SU’s fashion design students embrace sustainable practices

Fashion students embrace sustainability

Significant environmental impacts of producing clothing have designers looking for alternatives.
Published: October 14, 2021 | Updated: February 26th, 2022 at 4:37 pm
A model in a green field wears a kimono designed and made by Isabelle Collins. She used recycled cotton sheets and then tie-dyed them using beets and blueberries.
A model wears a kimono designed and made by Isabelle Collins. Collins used recycled cotton sheets and then tie-dyed them using beets and blueberries.

The fashion and garment industry’s system of production ravages the environment, and while it’s hard to imagine the creation of beautiful clothing has such a devastating effect, fashion design students at Syracuse University use their current work to address these pressing issues.

“I think that sustainability has been co-opted as a marketing tool,” says Kirsten Schoonmaker, assistant teaching professor of fashion design. “And when I hear [a fashion brand say] ‘Oh, we’re producing this brand new sustainable fiber,’ I want to know on what parameters is that fiber being evaluated as sustainable.”

There is no one definition to that buzzword. Schoonmaker “complicates the question of sustainability” within her classes to have students define it for themselves and contemplate it in new ways within their class assignments, collections and future work.

Current processes of garment production poison the earth. The entire supply chain, from gathering and cleaning raw materials, creating fabric, dyeing the fabric and transporting garments, is so massive that “the ultimate consumer may have very little understanding or knowledge of just how extensive that network is,” says Schoonmaker. An article by Ngan Le from the Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI) highlights frightening statistics regarding garment production’s effect on the environment:

SU sophomore Nina Chen says she always loved clothing and art, which manifested an interest in fashion at a young age. As a junior in high school in Palo Alto, Calif., she remembers seeing a photo of dead fish in the drained Orathuppalayam Dam in India. All life in the water suffocated due to textile chemicals released into it. Chen then committed herself to changing the fashion industry.

“I have passion and desire to create change, and I could go into this toxic industry and try to change it for the better,” she says.

There are so many layers to the wastefulness of fashion, Chen says it’s a “pick your own problem” industry. The fashion design major hopes to develop quick-to-make, biodegradable textiles that easily recycle into new material or dissolve back into molecules and compounds. Chen’s learned to accept fast fashion, as it’s too popular of a business model to stop.

“As much as I want people to be aware and conscientious and wear the same clothing over and over again for five to ten years, I can’t force them to do that. Then you have to appeal to the consumer market.”

A model wearing clothes designed by Nina Chen of Syracuse University
A model wears an upcycled shirt made out of old ties, designed by Nina Chen.

Schoonmaker reflects on clothing’s plummeting value as more garments are being produced rapidly for cheap with the introduction of the fast fashion business model in companies such as Zara and Topshop.

“We flood our market with product. And so it doesn’t have value, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not consuming water, power and human resources to make that happen.”

The life cycle of a garment doesn’t end when it reaches the hands of the consumer. It’s up to the consumer to decide what they’re going to buy and how they’re going to dispose of the garment when they no longer wear it. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, landfills received 11.3 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) textiles. This was 7.7 percent of all MSW landfilled.

Senior Isabelle Collins, who’s currently studying abroad in London, received a grant through The SOURCE at SU to create a collection through circular and zero waste design processes.

“Through my design process I will not let any materials go to waste, ensure that they are constructed with sturdy and natural naturals that will last a while, like hemp,” she said in an email. “I also am considering consumers’ needs and desires. What pieces do they actually want to buy and like wearing? I launched a survey this summer asking these questions and posted it on social media to help inform my designs.”

Meghan Coy, a junior who’s working toward a B.F.A. in Fashion Design in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, dabbles in upcycling. She transformed a tapestry into a pair of pants and used fabric from old thrift store sweaters to create a new garment for an assignment.

Sophomore Hareeta Printup says she wants to work with natural fibers that have minimal impact on the environment. “I would also like to work with natural dyes that do not involve chemicals,” she says.

Coy wants to take on the challenge of the fashion industry.

“One person can make a difference,” she said. “I think whoever is going to conquer it has to be very resilient and persistent because when you talk about how in the lifecycle of a garment, there are so many different stages and there are so many different types of waste that come out of each stage that’s that’s what makes it very difficult because you do have to think very big picture.”

Schoonmaker says consumers shouldn’t buy into the marketing hype of sustainability. Simply consume less.

“If you don’t need it, just because it’s ‘sustainably produced,’ you still don’t need it. Recognizing that the responsibility for a sustainable clothing system is on all of us and not just the producers. And it’s also not just on the consumers. We are all responsible for intervening in this system. To attach meaning to what we wear. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Care for what you have.”