wear over time, should I design it so it’s designed for wear over time, or should I put holes in it already? We have to be thinking about the whole system.”

What's the most essential way to communicate this to designers and consumers vaguely interested in the sustainable fashion movement? To try and grapple with the Byzantine backstory of a past denim purchase or directly confront a bleak future with an action plan? Or what about the fact that it all falls under a system we don’t particularly understand and have no meaningful power to take on? A recent US report claims that our current pace of consumption and production, plus consequences of extreme heat, will mean that America’s national commodity crop production, including cotton, could decline by up to 42% by 2100. Changing weather patterns will also affect the traditional retailing calendar, as the seasonality of clothing adapts. It's a very dystopian future but an even more uncomfortable reality.

What about that pair of jeans and its impact in every step of the vast fashion supply chain? Is every discerning consumer aware of its unavoidable environmental consequences? Let's go back to basics; it is made from cotton picked from farms all around the world. The cotton is shipped back and forth across oceans to be made into fabric, then sewn, and dyed. At some stage, the average pair of jeans is treated with a ridiculous number of PFCs, chemicals that make material breathable and stain-resistant, and it's then washed with detergents that contain alkylphenol ethoxylates, yet another hazardous compound. It's a mosaic process that's water-intensive, from its very beginnings in the farm, to the carbon load from all the shipping of the cotton to mills plus the raw denim to factories. It's completely mind boggling to comprehend in its totality. We haven't begun to consider the additional impact of the transport, whether its by boat or train or jet, (or all three) of these jeans to store rails. It doesn't end there, what about the plastic bags they're packaged in, which are promptly trashed after unpacking? Cotton naturally decomposes; but the countless plastics bags as a result of denim production alone litters landfills incessantly.

Denim jeans are just a fraction of the beast at work. From GM cotton to the rights of garment workers, impact of these textiles choices to alternative business models—the fashion industry is riddled with growing challenges that students today have to be informed about, and the ramifications of their choices. Though much of this has be taught, shared and discussed in a more generalised sense—there is only so much information available to guide a sourcing decision. That's why questioning everything is imperative. If you like the look of a particular fabric, then ask the supplier how it was made, how much water and energy was used, how much waste was produced and what chemicals was it treated with. Sarah Ditty, Editor in Chief at Source Intelligence (powered by the Ethical Fashion Forum) says, "the more everyone starts asking these questions, the sooner that suppliers will begin to see the demand for sustainability and ethically made products." There are some ethical production standards that exist such as; Bluesign Certification for environmentally safe dyeing, SAI SA8000 Certification for humane workplace standards, GOTS for organic cotton standard. Designers can research these standards when sourcing factories and they can look to other brands that have met these standards and use the same production systems. Many ethical brands disclose this type of information to the public, so go Google with some track-pad conviction.

Do you know where your fibre of choice was farmed and by who, and how? A logical place to find answers to these questions is by approaching the mills and agents directly, and if they don't know, it's likely because they don't care. Sass Brown is Acting Associate Dean for the School of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and a highly-lauded eco-fashion writer who makes a point of telling students to search out mills that share their sustainability stories, and who go to the trouble of verifying them through third parties and independent research. "It's not enough for an agent to say that a textile is a sustainable material, you also need to understand the processes that different materials go through, in order to make your own decision based on knowledge. 

If you are not sourcing fabric directly from a mill or agent, then you can still surmise a lot from some pretty basic information such as where fibres were produced or picked, giving you some insight into the general standard of living and quality of life norms there," Brown tells NJAL. It seems like a heavy, load of research but developing a knowledge base of and fibre production will help in assessing the impacts. If it's cotton, is it part of the better cotton initiative? Is it organic, or is it GMO for example? Knowing where it was farmed will also give you an insight into who is likely to be picking the fibre, how and under what conditions. If it's synthetic, what is it made from? Where was the fabric finished, where was it spun, woven or knitted, and where was it printed or embellished will also give you an indication of the carbon footprint. 

It's a jungle. Fortunately, there are many great initiatives out there that can guide designers in the right direction. One of them being Fabric Source, a fabric library with +1,000 sustainable fabric samples—all ready to source with a low minimum. The Fabric Source also provides an open database where you can access the information online, for free of charge. Johan Arnø Kryger, Head of Responsible Innovation at the Danish Fashion Institute is firm to dispel the myth of sustainability as complex and inaccessible. Kryger says that, "working with sustainability as a business driver – even in small scale – can both create new opportunities as well as minimise risks. In order to reduce this sense of complexity, NJAL teamed up with the Danish Fashion Institute to launch 'Five Easy Steps'—an online platform with five simple guidelines for designers on how to start working with sustainability. It's one of many tools out there to balance economy, aesthetics, environmental and social impact, and encourage designers to gain knowledge about their supply chain and gain a holistic view of the clothing industry as an interconnected one. Studies have proven that up to 80% of a garment's environmental impact is decided in the design phase. Kryger adds that, "It's only if we know how to affect and interact with the system at large; manufacturers, consumers, media, politicians etc, can we then focus and activate change." 

Sustainability trends are often rooted in technology, and designers are all too often told to keep a top of these new new innovations. Yet, Laura Sansone, Assisttant Professor of Alternative Fashion Strategies at Parsons says these innovations are completley inaccessible to the average student. Sansone tells NJAL that, "Corporations invest a lot of money into the research of innovative production methods for textiles and clothing but often this type of research is competitive and not made accessible to other designers. Corporations often leverage these innovative practices as a marketing tool, rather than sharing them." 

Sarah Ditty, editor-in-chief of Ethical Fashion Forum's SOURCE Intelligence highlights that young designers without many resources shouldn't be overwhelmed by sustainable fashion's facade of lofty textile and material innovation either, as so much textile and material science has come straight from emerging design themselves. This is largely due to the fact that much of these designers lack the resources to shell out on buying fabrics, and turn to hand-me-down fabrics as an unbelievably creative canvas. It’s scary to think that an estimated 400 billion square metres of cloth will be made globally in 2015, and of that, 60 billion square metres will be left on the cutting room floor before any consumer even purchases the garment. The makers of these clothes are invisible to most consumers despite the textile and garment industries being the largest employer on the planet, and that's what should motivate designers. Ditty adds that designers should no longer look at these issues like a constraint; "Designers should think creatively about how they can make the most of existing materials, because it will save them money and give disused materials a new live, which is both good for the environment and makes for really unique products." 

Aspiring designers should start by determining their own values and setting goals for their label. What do you want to stand for? What kind of a world do you want to live in? These are some big questions, but this will set out how you move forward with the business. If you want to be a label that embodies integrity, this may mean you work with certain materials, approaches, factories over others. Ditty recommends that designers starting by doing TED’s TEN, and consulting resources such as The Ethical Fashion Forum which has a wealth of information about social and environmental issues in fashion and how to build sustainability into your daily practice. 

Amidst all of this, the slow fashion movement and sustainable fashion at large is quite literally about slowing down and taking the time to do everything with consciousness. In saying that, any single sustainable process by itself isn’t enough. Timo Rissanen, who is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Fashion at Parsons in NYC talks about how we need to explore zero waste at its intersections with other ways of thinking if we want to truly change the fashion industry. If all garments were made in a zero waste manner but at the same volumes as clothes are made today, this wouldn’t actually be much better. Other things need to done: consumption behaviour needs to be challenged, technology needs developing, and we just need to do things differently. It’s a multi-faceted problem that needs a multi-faceted approach and anyone can start simply by getting into habits such as turning off lights, using energy efficient bulbs, recycling and using natural materials. These are all relatively simple actions, and a way to challenge the top-down model of the industry at large where knowledge has been gate-kept by an elite minority of designers, fashion houses, and academics for far too long.