New York is considered one of the fashion capitals of the world and a hub of constant innovation. Busy streets are permeated with vibrant colors and textures expressing diverse personalities, cultures, and backgrounds.
In recent years, the growing issue of climate change has made sustainability an increasingly pressing concern in the fashion world. While many brands such as Patagonia, Veja, and Reformation are implementing new strategies to produce clothing and accessories more sustainably, “fast fashion”—the production of cheap clothing in high volumes, practically designing it to be thrown away—remains a cornerstone of the industry and a contributor to the climate crisis. These practices are utilized by big-name brands such as Forever 21, Zara, and H&M.
As both Columbia and Barnard have embarked on their own initiatives to promote sustainable practices in recent years, style-oriented individuals at both institutions have begun tackling climate change by challenging fast fashion.
Sandra Goldmark, associate professor of professional practice in the theater department, is one of these individuals. In 2013, Goldmark underwent a “crisis of conscience” which led her to start her company Fixup, formerly known as Pop Up Repair. Fixup hosts events and pop up repair shops staffed by theater artists who fix anything from furniture to clothing and jewelry.
Since then, Goldmark has helped develop Barnard’s Climate Action Vision; led activities such as Rebear and Women, Clothing, and Climate; and implemented sustainable practices within the theatre department. Goldmark, who actively promotes sustainability in her own life, buys only secondhand fashion with few exceptions.
As the Barnard director of campus sustainability and climate action, Goldmark believes that much of the college’s responsibility as a leader in climate change is to guide the community.
“For me, the college has, I would say, two main responsibilities in terms of climate action. One is to reduce our emissions and change our own practices here on campus,” Goldmark said. “Two is to really equip our students to be leaders in this field and to tackle this problem when they leave, because frankly, they’re going to be tackling it no matter what, and so I think we have the responsibility to equip them to continue the work after they graduate.”
Last month, Barnard released its 360-degree Climate Action Vision outlining steps that Barnard has implemented thus far, such as divesting from fossil fuels in 2017, developing sustainable reuse practices, and implementing climate courses across multiple disciplines.
This past fall, University President Lee Bollinger also announced the formation of the Climate Change Task Force to explore how Columbia could contribute to combating climate change. The creation of the committee comes two years after the release of the University’s sustainability plan, which aimed to improve sustainable practices across the University.
Across campus, students have taken it into their own hands to use fashion to spread climate change awareness and provide more accessible options to get involved through various events, “pop-up shops,” and Facebook groups.
“Students certainly are well down this road in terms of thrifting. My hope is that all of us begin to think of thrifting not as an add-on but as a replacement,” Goldmark said. “It’s happening; it’s happening in the world, more and more.”
Founded in November 2011, the Facebook group Buy | Sell | Trade at Barnard has over 7,000 members. This group provides an accessible, convenient option for students interested in buying and selling unwanted clothes to reduce clothing waste. This interaction can happen in as little as three steps: list, buy, and pick up.
Sloane Pick, BC ’20, joined Buy | Sell | Trade at Barnard as a first-year with the hope of becoming more involved in the Barnard community. Now, she uses it to uphold a sustainable lifestyle by selling and buying secondhand goods rather than buying them new.
“I had bought a lot from fast fashion before I had heard about the environmental problems that it caused,” Pick said. “Fast fashion is cheaper, but you can compare [the prices of secondhand] to those of fast fashion ... and it might be higher quality stuff that is marked down in price because it’s not brand new.”
Across Broadway, the Columbia University Fashion Society considers sustainability an essential part of its mission. Co-founder Eugenia Hernandez, SEAS ’20, established the society with the mission of breaking stereotypes around fashion by exhibiting many facets of the industry through events and panels. More recently, CUFS has centered its events around the topic of adopting sustainable practices and promoting accessible ways to do so.
“The thing with sustainability is that it has so many destinations; there are so many ways of looking at sustainability,” Hernandez said. “There’s a community of people that totally understand [sustainability] and embrace it, but I think that the challenge, right now, is capturing the people that don’t know what it is and don’t understand it and have them see the importance of sustainable fashion.”
Among some of the recent events that the society has participated in is “Wear, Not Waste,” a clothing swap held in collaboration with Columbia University EcoReps, Columbia College Student Council, Barnard’s Student Government Association, and the Engineering Student Council. At this event, CUFS offered styling advice and tips on shopping sustainably to students.
Sustainable fashion also exists outside the realm of trading. Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21, serves as a student ambassador for Rent the Runway, a brand that allows individuals to rent and return designer pieces. Through on-campus events and collaboration with other schools, Houdaigui encourages other students to understand the repercussions of fast fashion and promotes mindful consumption.
She added that one of the most rewarding aspects of the work the club does is that she can physically see the impact of her work around campus.
“The fact that the piece that they wore that month, I might see another girl wearing the exact same piece next month,” Houdaigui said. “It’s really cool to know that it’s going to a good home, and another piece wasn’t having to be created just because they saw it on campus.”
Houdaigui is also a member of Delta Gamma, the sorority that hosted DG Thrift. Held at the Delta Gamma house last semester, DG Thrift sold second-hand clothing to raise money for Sisters Helping Sisters, DG’s internal fund that aids sisters with financial dues.
“Seeing the Columbia community engage with [DG Thrift] has been great,” Houdaigui said. “I do wish that we could expand the program to an entire Panhellenic organization because I do think people have options and clothing that they don’t wear and generally are confused about where to give them in New York City.”
On campus, there have also been multiple clothing drives and pop-up thrift shops that occur annually. Many offer panels and interactive activities to bring students and administration together through shared initiatives.
“Last year, we wanted to take [Women, Clothing, and Climate] and make it clear that this is linked to really big global issues,” Goldmark said. “Swapping is awesome; thrifting is awesome, really important and related to incredibly important social and environmental, global conversations, so we tried to add this panel-discussion component to the used clothing sale in order to connect the dots.”
Across campus, students and faculty have been active participants in the sustainable fashion movement. But do our individual actions make a difference in the grand scheme of climate change? To Goldmark, the answer is yes.
“If all of our little individual actions are adding up to create our emissions, then logically, all of our little positive actions will add up and will contribute,” she said.