How Four Fashion Design Schools are Teaching Sustainability

, Fashion

The issue of sustainability as it relates to fashion is nothing new. Wasteful production methods, harmful fabric dyes, and the fast fashion model have all been topics of discussion in regard to the effects they have on the environment for decades. But in recent years, the dialogues surrounding the issue have become increasingly serious among designers and consumers alike. Considering fashion is one of the top two polluting industries in the world, second only to oil, such conversations have never been more pertinent or urgent. “Fashion is getting away with murder,” declared sustainable design magnate Stella McCartney at a panel discussion at the London College of Fashion held last year. “There needs to be more systems in place, more vigorous testing, and as a customer you can do that, you can challenge the people who are making your fashion.”

More and more, consumers are doing just that. “People are becoming increasingly aware of who is making their clothes, where they are being made, and how they are being made,” explains Shannon Cooney, a 21-year-old senior at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology whose thesis collection centers on sustainable skiwear. “If we all just took a second to ask ourselves, Why is this garment so cheap? Who made it? Are they being paid well? Then we can help change the business of fast fashion.” This method of thinking isn’t uncommon among American fashion design students. In fact, after speaking with professors and students from four of the most prominent design schools in the country — Parsons, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and the Savannah College of Art and Design — we discovered that sustainability is intrinsically woven into all of their fashion design programs, though some more than others.

FIT senior Shannon Cooney with a piece from her senior thesis collection. Shannon is working on creating sustainable skiwear out of e-textiles that can be programmed to display certain prints or patterns that are chosen via a corresponding App.

“At Parsons, we really want our approach to sustainability to be holistic — we don’t want sustainable design to be just a niche subject you can study, but a part of fashion as a whole,” explains Brendan McCarthy, who serves as an assistant professor of fashion at the school. “We want sustainability to go beyond these superficial ideas dealing only with materials,” he continues, adding that the sourcing, dyeing, and creation of textiles only make up the tip of the problem’s iceberg. “We’re looking at it from a systems perspective and are asking students to think critically. We’re asking them to design each part of the process, not just the outcome.” Brendan believes that if students can do that, their design processes will then automatically not only promote sustainability within fashion, but within the human rights sector as well.

Parson’s student Valerie Grapek is working on a collection of menswear designed with womenswear characteristics like closures on the backs of garments, pocketless pants and sheer fabrics. She wants men to understand what it feels like to get dressed as a woman when so many garments are not the most practical or comfortable. Valerie sources her fabrics for the collection by using Kering’s environmental profit and loss methodology, which ensures the fabric she buys is of good quality but has low environmental impact.

Kendall Warson with pieces from her movement, The Kellektiv.

Take, for example, the thesis project of Parsons senior Kendall Warson, titled The Kellektiv. “It is a movement that aims to denormalize body violence by empowering young women to speak up about it and connect with one another through fashion,” she says. To boil it down to the basics, young women are encouraged to share their stories about bodily harm through clothing by providing a garment that has symbolic meaning to them, which is then reassembled with other pieces of clothing from fellow young women, and given back. Other individuals who want to support the movement can donate T-shirts, which are converted into ribbons that are used for the reconstruction of the garments. “The system grows a collective consciousness and encourages collective advocacy in private and public spheres through sharing, giving, exchanging, and reassembling existing garments,” explains Kendall, adding that it also employs closed-loop fashion.

While Parsons takes an exceptionally deep approach to sustainability, SCAD, FIT, and FIDM all heavily weave the topic into their fashion courses as well, proving that it’s truly becoming a normalized and almost expected practice for designers to incorporate into their brands. Across all four of the institutions, sustainable textile sourcing and creation and sustainable production methods are covered.

At SCAD, there is a heavy emphasis on zero- or low-waste practices. “One of the most dynamic exercises we do is take our students to the local Salvation Army so they can see the vast amounts of cast-off clothes that are donated each month, understand how many are resold, and then recognize how much is still left,” says Michael Fink, the dean of the School of Fashion. “The amount of clothes that are not sold each month is staggering. And, that’s just in Savannah.” Students are then encouraged to up-cycle — or repurpose — such garments and reconstruct them into their own masterpieces. Zero-waste pattern techniques, which produce little to no waste material, are also a focus. “We have to change,” states Michael. “The amount of resources used to manufacture even a T-shirt is astounding.”

Seeing as California is the denim capitol of the country, FIDM, which has campuses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, and San Diego, ensures sustainable efforts specifically pertaining to denim are a core part of its curriculum. The school even offers a new major called The Business of Denim, focused on developing denim product lines through green processes and technologies. Each quarter, they also offer free lunchtime lectures with a focus on denim and its relationship with the environment. “Denim is a preferred market for many of our graduates,” explains Barbara Bundy, vice president of education. “It’s also a prominent market developing and promoting more sustainable practices, from growing cotton to engineering yarn and fabrics.”

FIDM also hosts special exhibits featuring green textiles and raw materials through its library and in its textile science classes, and invites industry experts who are conducting research to make fashion more eco-friendly to speak at the school. “But raw materials only contribute to one aspect of sustainability,” Barbara points out. “We also concentrate on how to be more efficient during product development by reducing the number of prototypes made, and address supply chain management and product distribution practices as well.”

As indicated earlier by skiwear designer Shannon, FIT also takes a holistic approach to going green, both in and out of their classrooms. “Sustainability has become an absolute priority at FIT,” says Asta Skocir, an associate professor in fashion design. “It is infused at all levels of the college, from the physical campus to the curriculum. In fact, it is now included in FIT’s mission statement.” The New York–based school boasts a number of student-run initiatives, including a natural dye garden, where vegetation for plant-based dyes is grown; a muslin composting system, which properly recycles unwanted cotton fibers; and soon-to-be-installed beehives, which will live on FIT’s green roofs and help mitigate the decline of the honeybee population. Last year, a team of FIT design students won the nationwide BioDesign Challenge by creating a material derived from kelp called BioYarn. “Most of our team members do not come from science backgrounds, but rather from design backgrounds, and we were eager to learn and experiment with biomaterials,” says senior Aleksandra Gosiewski. “Kelp is such an ideal resource from a sustainability perspective,” adds Aaron Nesser. “It is one of the fastest-growing organisms on earth. We imagined how such an incredibly sustainable fiber source could eventually change the industry.”

FIT Senior Aleksandra Gosiewski with pieces from her senior thesis collection, which centers on knitwear inspired by the appearance and function of skin. It is composed of natural fibers including mohair, alpaca and wool. The animals that produce these fibers are usually shorn twice a year and are not harmed in the process.

Although we have a long way to go, it’s clear that the environment is increasingly becoming a priority in the fashion world, thanks in part to institutions like those mentioned above ingraining the role sustainability needs to, not should, play in creating clothing. “Fashion schools most definitely have a responsibility to commit to embracing it simply because it’s the right thing to do,” says Barbara. “It will always be changing and demanding new strategies, techniques, and perspectives from every individual in the global community.” Seems like green might be the new black.