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Aaron Jackson / Staff Illustrator

Columbia students, professors, and alumni are speaking out about the importance of sustainability in the fashion industry. By creating new courses, launching startups, and hosting Zoom workshops, they emphasize that even small steps toward sustainability can have an impact.

New York’s streets are a walking lookbook of diverse brands and clothing pieces, which symbolize the ever-changing nature of the fashion industry. Columbia, located in one of the world’s most fashion-forward cities, gives students the first look at the styles that will soon be worn around the globe.

As conversations about sustainability have increased, the shortcomings of the fashion industry have fallen under increased scrutiny. The term “fast fashion” was coined to describe larger retailers such as H&M and Zara’s cheaply-sourced materials and fast garment production times, which have allowed them to meet the growing demand for new trends at low costs. The growth of this production method has led to increased waste and emissions worldwide, setting an eco-unfriendly norm in the fashion industry. At Columbia, students and faculty have taken it upon themselves to find innovative ways to bring change to the industry.

Shelly Xu, CC ’13, recently founded her own zero-waste fashion startup, Shelly Xu Design, in the hopes of creating a brand that makes sustainable fashion accessible. She challenges herself to create zero-waste clothing as a creative constraint to develop garments that not only look better but cost less.

Xu’s startup currently works out of the Harvard Innovation Labs, where she has adopted a demand-based production system.

“A lot of waste today comes from already made clothes that never get sold and get wasted away,” Xu said. “So a lot of what I think about with the startup is how we can actually have zero-waste inventory. By having on-demand production, we don’t make anything until the order comes in.”

As Xu’s startup grows, she hopes to make every step of her model as sustainable as possible, including the supply chain. Currently, Xu cuts materials in such a way that they can be easily repurposed for another project, creating a more sustainable and cost-effective structure.

“Even with fabric, can we actually make the fabric—recycled fabric, or upcycled fabric, so fabric that would have been thrown away [and] become dead stock—and actually use it to make beautiful clothing again?” Xu asked.

Ammar Belal, an adjunct professor at the School of Professional Studies, recently launched the course Sustainable Fashion and Startup Strategy to foster discourse on fashion industry initiatives. The course looks at various tools that can help current models and new startups transition to more sustainable practices. Previously, Belal was a faculty member at New York’s Parsons School of Design and founded ONE432, a clothing company that prioritizes a high standard of equality, transparency, and responsibility within the fashion industry.

In the first part of the course, students learn about the history of sustainable fashion initiatives and the key stakeholders involved. Then, they discuss the current system and analyze fashion production today. In the second half of the course, students develop their own initiatives and put them into practice. Belal explained that these initiatives do not need to stem from brands or retailers to make an impact.

Outside of the big retailers, changes in all levels of the fashion industry can lead to a more sustainable future.

“We’ve tried to place the responsibility on one stakeholder, whereas I think, the more I am in this space, and the more my colleagues say, that it’s a systematic issue where all stakeholders have to do their part” Belal said.

Belal pointed out that small changes have had impacts on other sectors, and they can impact the fashion industry, too.

“Look at any initiatives outside of fashion that have been successful in making a policy change. They start from cities, they start with neighborhoods, they start with smaller communities saying we as citizens, the government, the business community, the input community, and the regulars are all on the same page” Belal said. “Then collectively as a community of citizens, lawmakers, and business owners, they all move forward with a long-term vision.”

The Columbia community has taken the movement into its own hands, choosing to stop purchasing fast fashion and opt for more sustainable options. On Columbia’s campus, several clubs and organizations have expressed support for the development of sustainable fashion.

Columbia University EcoReps, the largest sustainability organization at Columbia, has fronted several initiatives on campus. Last year, it hosted clothing swaps and table talks with the Columbia University Fashion Society and Barnard/Columbia Design For America to bring awareness to sustainable fashion. This year, it launched new sustainable fashion workshops on Zoom through its Living Green Committee. The club’s workshop topics range from how to upcycle T-shirts into new garments to how to tie-dye with natural ingredients you can find at home.

“Now, with a heightened awareness of climate change, many students recognize the huge emissions impact of the clothing industry and are looking for alternatives, and providing educational programming about how to live a ‘greener’ lifestyle is what the Living Green Committee is all about,” committee co-head Silas Swanson, SEAS ’21, said.

By decreasing the number of garments they buy each year or wearing pieces repeatedly, students can create real change through small actions. As the world moves towards more ethical practices, incorporating sustainable fashion into their lives is one of the many ways students can become greener.

Staff writer Fernanda Aguero can be contacted at Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

Shelly Xu Ammar Belal Fashion Sustainability Fast fashion Columbia EcoReps Fernanda Aguero
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