Editor's note: This article appears in the new issue of UD Magazine, which focuses on work at UD in a wide variety of areas related to fashion. Read more in the magazine and on this special UDaily website about research, outreach and student programs in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies and across the University.
the fabric of your shirt. Feel how the thin fibers are woven so
smoothly; notice how the pattern suits your style so colorfully. See how
the cloth is stitched and seamed with expert precision, letting the
whole garment fall with soft comfort across your body.
Our clothes hold an undeniable power to make us feel good. Sometimes,
they can even make us feel good-looking.
But we tend not to think too
much about the uglier realities of what we wear.
UD Prof. Marsha Dickson has seen them up close: Entire families in
Bangladesh, working seven days a week in garment factories that don’t
pay a living wage and are dangerous, deadly sweatshops. Huantian Cao has
all the harsh statistics at his fingertips: Thousands of gallons of
water and pesticides are needed to make a single cotton shirt and a pair
of jeans. And Kelly Cobb is well-acquainted with the modern
“fast-fashion” consumer cycle that is pushing this vital industry toward
an environmental and humanitarian crisis point—she sees it in her
classes all the time.
“We have great students, but they were raised in a make-take-waste
mindset,” says Cobb, an assistant professor in UD’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies. “But they’re coming in ready to engage,
ready to ask the hard questions.”
And by the time they leave UD, none of them will look at fashion the
same way again, thanks to professors like Dickson, Cao, Cobb and others.
Over the last 15 years, UD has turned its fashion program into a world
leader in eco-friendly, socially responsible fashion, instilling a
passion for good practices in its students and serving as a major force
for change in an industry that reaches all corners of the globe.
“We’ve got to find a different way to work. And some companies get
that,” says Dickson, who oversees an international effort called Better
Buying that uses a ratings system to help safeguard financially pressed
suppliers, often in Third World countries, from predatory purchasing
practices. “We’ve got more companies asking, ‘What do we do about
Broadly encompassing an array of environmental, economic and social
impacts, the topic of “sustainable fashion” is woven into core classes
for every fashion student, accompanied by lab work that frequently
pushes those students to design their own solutions, whether it’s new
uses for old clothing, or earth-friendly substitutes for leather, or
even easier ways to “take” apart old clothes for recycling. Those
classes are just the leading edge of a coordinated UD campaign to push
for change within the entire industry, in all of its far-flung aspects,
from supply chains to sales inventories.
Because of UD, the fashion industry now has the tools by which to
assess (and improve) its sustainable practices: Known as the Higgs
Index, the rating system allows brands, retailers and manufacturers to
choose the most socially responsible course of action at every stage of
the process. Thanks to UD, the sometimes-insidious economics of global
fashion are held up to greater scrutiny: UD Prof. Sheng Lu’s critique of
current practices are followed by global industry insiders. And because
of the efforts of UD’s cadre of sustainability experts, more academics
and businesspeople are now working together for a system that serves all
constituencies, from the planet’s people to the planet itself.
“It’s a big, big problem for the industry,” says Cao. “But it’s also an opportunity.”
Already, the force for change is spreading beyond UD as graduates are
snapped up by a newly impact-conscious industry. “We attract students
from all over the country and all over the world,” Cao says. “That shows
the industry need.”
It’s those students who hold the best chance for tackling the most
elusive challenge, and one they’re intimately familiar with: Consumers’
obsession with chasing the latest trends, while tossing their
out-of-fashion clothes in the trash. “It could be part of these
students’ future jobs to educate consumers about that,” Cao notes.
Article by Eric Ruth
Published Dec. 19, 2019