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People We Love

Fast Fashion Fixes With Tasha Lewis

Apr 28, 2020

Cornell professor Tasha Lewis is on a mission to cultivate what we refer to as a “slow fashion” movement. That’s because the way most textiles are made—and how we eventually, inevitably dispose of them—can take quite the toll on the environment. When you really think about it, it’s a lot: The production of fibers for textiles alone requires a ton of water, not to mention all the fossil fuels and pesticides involved. In an effort to cut down, Tasha, who is an associate professor at Cornell’s department of fiber science and apparel design (and a fashion industry vet), is currently researching ways to transform textile waste into new product to keep their lifecycles going instead of being sent straight to landfills. We chatted with her here about fast fashion, its footprint on the environment, and ways to make more conscious choices as consumers.

Can you tell us a little about your current research, in a nutshell?
My research examines how post-consumer textile waste can be transformed into new products. I would like to achieve a customized solution for different fabrications and blends of fibers since post-consumer textile waste is so varied in its quality and composition.

The impact of textiles, especially in terms of the fashion industry and garment production, has a much larger scope than the end consumer. Can you explain the key parts of that lifecycle?
At the time garments are designed is when decisions about materials and construction are determined and these choices can have an impact throughout the lifecycle. Development of garments often requires numerous samples for styling and fit approvals as well as for textile and color approvals. The cultivation and production of fibers for textiles is also involved and includes use of resources like land and water, as well as fossil fuels and pesticides. The dyeing and finishing processes used for textiles further contribute to environmental issues in the lifecycle, through the use of more water, as well as chemical toxins and the creation of effluent. Energy is used to assemble garments in the production phase and for transporting garments across borders and states. Pre-consumer textile waste is generated as part of the production process due to fabric wastage or quality issues. Activities to move garments around for consumption and distribution, also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So, we can see that there is a large environmental footprint even before the garments is in the hand of the end consumer.

laundry pile

Can you share some ways to make the lifecycle explained above more sustainable?
I think a shift to product stewardship and more circularity in the lifecycle can promote sustainability. This means designers and manufacturers of fashion must consider how to create a garment that can be taken back and re-used at the end of its life.

What are some of the most promising ways you’ve seen materials salvaged and transformed into useful products for the end consumer?
Looptworks has some nice products and I really like their travel accessory line made from recycled airline uniforms.

Also, in our lab we researched developing sustainable composites by combining textile waste and soy resin in order to make building blocks for other products. I think this is promising since we can imagine large-scale projects that can be made from the composite and use up large quantities of waste. I’d like to try and develop home goods from this material.

Textile manufacturers tend to operate behind the scenes with low visibility. Can you tell us about any companies who are leading the charge on transparency and incorporating sustainable production practices?
Two companies that are established and have been partnering with large brands include Teijin and Lenzing. Teijin has a closed-loop recycling process for polyester and Lenzing has developed a closed-loop process for sustainable production of lyocell. Some newer companies that I am following include Worn Again and Evrnu. Worn Again is developing a technique for separating blended fibers, a huge barrier when it comes to recycling. Evernu has developed a process for recycling cotton for multiple lifecycles.

What are some ways that consumers can make more informed and responsible choices when choosing the types of products they purchase?
Think about utility and biodegradability – garments that you can wear often and for a long period of time, require low-impact care (spot clean, cold water wash, air dry) and can biodegrade if they are discarded (made from natural fibers).

tasha lewis

In your own terms, can you explain what “fast fashion” is and some of the negative impacts associated with it?
Clothing that is made to meet the immediate fashion tastes of consumers in an attempt to capitalize on fads and trends but with little regard to long-term use or consumption of resources. The negatives include the expenditure of virgin resources to make these garments and the high rates of consumer disposal resulting from the short-term use of them, either due to low quality or the end of a short-lived fashion trend.

Sustainability, particularly fashion sustainability, is such a broad topic and we’re often sent mixed signals about it. What does it mean to you? 
I think we can look at aspects of sustainability that get more visibility and resonate with consumers and think that those issues may be most important, but because the supply chain is so fragmented, it is still challenging to narrow the focus for sustainability. I frame my lectures to students around what I call “threads of sustainability in fashion” and they include creativity, transparency, environment, health and business strategy. So for me it means we need creative design solutions to make fashion products reusable and recyclable, in addition to transparency when it comes to knowing where products are made and what they are made of in order to determine that they are safe for people and the environment, and it also means that fashion companies can be profitable while using up large quantities of waste.

Let’s talk textile waste. When making decisions as a consumer, are there certain fabrics we should lean towards more than others to reduce our impact? Are there certain fabrics we should stay away from entirely?
Here are some of my recommendations:

  • Most important is to recycle/ donate clothing to avoid landfilling 
  • Buy garments that you intend to wear for an extended period of time 
  • Try to buy natural fibers or natural fiber blends since these will biodegrade
  • If buying synthetics, look for 100% homogeneous content since blends have not been recyclable in the past but technology is being developed to handle this textile waste 
  • Look for garments made from recycled fabrics

We already know that taking proper care of our garments by washing at home/using the right fabric-specific detergents will help preserve them. Is there anything else we should be doing?
Laundering in cold water and air drying can help reduce energy consumption. Another recommendation is to try and wear clothing more than once before laundering, this can be hard so I try to do it for things that I have not worn outside and/or used for a short period of time.

air dry

Any thoughts on dry cleaning?
I have seen dry cleaners that offer services without the use of perchloroethylene (perc), so this can provide an eco-alternative for consumers who need the convenience of dry cleaning. I prefer home laundering, so I use methods to clean garments without dry cleaning and have found it to be effective. I have referenced the Laundress website for some of the tutorials!

What is the most eco-friendly way to dispose of textiles we no longer need?
Donating to a reputable charity or recycler is the best way for now since these businesses have established supply chains for sorting waste and diverting it to other users or companies.

What would you say to those looking to exercise conscious consumption when it comes to fashion?
Buy what you need, buy quality garments, and plan to wear it for an extended period of time. Also check care labels to make sure you can use environmentally friendly laundering methods.

Are there any resources you recommend for consumers looking to expand their knowledge on this topic?
The Good on You website has lots of information on different fashion brands along with ratings to assess their environmental and ethical practices. OEKO-TEX also offers a buying guide on their website to find products that meet their certification requirements related to toxicity and sustainability.

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