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Fashion is focus of Campus Sustainability Day

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Kia Jordan and Kim Guthrie.

Fashion is the focus of this year’s Campus Sustainability Day, with events planned for Monday, Sept. 26 and Friday, Sept. 30 on the Virginia Commonwealth University Monroe Park Campus.

Not into fashion? Think again, said Kim Guthrie, assistant professor and associate chair of the Department of Fashion in the School of the Arts.

“Well, you’re not naked. So you’re in fashion some way, somehow,” Guthrie said. “Ninety-nine percent of the day, we’re in a textile of some kind. Whether it’s a bed sheet or a T-shirt, we’re wrapped around in textiles.”

Ninety-nine percent of the day, we’re in a textile of some kind.

“Everyone participates in the fashion industry, even if they are not aware of it,” said Kia Jordan, president of the student group Eco Fashion, and a senior double-majoring in fashion merchandizing and marketing.

Fashion and sustainability are directly linked, said Jordan and Guthrie. Consumer demand is growing for “fast fashion,” looks that transition from the runway to factories to store racks very quickly. That means more inexpensive clothing is being produced and transported, worn a few times and then tossed into donation bins — or landfills.

Events that demonstrate this connection between fashion and sustainability — and related to Campus Sustainability Day — begin Monday with a 6 p.m. film screening and discussion of “The True Cost” at the VCU Depot. The film addresses conditions for factory workers, pollution and other less-visible impacts of cheap clothing.

“It’s going to be a tough pill to swallow because people like to collect, and price is a big deal,” Guthrie said of changing consumer behavior away from fast fashion.

Attendees are invited to bring old jeans and other denim clothes to the film screening for a denim drive. Donations are turned into insulation for Habitat for Humanities projects, Jordan said. Event attendees will also be able to turn scraps into napkins, Director of Sustainability Erin Stanforth said. While material scraps are typically recycled at an off-site location, some have been set aside for this craft activity.

Members of Eco Village, a freshmen theme community housed in Rhoads Hall, will show off their trash at the event. Earlier this month, Eco Villagers were given Mason jars and challenged not to produce any more trash than would fit inside those jars for two weeks.

The main event, Campus Sustainability Day, takes over the Commons Plaza from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday with vendors, activities and learning opportunities.

Campus and off-campus partners for Campus Sustainability Day will include VCU Learning Gardens, Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, Environmental Coalition, Eco Fashion, Outdoor Adventure Program, VCU Dining, RamBikes and VCU Police. Students can bring bicycles and laptops to the event to register them with VCU Police.

VCU News talked with Guthrie and Jordan about speed, profits and sustainability in the fashion industry.

What is fast fashion?

KG - It’s an increase in consumer demand due to a rise of technology and that social media presence. You have this new trend that comes into place. Immediately, it’s a big thing for a few months, then it’s not heard of anymore.

How much of this is driven by consumers?

KG - People are conditioned to think they are supposed to be grabbing the next thing. The turnaround is that you buy less, and buy better. That should be the new message to consumers. It’s going to be a tough pill to swallow because people like to collect and get, and price is a big deal.

KJ – Not only is that consumer demand affecting the manufacturers, but it’s affecting the business as whole. Production levels have increased at an alarming rate.

I think the issue with implementing sustainability into business practices is that price level. [Producers] are going to take what’s the most accessible, and whatever the most accessible fabric source is, is something that’s not necessarily environmentally friendly.

KG - People don’t value fashion. If they can get something for $4 — that’s what a cup of coffee costs! They’ll spend the extra money on organic food; why won’t you spend money on less-impactful apparel? There needs to be a lot more research on consumer behavior, and education on consumption.

KJ - If we care so much about what we put in our food, we have to care about what we put on our bodies.

How is VCU addressing these issues?

KG - The fashion department has been recycling as much of the textile waste as we can possibly capture. We have bins in every room for textile waste. People bring in stuff from non-course projects, and stuff it in our bin, so we’re trying to divert as much textile waste from landfills as possible.

The students that are coming in now have a much bigger vocabulary about what is sustainable, what is low-impact, what is net zero. The message has started to seep in.

They [275 fashion design and merchandising majors] all have been charged to consider sustainable design practices in creating their collections for their senior thesis. We’re hoping that those grads will go out and be those catalysts for change.

KJ - I think VCU has done an amazing job implementing sustainably practices, with the Office of Sustainability and Green Unity and other groups on campus [Students] have to feel like it’s beneficial to them, and they are going to take something away from that.

What does the future hold for fashion and the environment?

The big question now is making sure that sustainability isn’t just a trend, that it becomes a part of our day-to-day lives.

KJ - The big question now is making sure that sustainability isn’t just a trend, that it becomes a part of our day-to-day lives. We have to be efficient, and respond to that [demand] in a rapid way, but also maintain that quality in a sustainable way.

KG - Any producer that makes something should have responsibility to figure out how they’re going to bring that product back, or to inform the consumer not to just dispose of it in a haphazard way.

The whole business model of production and consumption has to feed off of each other for the future. End of story.

What do you hope students take away from these events?

KG – [That] it creates conscious consumption. People need to be very conscious about anything that they are acquiring, consuming, disposing.  A lot of people don’t have a relationship with their clothes. There’s a back story to everything we put on. There’s a human cost to everything they put on their body. Get more intimate with what you’re putting on your body, every single day.

KJ - Once you get people asking questions, they want to research and they want more information. If it’s not being given to them as consumers they will go out and find it themselves.