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News Perils of fast-fashion

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UD program is a world leader in social, environmental sustainability

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.

Touch 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 this?’”

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

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Over the past 15 years, UD has turned its fashion and apparel studies program into a world leader in eco-friendly, socially responsible fashion.

​Over the past 15 years, UD has turned its fashion and apparel studies program into a world leader in eco-friendly, socially responsible fashion.

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