BATON ROUGE, LA — When Bruce Cameron began teaching a sustainability class at the University of Wyoming in the ‘90s, he was pioneering a less-often offered course about the fashion industry’s impact on the environment.
“It’s evolved completely since then,” Cameron said. “Just about everybody has a class of this form if they have an apparel merchandising type of program on the campus.”
Today, nearly 25 years later, Cameron serves as head of the Textiles, Apparel Design and Merchandising department at Louisiana State University, where he still teaches a sustainability in apparel course.
“Probably the biggest changes have just revolved around how the industry itself has changed,” Cameron said.
The seasons of weather once corresponded directly to the seasons of fashion. Collections entered stores for the fall, winter, spring and summer. Today, the fashion industry has become virtually seasonless. New designs enter stores monthly, even weekly in some instances, meaning near constant mass production and mass consumption.
Fast fashion is a highly profitable business model that quickly turns the newest catwalk designs into cheap, trendy clothing for shoppers.
Casey Stannard, an LSU agriculture professor with a focus in apparel design, recognizes fast fashion as a huge force within the industry.
“People have been trained to have these ideas of immediacy with their fashion and really, like, hyper consumption,” Stannard said. “On our end of it, it’s great because we’re selling lots of stuff, but it’s bad because we’re selling lots of stuff that they don’t need. It’s made with very poor materials. It has, like, a planned obsolescence.”
Fast fashion, the rapid production of cheap, trendy clothing, depends on an equally speedy and inexpensive supply chain, which stretches across the globe.
The shirt on your back likely traveled thousands of miles and passed through dozens of hands, from seed engineers to cotton farmers to garment sewers to ship captains to retail workers.
Your t-shirts start this cross-world journey as nothing more than seeds in a lab. The seeds are planted on cotton farms, typically located in the Mississippi delta, to be cultivated and grown before being baled and ginned by machines.
From there, the cotton leaves the U.S. and travels to countries like Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia, where spinning factories turn the cotton into fabric. The fabric is washed and dyed before it is sent to factories to be sewn.
After being sewed, the garments are boxed and packed into shipping containers to be shipped back to the U.S.
“Every step has sustainable implications or environmentally crappy implications,” Stannard said.
The fashion industry sits near the top of the World Economic Forum’s 2021 report on greenhouse gas emissions. And the long production process brings along other problems, like effluent discharge, a dangerous waste mix of chemicals, dyes and heavy metals.
The fashion industry is the second-highest user of water worldwide, and is responsible for about 20% of global wastewater, some of which finds its way directly into rivers, streams and drinking water sources, according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
Conversations around reducing fashion’s contributions to climate change and environmental degradation cover the pre-use perspective of textiles and organic materials and the post-use perspective of recycling and reuse.
For Kayla Sherman, a recently graduated LSU apparel design major, it’s all about what she can do for sustainability as an individual looking to break her way into the fashion industry.
“I think it’s important because the direction of fast fashion, and the way that’s going, it’s not benefiting even our planet or society,” Sherman said. “So, turning it around, and making it to where pieces last … It’s not just going to fall apart and end up in a landfill, and if it does, is it made of natural fibers? Will it decompose over time, or will it just sit there?”
These ideas stayed at the forefront of Sherman’s mind when she started her own Etsy line, KaylaLynn Apparel.
Sherman runs small production lines for trendless, practical pieces that can be worn year-to-year. She uses linen, a natural fiber that will biodegrade over time, and utilizes every aspect of her fabric, making scrunchies from the scraps.
“The slow fashion movement and buying from people who make your clothes—knowing who makes it is very important,” Sherman said.
While jumpstarting her own sustainable business hasn’t been easy, Sherman hopes to gain a following that wants to learn about sustainability.
Professors like Cameron and Stannard agree that education is one of the biggest challenges for the sustainability movement.
“Who’s responsible for the change that potentially needs to occur?” Cameron said. “Is it the manufacturers, retailers or is it the consumer? The obvious answer is we all have a part in the playing of this.”
Sustainable clothing typically commands a higher price, which can lead to consumer hesitation.
“What a lot of people fail to realize that, yes, something might be more expensive, but if you get more use out of it, ultimately it’s been better for you,” Cameron said. “But, you know, at the time, do I want to spend $50? Do I want to spend $10? You can see the conundrum that the consumer gets into.”
Stannard said that when it comes to sustainable clothing, in the end, it all circles back to the dollar.
“You kind of run into the situation where you have to educate your consumers as to why they should want that, and why they should be willing to pay a premium for that,” Stannard said. “You have to teach them what’s better, and you have to show them a different way of life,” she later added.
With sustainable apparel classes like Cameron’s becoming required courses in fashion curriculum nationwide, students like Sherman, who are the future of the fashion industry, are also learning a new way of life.
“Change can come from within,” Cameron said. “The more potential students who become educated in this, when they go out into the workforce, be it in retailing, industry, whatever it might be, they now have this idea of potentially in their mind that, you know, they can influence others.”
Cameron said that the process of change will likely be slow, but it has the chance to grow.
“If you become educated, and then you start telling your friends about these types of things, and they become educated, it becomes a snowballing type of an effect,” Cameron said. “The more people that become educated, and if more consumers start desiring and wanting more of this side of the industry to come about, it will happen.”