The stories that are part of the “Green at UC” series are contributed in part by University of Cincinnati environmental reporting classes.
Clare Wilker is a second-year student in the University of Cincinnati (UC) School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) fashion program, owner of saveyourselffashion, and environmental activist. The basis of her work is sustainability, more precisely the repurposing of clothes and materials through upcycling – the process of turning waste materials into something unique and of higher quality. Wilker not only uses 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 that would encourage customers to make passionate decisions about sustainability as a consumer,” Wilker said. “I try to combine artistic creation with sustainability.”
Wilker wraps everything in recycled newspaper and linoleum prints for stamps, making his company as zero-waste as possible.
Every day, people put on T-shirts and jeans every morning without thinking about the vast amounts of water, energy and, in some cases, slavery that goes into it. Modern college fashion programs like DAAP help prepare students for a changing industry, world and climate.
Fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon emissions and around a fifth of the world’s plastic waste, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Not only that, but most modern textiles rely heavily on petrochemicals that come from many of the same oil and gas companies that themselves drive greenhouse gas emissions. This is the second biggest polluter, right after oil. That’s a larger footprint than aviation and shipping combined.
In addition, clothing production alone requires tons of gallons of water—about 79 billion cubic meters of water annually, according to a recent study by Florida State University, to be exact—and is extremely energy intensive.
Zarah Boiarski, a second year fashion student, made a conscious effort to ensure her projects aligned with her values by incorporating sustainable design. “For all my projects, I try to use leftover muslins that I saved from the SFI closet,” said Boiarski.
The wardrobe she’s referring to was created by the Sustainable Fashion Initiative (SFI), a student-led group in UC’s fashion program dedicated to raising environmental awareness for DAAP and its students. One of their major projects was the SFI Scrap Closet, where students can recycle fabric and leftover scraps from previous projects.
“It’s big in itself to see how much we waste and imagine a company hundreds of times bigger than us.” says Zachary Hoh, Fashion Design Program Coordinator and Associate Professor of Practice at UC DAAP.
Hoh said sustainability practices are becoming more prevalent in the fashion industry. “There are a lot of opportunities within the digital space,” Hoh said, referring to the 2D and 3D pattern-making and modeling software that DAAP implements.
Programs like CLO, the primary 3-D apparel modeling software used in the program, refine product designs before they are brought into physical space. “Instead of making a paper pattern, cutting and sewing to test the aesthetics of the design on a mannequin, we can model these things three-dimensionally to avoid useless waste,” Hoh said.
DAAP students like Wilker and Boiarski use this technology to ensure sustainable creation. “My biggest focus is on the reconstruction of used materials and making samples without waste,” Boiarski said.
For her current and future projects, she plans to screen print everything, making multiple garments from each fabric and using scrap fabric for accents and trims. “It’s about everything having a function,” she said.
Like Wilker, Boiarski has also found passion in both the world of fashion and environmental protection and wants to help both worlds coexist with each other.
But the fast fashion industry creates major obstacles to preventing environmental and human rights issues. An estimated 97% of our clothing comes from overseas, predominantly Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam. By renting factories in the supply chain, many workers’ rights are violated in developing countries. More than 40 million workers are exhausted at the expense of faster production by large corporations.
Documentaries such as “The True Cost,” released in 2015, describe the lives of low-wage workers in developing countries. “After watching it, it really opened my eyes to how damaging this industry can be,” Wilker said.
The film brutally details how the monopoly used by the seed companies causes the price of cotton to rise, leading to increased suicide among farmers, who lose their land to the 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 problem. “It’s literally killing people, pretty scary,” Wilker said.
The evolution of consumerism, especially in the United States and other first world countries, contributes greatly to the unsustainability of the fashion world. “I think it would definitely be interesting to focus the solution to these problems on shopping for instant gratification versus shopping for longevity,” Hoh said.
Consulting firms such as McKinsey and the World Economic Forum estimate that the number of garments produced each year has more than doubled since 2000. Studies have shown that people throw away clothes after wearing them only seven to ten times, which is an alarmingly short lifespan. The amount of clothing thrown out is greater than ever, while the wear time is short, creating a potent mix. “People either need to be comfortable saving their entire closet or they need to be comfortable having a smaller closet,” Wilker said. “Ultimately, this issue is rooted in the capitalism and consumerism that envelops this country.”
“People want to be on top of every trend and they change from day to day,” Boiarski said. “Instead of going to a thrift store, they can go online and get it almost instantly.”
In 2019, a group of researchers from Stanford and MIT conducted an experiment that found that while satisfaction comes from just the act of window shopping, there is a definite dopamine hit in shopping, and more specifically in getting a bargain. This might explain why fast fashion is so popular: its appeal is rooted in neurology.
Much like social media, shopping is highly addictive. “Our generation in particular has learned to base our worth on whether or not we look like people on Tik Tok or Instagram,” Wilker said. “If you are convinced that your next purchase will make you beautiful or happy, why not make it?”
With these environmental problems becoming more prevalent, problems such as greenwashing also arise, which occurs when companies falsely claim that their products or services are environmentally friendly or that they have less impact on the environment than they actually do. A number of fast fashion companies have come under fire in recent years for being caught up in greenwashing scandals.
There is hope for the future of the fashion industry. More and more companies are coming up with creative ways to make fashion more sustainable. From recycling plastic bottles into PET (polyethylene terephthalate) fabric to shredding and respinning garments into yarn that can then be rewoven into a new garment. Companies like Patagonia use 100% renewable energy at every stage of the supply chain, using organically grown cotton and recycled materials for their clothing. “If every apparel company did business the way they do, the industry would be in a much different and much better place,” Wilker said.
While the root of these problems lies in the flawed industry itself, consumer behavior has a huge impact. Not washing and drying clothes in the machine, as is often the case, has the potential to cut emissions in half. Only about 13% of clothing ends up in recycling, while the other 87% ends up being burned in a landfill.
That would be the kind of impact Wilker hopes to make with his own business. “I wanted to give my community the same trendy clothes for the same price, so it was an easy decision to make,” Wilker said. “Instead of investing your money in an item of clothing that will last a few months and then fall apart. The problem always comes back to how much we buy. You can do everything in a sustainable way, but if we keep buying that item over and over again, there will still be an impact on the environment.”