Brittany Dickinson and Abby Calhoun Take On Waste Reduction in Fashion
Brittany Dickinson, Part-time Lecturer at Parsons School of Fashion and Abby Calhoun, Project Coordinator at the Healthy Materials Lab, are taking on waste reduction in fashion through their research, studies, and programming at The New School. They answered our questions about waste and fashion, its impact on the environment, and actions individuals can take to reduce waste in their own fashion choices.They will also be holding a clothing swap event at The New School on October 4 called Discover. Connect. Swap!: A Fashion Reuse EventQ: What led you to being interested in reducing waste in fashion? Brittany: As a clothing designer, I’ve recognized for quite some time that many aspects of the design process are extremely wasteful; however, I did not fully understand the impact of this waste until I took a year off from designing to go to grad school to study design criticism. Given the nature of my program, you could say I started to view the industry from a much more critical and skeptical angle than I ever had before. For my thesis research, I consumed every text I could find about environmental and social issues in fashion, and I focused on ways to build sustainable thinking into the design process.Abby: My interest in reducing fashion waste comes from a combination of professional and personal experiences in (or closely to) the fashion industry, such as working in fashion immigration law, writing for a fashion blog, and working backstage at New York Fashion Week shows. All of these experiences led me to dig beyond the glitz and glamour typically associated with fashion to learn more about what's really going on to prop up the multibillion-dollar industry. My initial interest was in the human and labor aspects, and it didn't take me long to find stories like the collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh in 2013. My personal research soon uncovered the environmental impacts of fashion, which I continue to explore in the Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management here at The New School.Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in waste reduction in fashion? Brittany: The biggest challenge is that waste is built into the design process. Fashion design is a visual and tactile profession. We need to touch fabric and we need to see physical prototypes to get a sense for proportion and functionality. We often need to go through several rounds of fabric submits to achieve a desired color or handfeel, and multiple rounds of full garment samples to reach the perfect fit. Testing many ideas and editing them down is an essential part of the design process, which results in a lot of waste, particularly in terms of textiles. In fashion, there is currently not a widespread system in place for recycling textiles, and unfortunately it also comes down to the bottom line: If it’s more financially viable for a company to throw textiles away then to recycle them, then they will. The problem also lies within the fabric mills who set high minimums for fabric orders; this results in a lot of leftover fabric which often does not get used because designers quickly move onto the next color, the next print, etc. This is because of the constant pressure in the fashion industry to immediately move onto the next thing after completing a collection. The result is the production of more and more clothes, often purely for the sake of making more clothes. It is this mentality that makes it very easy to create, consume, and discard, and against the grain to hold onto a product forever. And of course more and more clothing inevitably leads to more and more waste from the consumer standpoint.Abby: The biggest challenges I see are from my perspective as a consumer. As consumers, we have all the power- the market will eventually follow our lead, so we have to break the habits that are being forced upon us by industry. Reducing waste in fashion will require major behavioral shifts by individual consumers, not only in the ways we discard old clothes but also in the way we consume fashion in the first place. This is particularly challenging in the face of the messaging we're inundated with from industry, telling us to buy more, buy faster, and buy cheaper. As consumers of fashion we're wasting more because we're consuming more, so the challenge becomes shifting behavior to break that consumption cycle.