Photo by Bruno Zalum
The rain surely did not scare off fashion activists from kicking off the start of NYFW 2018 with a “Study Hall,” the first of many conferences in a series put on by The Library: Sustainable Fashion Archive in collaboration with MIT Media Lab and the Ace Hotel. Céline Semaan, MIT Media Lab fellow and founder of The Library and Slow Factory, has been working on reviving iconic fashion pieces with sustainable materials (so far 6 have been completed) certifying them humane, environmental, recycled, safe, biodegradable and for humankind. Her passion for prioritizing human rights and the environment shone through her event introduction as she emphasized that it’s time for “us geeks” to take over the (fashion) world!
It was very thoughtfully played out to have the opening keynote by NASA astronaut, Leland Melvin, who was able to give the crowd a little perspective on why the sustainability movement is so important. Although it might seem obvious, people seem to forget that without our beautiful planet, we will cease to exist. Leland is a regular speaker in schools across the nation educating children on the importance of caring for the ozone and how they can make a difference. According to Leland, there’s no better reminder of this than seeing the earth from outer space (and I agree, although I’ve never been there…).
Photo by Bruno Zalum
Next up was the sustainability panel moderated by Joella Firzli (Design & Flow) and included mavens Mara Hoffman (Mara Hoffman), Orsola deCastro (Fashion Revolution), Abrima Erwiah (Studio 189), Lilian Liu (United Nations Global Compact), and Jasmin Aarons (Made by VOZ). It seemed to be a common thread, and rightfully so, that the panelists all agreed on the importance of looking toward the future and holding the highest level of consciousness and footprint in regard to manufacturing and production. Abrima also pointed out that not only is it necessary to be responsible when it comes to process but also when it comes to connecting the dots and seeing the bigger picture. What does she mean by this, you might ask? Running a sustainable company doesn’t only mean being environmentally conscious but also conscious of how the jobs you are creating in artisan communities and villages affect the workers’ quality of life (ie access to clean water and transportation). Furthermore, the traditional processes of villages have always been built on sustainable practice, like burning trash, because that is what has worked best. The problems really began with the introduction of foreign materials, like plastic. Due to toxicity, plastic cannot be burned and therefore piles up leading to the question…how do we honor traditional methods but introduce new technologies as well? When it comes to water, at least we know that the UN is working on it. Lilian spoke briefly about how the Global Impact sector is developing a code of conduct for the fashion industry which will include principles and guidelines used for scaling practices and will hopefully make maintaining a sustainable brand more straight forward. Additionally, I was happy to learn that the UN is also working with companies like H&M and Gap (who in my mind are low on the list of environmentally conscious and sustainably aware brands) on a water initiative where they are taking a closer look at where in the supply chain there is an excess of water use and how this can be improved.
On the flip side of things, how do we get the consumer to fully support not only new sustainable brands, but also existing brands like Mara Hoffman, who have made a shift toward sustainability and set an example for others to follow. According to Mara, this transition has been extremely challenging especially because the various changes put in place in order to have a sustainable practice cause a price shift for the consumer. An additional initiative is then necessary to educate the consumer to buy less and wear more. Jasmine Aarons relates to the same challenges with her business but both designers agree that the challenge is definitely worth it. At the end of the day, it is up to both the companies making our clothes and the consumers to make the right choices. Orsola deCastro couldn’t have said it any better… “Every single day you wake up, you have a choice and you have a voice.” Orsola’s encouragement of this mindset and conversation on accountability is passionately portrayed through Fashion Revolution’s campaign, “Who Made My Clothes” encouraging everyone to ask this question as a first step toward making the change to sustainable fashion seem more manageable.
Next up on the agenda was a panel focusing on human rights in the supply chain curated by the Human Rights Foundation and including panelists LanVy Nguyen (Fashion 4 Freedom founder), Leonardo Bonanni (SourceMap founder and CEO), and Ian Whitman (Blockchain). I was so glad to see this panel on the conference list as although human rights are definitely factored into sustainable practices and generally included in panels on sustainability, it is so important to highlight them on their own as well, and in this case, how they pertain to the world of fashion. Although the fashion industry has the 2nd largest supply chain in the world, it is unfortunately not surprising that major problems still exist including not getting paid a living wage, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and child labor. This NEEDS to stop. Although it is inexcusable to ignore the effects an industry has the on the environment, it is even more alarming when human rights are disregarded. Even codes of conduct “enforced” by factory auditing isn’t a fool-proof solution as an audit may only take place on the 1 day that all of the rules are being followed and therefore “pulling the wool over our eyes.”
LanVy Nguyen was brave enough to share her experience on how she came into the movement of sustainable fashion when to her horror, she accidentally bought a labor-bound slave in Vietnam. LanVy reached out to various NGOs for help but to her surprise, only found that they help women on an individual basis as opposed to addressing the larger issue… How can this be?! Through investing in labor talent and funding over 72 villages, LanVy is working toward a solution to the huge problem of labor binding, allowing designers to access a different type of supply chain and track how the workers are getting paid instead of living off of the hope of freedom from debt. Amazingly enough, cryptocurrency is making this possible. (If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t know too much about cryptocurrency except for the fact that whoever invested in Bitcoin from the start is a smarty pants.) Luckily, Ian Whitman from Blockchain was there to elaborate. First things first…what is blockchain?? Referred to as “the trust protocol,” blockchain is a digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record anything of value, including financial transactions. Once data is input into the system and a transaction is recorded, such as payment to a factory worker, the record of this transaction cannot be altered. What does this mean for worker well-being and improving the fashion industry? Unaltered transactions can be tracked back to a specific factory ensuring that a material or product was, in fact, actually made at that particular location, and in doing so, creating a trustworthy item tracking system. There would be much work ahead but the goal would be to have a system in place where an item could be scanned and traced, allowing for transparency of the entire journey of that item. Sounds like a dream come true!
As we continue to look toward the future and attempt to make improvements across all industries, we learn about new technologies along the way. Although people may have started to get a little restless and head toward the bar in preparation for the cocktail hour, heads turned as Jifei Ou from MIT Media Lab presented his work on additive manufacturing, aka 3D printing, to create…drumroll please…3D printed fur! Jifei explained that this new technology of 3D printing hair isn’t only limited to clothing and other aesthetic production but can also be used as a strong adhesive. Furthermore, when introducing vibration, objects made out of the material can have controlled movement! So nuts. (Watch a video and learn more about the specifics here.) As Jifei’s final reveal, his fashion collaborator, Project Runway winner Erin Robertson, came to the stage to model their work on a leather jacket embellished with the 3D printed fur. It was much softer than it looked!
As the next inventor, Sim Gulati, took to the stage and started speaking about Dropel, it became evident that the central idea in new technologies and advancements in material is not only product longevity but also a product with multiple attributes. Sim spoke on bridging the gap between science and technology creating a high performance natural fabric that is wrinkle-free, water repellent, soft and stain resistant. Although Dropel does seem like a magical fabric, when I clicked on their website, I noticed the actors using disposable soy sauce packets and plastic water bottles right off the bat. Oops!
All in all, Study Hall was WAY more informative than I remember it being when I was 15. Instead of rushing to get homework done and catching up with BFFs on the happenings of the aol instant messenger conversations from the night before, I was introduced to new organizations, ideas and inventions and left at the end of the night with a feeling of hope for the future and for an empowered sustainability movement. Can’t wait for the next conference!
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