Stories that are part of the “Green at UC” series have been contributed in part by the University of Cincinnati environmental reporting class.
Clare Wilker is a second-year student in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) fashion program at the University of Cincinnati (UC), the owner of saveyourselffashion and an environmental activist. The basis of her work is sustainability, specifically the repurposing of clothes and materials through upcycling – the process of transforming wasted materials into something unique and of higher quality. Wilker not only utilizes her social media platform to promote her small business but also to bring attention to environmental and social justice issues.
“I wanted it to be a platform to get customers passionate about making sustainable choices as a consumer,” Wilker said. “I’m trying to incorporate artistic creation with sustainability.”
Wilker packages everything with recycled newspapers and linoleum prints for stamps, making her company as zero-waste as possible.
Each day, people throw on t-shirts and jeans every morning without thinking about the large amounts of water, energy and, in some cases, slavery that went into it. Modern college fashion programs like DAAP are helping prepare students for the changing industry, world and climate.
Fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon emissions and about a fifth of plastic waste globally, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Not only that, but most modern textiles rely heavily on petrochemical products that come from many of the same oil and gas companies driving greenhouse gas emissions themselves. This is the second largest polluter, only behind oil. That is a bigger footprint than aviation and shipping combined.
Additionally, the production of clothing itself takes up tons of gallons of water – around 79 billion cubic meters of water a year to be exact, according to a recent study from Florida State University – and is extremely energy intensive.
Zarah Boiarski, a second-year fashion student, has made a conscious effort to make sure her projects coincide with her values by incorporating sustainable design. “For all of my projects, I try to use muslin scraps that I’ve saved from the SFI closet,” Boiarski said.
The closet she refers to was created by the Sustainable Fashion Initiative (SFI), a student-led group in UC’s fashion program dedicated to making DAAP and its students more environmentally aware. One of their main projects has been the SFI waste closet, where students can recycle fabric and scraps leftover from previous projects.
“It’s huge in itself to see just how much we’re wasting, and to imagine a company hundreds of times larger than we are.” says Zachary Hoh, the fashion design program coordinator and an associate professor of practice at UC DAAP.
Hoh said sustainability practices are becoming more and more prevalent in the fashion industry. “A lot of opportunity is within the digital space,” said Hoh, referring to the 2D and 3D pattern-making and modeling softwares that DAAP is implementing.
Programs like CLO, the primary 3-D garment-modeling software used in the program, refine product designs before bringing them into the physical space. “Instead of making a paper pattern, cutting it out and sewing it up to test the aesthetics of the design on a mannequin, we can model those things three dimensionally to avoid useless waste,” Hoh said.
DAAP students like Wilker and Boiarski are using this technology to ensure sustainable creation. “My biggest focus is on reconstruction of used materials and zero-waste pattern making,” Boiarski said.
For her current and future projects, she plans to make everything screen printed, making multiple garments out of each fabric and using the scrap fabric for accents and embellishments. “It’s about making sure everything has a function,” she said.
Like Wilker, Boiarski has also found passion in both the world of fashion and environmentalism and wants to help both worlds coexist with one another.
But the fast fashion industry creates major obstacles to preventing environmental and human rights issues. An estimated 97% of our garments come from overseas, predominantly Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam. Through outsourcing supply chain factories, numerous labor rights are being violated in developing countries. More than 40 million workers are exhausted at the expense of faster output for large corporations.
Documentaries like “The True Cost,” released in 2015, depict the lives of low-wage workers in developing countries. “After watching that, it really opened up my eyes to just how harmful this industry can be,” Wilker said.
The film describes in brutal detail how the monopoly used by seed companies causes an increase in the price of cotton, leading to increased suicides among farmers, who lose their land to these companies because they cannot pay the higher seed prices. As many as 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves in the last 15 years because of this issue. “It’s literally killing people, pretty terrifying,” Wilker said.
The evolution of consumerism, especially in the United States and other first-world countries, is a large contributor to the unsustainability of the fashion world. “I think it would definitely be interesting to focus the solution to these problems around buying for instant gratification versus for longevity,” Hoh said.
Consulting firms like McKinsey and the World Economic Forum estimate the number of garments produced each year has more than doubled since the year 2000. Studies have shown people throw out clothing after wearing it just seven to ten times, an alarmingly short life span. The amount of clothes being churned out is higher than ever, while the amount of time they are worn is short, creating a potent mix. “People either need to be comfortable thrifting their entire closet, or comfortable with having a smaller closet,” Wilker said. “In the end, this issue is rooted in the capitalism and consumerism that envelopes this country.”
“People want to be on top of every trend, and they’re changing from day to day,” Boiarski said. “Instead of going to the thrift store, they can go online and get it almost immediately.”
In 2019, a group of researchers from Stanford and MIT conducted an experiment that found that while pleasure kicks in just from the act of window shopping, there’s a specific dopamine hit in purchasing and even more specifically in getting a bargain. This could explain why fast fashion is becoming so popular: its appeal is rooted in neurology.
Much like social media, shopping has a highly addictive presence. “Our generation especially has learned to base our worth from whether or not we look like people on Tik Tok, or Instagram,” Wilker said. “If you’re convinced that next purchase will make you beautiful or happy, why wouldn’t you make it?”
With these environmental issues becoming more prevalent, so are issues like greenwashing, which occurs when companies make a false claim that their products or services are environmentally friendly or affect the environment less than they actually do. Numerous fast fashion companies have been under fire in recent years for getting caught in greenwashing scandals.
There is some hope for the future of the fashion industry. There are more and more companies coming out with creative ways to make fashion more sustainable. From recycling plastic bottles into PET (polyethylene terephthalate) fabrics to shredding and respinning garments into yarns that can then be re-knit into a new garment. Companies like Patagonia use 100% renewable energy in every stage of the supply chain, using organically grown cotton and recycled materials for their clothing. “If every clothing company operated as they do, the industry would be in a much different, and a much better place,” Wilker said.
While the root of these issues does lie in the flawed industry itself, consumer behavior makes a huge impact. Not machine washing and drying clothes as often has the potential to reduce emissions by half. Only about 13% of clothing ends up being recycled, while the other 87% ends up incinerated in a landfill somewhere.
This would be the kind of impact Wilker hopes to make with her own business. “I wanted to give my community the same trendy clothes for the same price, so that it would be easy to make that decision,” Wilker said. “Instead of putting your money into a garment that will last a couple months and then tear. The problem always comes back to how much we are buying. You can do everything in a sustainable way, but if we buy that item over and over again, there’s still going to be an environmental impact.”