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Fashion Is Way Too Much Like ‘Pac-Man’ and That’s Not a Good Thing

For Danielle Azoulay, vice president of sustainability for L’Oreal USA, the video game “Pac-Man” is the perfect metaphor for our current linear make-take-dispose economy.

“Because in a linear system we are gobbling up all the natural resources,” said Azoulay, who also teaches about circularity at Columbia University. “And it’s causing a lot of unintended consequences…externalities like climate change, ocean pollution and food shortages that are major threats to humanity, which, in this metaphor, are the ghosts.”

Azoulay was speaking at The New Fashion Initiative’s (TNFI) “academic consortium,” a recent virtual sit-down that brought together brands, academics and postgraduate students to share insights about fashion design, environmental science and labor rights.

“This is the first platform in the U.S. focused on cross-collaboration and providing access to network and new ideas to creatives who usually work in silos—in this case brands, students and professors,” said Lauren Fay, founder and executive director of TNFI. Bringing together different minds from different backgrounds helps foster a multi-disciplinary approach that nudges the fashion industry toward achieving its sustainable goals “faster, together,” she added.

Indeed, you can’t talk about fashion without discussing its myriad intersections, including slavery, said Jonathan Michael Square, scholar of fashion and visual culture in the African diaspora at Harvard University. “When I talk about my research, people describe it as being ‘niche,’” he said. “But all these issues are foundational to American history and understanding the fashion system.”

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Fashion is about selfhood and autonomy, while slavery is the “opposite of those things,” yet they intersect in interesting ways, he added, noting the historic links brands such as Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. have to “the most American of institutions”: slavery. These issues carry on to the present day. “There are plenty of other companies that continue to profit off the bodies and cultural institutions of non-white bodies,” whether as props or labor, Square said.

Mark Anner, director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and associate professor of labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University, pointed out, for instance, the continued pricing squeeze by brands and retailers on suppliers around the world, as well as the catastrophic economic fallout of cancelled and suspended orders in the wake of Covid-19.

The past offers lessons that are applicable to the present, as well, such as the cultivation of hemp, which will be a focus of the Textile Development and Marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). “We feel that hemp is making a big comeback because it’s more sustainable than cotton,” said professor of textiles Sean Cormier. “But we’ve kind of lost our way as far as hemp goes. It was there in the 1800s, and nobody’s really using it because of its relationship with marijuana.”

FIT is applying for a license so it can grow hemp crops alongside its dye garden on the building’s ninth floor. “We’d like to convert this space to create New York City’s first hemp acreage,” Cormier said. “So that our students can actually see how hemp is grown.” The department plans to create hemp powder, which it’ll spin into hemp fibers using spinneret technology employed in the production of biosynthetics.

Amy Hall, vice president of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher, questioned if brands know what they mean when they say “sustainability,” a term so bandied around it’s been rendered meaningless. “Recycling,” which has been used to describe upcycled, downcycled, recrafted, reclaimed or donated products, too, suffers from the same abuse, she said.

But if you take sustainability at its textbook definition—which is, capable of being sustained—then is it enough? “Or should we really be talking about impact?” Hall said. “How do you know if what you’ve done is having a material difference?”

Eileen Fisher, she said, takes a data-led approach. In the past year, the brand has collected 3,000 more unwanted garments, incorporated 50 percent more organic cotton in its lineup and generated 250 fewer metric tons of greenhouse gases. Doing all this reduced waste, improved soil health and eased the planet’s carbon burden. “That kind of holistic story would be so much more useful than what we are all talking about for the most part,” Hall added.

One subject that attendees repeatedly raised was that the fashion system, as it stands, is broken, but it doesn’t have to be.

“What happens when we place human beings at the center of our design system, across the entire fashion industry?” asked Brendan McCarthy, an assistant professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design at The New School. “What happens when we integrate design and business approaches from different disciplines? What are the possibilities of co-design and how can that help us imagine new futures?”

Students from Parsons, for example, worked with the United Nations to develop absorbent underwear as an alternative to single-use pads for menstruating people in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.“What we realized is that design strategies could be a totally amazing way to reimagine sexual and reproductive health,” McCarthy said.

It’s this kind of cross-pollination and interdisciplinarity that TNFI seeks to encourage and provide a platform for, Fay said.

Before the event, a TNFI jury selected eight graduate students to “win the opportunity” to attend the consortium and present their own areas of study to the other attendees.

Aarushi Kohli, a post-graduate student pursuing an MBA from the London College of Fashion, is examining how Gen Z consumers are responding to fast-fashion retailers that are pushing sustainability as part of their agenda. “What consumers really expect is they want a holistic journey from these high-street fashion brands,” she said.

Issey Gladston, a master of science candidate in nature, society and environmental governance at the University of Oxford, is looking out how digital media affects the public’s understanding of climate change. And Uyen Tran, a textile-material researcher and designer from Vietnam, is working to create a “viable and complete” system of biodegradable material products.

Other speakers included Young Kim, a PhD student in urban planning at Columbia University; Juliana Zaffari, a master’s student in business for social impact and sustainability at Glasgow Caledonian New York College; Nadiya Taziyeva, who is studying women’s wear design at Istituto Marangoni; Jessica Shaver, a master of science candidate in sustainable apparel design at Colorado State University; and Cindy Coroba, a soon-to-be Ph.D. in apparel design at Cornell University.

“We wanted to involve graduate students because they are ambassadors of change in academia,” Fay said. “They have fresh ideas and are challenging the way that sustainability, business design and labor rights are being approached and taught.”

While the goal of the event was to foster future collaborations on research, future iterations of the consortium will broaden the net, she added.

“We certainly value and want to work with undergraduate and non-collegiate thinkers as well,” Fay said. “So definitely stay tuned for the evolution of this programming.”