by Lorraine McCarty
At the Sixth Annual Environmental Science and Design Research Symposium held at Kent State University earlier this year, I was surprised to see a session on fashion. But I learned that fashion as we now know it is not environmentally sustainable and needs help from all involved to influence changes. Noel Palomo-Lovinski, an associate professor in the Department of Fashion Design & Merchandising at Kent State University, spoke passionately about the subject. She stressed that every step in the clothing-production process uses a great deal of the planet’s resources. For example, cotton, which is thought of as a natural fiber, uses enormous amounts of water and chemicals and undergoes intensive washing with more water and with other chemicals.
Then there are many fabrics that are petroleum based. Clothing production creates a lot of carbon dioxide pollution and is rated right behind the oil industry. Most people, said Palomo-Lovinski, don’t know how harmful clothes are to the environment.
People want to spend less money but get more for each dollar, said Palomo-Lovinski. She added it costs more and more to make clothing today, and there also are environmental consequences.
She talked about how customers love all the colors and patterns, but they don’t see the rivers of dyes because most fabrics are manufactured overseas. Those dyes, she said, get on people’s skin when they wear cotton clothes. To make matters worse, all of the chemicals used in the clothing industry do not go away and instead leech into the soil and water. She then stressed the need to be transparent about the process.
Time is irrelevant now in fashion, said Palomo-Lovinski. In two weeks, a new line of fashion can be manufactured and shipped all over the globe. She cited Zara and H & M as doing this. Because the fashion industry is operating at a faster and faster pace, said Palomo-Lovinski, the time people use their clothing also speeds up, further damaging the environment. The problem, she added, is getting worse and worse. Because people want cheap clothing, Palomo-Lovinski explained, it’s often made of inferior fabric and wears out sooner. She showed a picture of a fashions from the 1990s compared to now. They were extremely similar in appearance, so why, she asked, do we need to constantly reinvent the same fashions? All of this leads to an enormous amount of waste, said Palomo-Lovinski.
Clothing ends up in landfills because people don’t process used clothing fast enough. Of the clothing given to Goodwill, for example, 80% of it goes to Central America and Africa, which means that their clothing industry can’t compete. In the end, she noted, much of the donated clothing ends up in both countries’ landfills.
So, what’s the next step for fashion designers? Palomo-Lovinski insisted that the way forward is not to distract from larger issues and feel good temporarily. Fashion designers, she said, need to think about sustainable-product service systems, which would require designers and consumers to do the following:
- Co-design clothing with consumers to get them to hold on to clothing longer.
- Repair clothing yourself, or have the designer change the clothing item for a better fit.
- Take a clothing item back to the original company (For example, Eileen Fischer takes back the company’s clothing and then resells it. The company knows which chemicals were used to make the items and thus can recycle the items appropriately.)
- Upcycle clothing to extend its use.
- Dispose of unwanted clothing appropriately, such as shredding it or reusing it.
- Act globally and think locally, a practice in which collaborative designers focus on economic systems, environmental health and social well-being to influence customers toward a long-term perspective on clothing use.
- Involve the marketing and communications fields in the clothing business.
- Follow best practices, one of which involves localized points of manufacturing where different types of designers for different types of consumers all interact and therefore create a closed loop.
Designers today, said Palomo-Lovinski, are learning about the many issues in the larger world. She added that it is important to think about the designers of today as being at the center of that larger world, which includes marketing, customers, client motivation, a systems mindset and application of technology.
All of these components, said Palomo-Lovinski, overlap to affect environmental health, social well-being, and economics. To continue to be relevant, she added, designers need to focus on the industry’s consequences for the world as a whole. She also suggested that people voice their concern for the effect of the clothing-production process on the environment at the ballot box and with their money (in terms of clothing purchases), which can help motivate companies to be sustainable producers of clothing. “Society today demand a new generation of professionals that can design not only products but systems for living as well,” said Palomo-Lovinski.
While not part of the symposium, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, said during a television interview with Christiane Amanpour (Amanpour & Co., April 8, 2019) that even the high-fashion industry and the manufacturers of top brands are discussing the topic of sustainability. Amanpour talked with Wintour about the criticism the fashion industry has faced for being the second most polluting industry in the world during an existential environmental crisis while at the same time people are buying much more clothing than they ever did but using it for a much shorter amount of time. Amanpouralso referenced Stella McCartney and others who are trying to get people to use less of products such as leather, plastic and fur. Wintour replied that everyone she knows in the industry is aware of not only the disposable economy in fashion and its impact on the environment but also the overall climate crisis. She added that businesses are making five-year plans about what to do to help. “We [along with other industries] have been at fault and [want to do] what can we do in the very short amount of time we have to course correct. . . . It’s an urgency for everybody within the industry. There are organizations like Fair Fashion and others across the globe [working] to see what we can all do to correct it.”
More recently, the Akron Beacon Journal reported on August 23 that used clothing is a new trend, with department stores making room for gently worn outfits in attempts to lure customers away from second-hand clothing stores. J.C. Penny and Macy’s, for example, are piloting a program to set aside one section in select stores for used merchandise sold by ThreadUP. Neiman Marcus, according to the article, was the first big chain to embrace the trend by buying a minority stake in Fashionphile, an online seller of pre-owned designer accessories, and will allow customers to sell pre-owned designer clothing to Fashionphile in Neiman Marcus stores, in the hope that customers will spend the money from those sale at Neiman Marcus rather than elsewhere. The initiative these stores have taken is seen as a response to customers who do not want to see their clothes end up in a landfill. While the resale business is just a small percentage of retail sales, it is growing exponentially and is expected to increase from $24 billion last year to $52 billion by 2023, according to a report by GlobalData produced for ThreadUP.