When Noël Palomo-Lovinski, MFA ’09, professor and associate director of the School of Fashion, began designing clothes in the 1990s, few in the industry were talking about sustainable fashion. Now, she teaches a course on sustainable concepts and practices in the fashion industry, which is often cited as the second largest polluter after fossil fuels.

“Once you start thinking about the connections between fashion and the environment, you realize how much of an influence designers have on the industry and all the various connected aspects,” Palomo-Lovinski says. “And you begin to see that designers need to design differently. As an industry, we are so atrociously unsustainable there’s not a single part of the supply chain right now that does not contribute to climate change.”

Some consumers focus on the type of material, thinking that buying only natural fabrics and avoiding synthetics is more environmentally friendly. But there are pros and cons to every choice. It’s not just the difference between polyester or cotton, which are the two most popular fibers. 

“If we did it right, you could indefinitely recycle a synthetic fiber,” Palomo-Lovinski says. “Plastic bottles could become sweatshirts, which could become packaging and then perhaps turned back into plastic bottles. We need to think about how we can extend the life of a material so that we no longer rely on digging up fossil fuels.

“Relying too heavily on natural fibers, we run the risk of exacerbating the problems inherent in producing those textiles. The cotton plant leaches nutrients out of the soil, which then requires more nitrogen and chemicals to be applied. That pollutes the water. Cotton is also a monocrop, which means it excludes other plants from growing easily. Many natural fabrics are coated with finishes that are essentially plastic. There are just a lot of different problems.”

“We’ve put this [clothing] out into the world, we need to make sure we know what becomes of it.”

Water is used throughout the textile production process—spinning, dyeing, printing and finishing fabrics. But some of the most intensive water and energy use occurs once a consumer brings a garment home. Many laundry soaps contain pollutants. Laundering synthetic fibers releases microplastics into the water. Modern washing machines and detergents do a perfectly good job of cleaning clothes with cold water, while hot water consumes more energy and wears the fabric out more quickly. And where do our cast-off clothes often end up? In landfills, where plastics take 500 years to decompose while leaching chemicals into the soil. 

“I teach my students that the designer has a responsibility to know where clothing is going after it leaves our hands and gets to the customers,” Palomo-Lovinski says. “We have a responsibility to follow it all the way through. We’ve put this out into the world, we need to make sure we know what becomes of it.”

While there are several industry governance organizations gathering metrics on water and energy use and making efforts to systematically reduce the impact, ultimately consumers drive the industry. The impulse to buy fast fashion at cheaper prices leads manufacturers to produce more, which depletes resources and makes clothing more difficult and expensive to produce.

“I tell my students to stop and think before they make a purchase,” Palomo-Lovinski says. “Is this something I really need, or do I just impulsively want it at this moment?”

Be Fashion ‘Smart’

Emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to rise 60% by 2030. Through UN Climate Change’s Fashion Charter, more and more businesses (everyone from Adidas to Chanel) are committing to reducing their emissions with the aim of producing net-zero emissions by 2050. As consumers, you can buy fewer clothes and make them last longer, choose local manufacturers who engage in sustainable practices and recycle (and upcycle) your existing clothes. Fashion companies can also measure the carbon footprint of their products with this calculator. —Excerpted from “8 Ways You Can Take Climate Action Right Now”

Read another climate-related story about Noël Palomo-Lovinski, MFA ’09.
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