Fast fashion depends on cheap prices made possible by sweatshops, child labor and over-consumption. The industry pollutes water supplies and generates massive amounts of waste. The scale of the problem can be overwhelming; but three St. Norbert faculty members are countering the situation with a series of events that shines a light on harmful practices – at the same time proposing practical, small-scale solutions for those who want a stylish closet that doesn’t depend on exploitation.
The clear plastic bin is overflowing with a colorful assortment of clothing: shirts, pants, sweatshirts, skirts. Signs announce passersby should “Take a piece” or “Leave a piece.”
A college campus is the perfect spot to bring a pile of secondhand clothing. But while St. Norbert’s new Swap Pile is delighting bargain hunters, its creation wasn’t out of concern for students’ pocketbooks. Instead, its roots lie in fashion, design, art and environmentalism.
The swap pile is one small part of “Fashion This,” a series of exhibitions and events being held on campus this fall.
The program explores sustainable and ethical fashion practices through the lens of art and design, and includes a sustainable fashion show, lectures, mending clinics, the swap pile and exhibitions centering on environmentally friendly handcrafted boots, repurposed T-shirts and hand-stitched clothing carefully sourced from organic and sustainable sources. “Fashion This” is the result of serendipity, say the three faculty members who designed the project: April Beiswenger (Theatre Studies), Shan Bryan-Hanson (Art) and Katie Ries (Art). The women were all independently intrigued by the issue of fast fashion – a buzzword for the rapid movement of trendy clothing from catwalk to retailer.
Fast fashion is possible due to cheap pricing and harmful employment practices, like child labor and sweat-shops. The mass production of low-cost goods also generates staggering amounts of pollution and waste. When the women realized they were each digging into this topic in a unique way, they decided to collaborate on an event series tackling the subject. But “Fashion This” does not simply take a somber look at this depressing – and depressingly large – problem. Instead, it aims to help us be more mindful about our clothing, and to have fun doing it.
Americans today recycle or donate a measly 15 percent of their used clothing, leaving the rest to be dumped into a landfill. So two easy ways to become more mindful with your clothing are to donate items you no longer want, and to purchase some secondhand items. Hence the college’s new swap pile, a gallery-area centerpiece. Beiswenger, the pile’s mastermind, says it’s been a hit so far. Some people ignore it, true, but those who engage with it do so eagerly. “No one’s half-heartedly digging through it,” she says.
Beiswenger regularly refills the bin with new items, tweeting about its latest contents – Hawaiian shirts! Ugly sweaters! The students really came through with the latter, she says, noting most of the ugly sweaters are already gone. But, thankfully, not into a landfill.
“The swap pile shows how something old can be new to me,” Bryan-Hanson says, adding that she plans to host a swap party, a growing trend.
Another easy way to practice clothing mindfulness is to critique how you launder your clothing. Are you washing items too often? Frequent washings degrade clothing more quickly. Garments also last longer if you wash them in cold water, then line-dry. “It’s really just slowing down and taking care of things,” Bryan-Hanson says. “It’s the opposite of fast fashion.”
Ries says she would like to see more people taking a chance and developing their own fashion style. If we limit ourselves to dressing in the clothing that’s out there, piecing items together exactly as they appear on mannequins and models, we’re letting other people make all our fashion decisions. Instead, Ries says, we should think critically about beauty, fashion and style: “Different looks can be exciting. If you create your own style – your sense of what looks great – you may even get closer to your authentic self.”
Here’s a quick snap of the fashion industry and our purchasing habits:
- The global fashion industry tops $1 trillion.
- The fashion and textiles industry is the world’s second-biggest industrial polluter after the oil industry.
- During the clothing production process, up to 8,000 different chemicals are used.
- Americans today buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980.
- Americans recycle or donate a mere 15 percent of their used duds.
- About 85 percent of Americans’ used clothing goes into landfills – some 10.5 million tons per year.
Spend more money
It seems counterintuitive at first: Spend more money on clothing. But here’s the thing: Clothing is getting cheaper by the day. Girls’ and boys’ duds, for example, have dropped 23 and 19 percent, respectively, in the past decade. With fast fashion spurring design changes up to 18 times per year, manufacturers keep up by producing ever-more cheaply made items that fall apart after a few washings. Beiswenger notes she’s still wearing some 25-year-old T-shirts she bought in college, not because they’re beloved mementos from the past, but because they are still in great shape. Yet some of the T-shirts she bought a few months ago for $10 or $12 are falling apart. If you shell out more money for better-quality items, they will last longer. Fewer pieces of clothing will need to be dyed or tanned – some of the most harmful processes associated with the clothing industry – and fewer items will go into a landfill.
Bryan-Hanson shopped for quality garments when she put together her own capsule wardrobe: a limited number of clothing items that can be mixed and matched to create innumerable looks. Although she didn’t create her capsule to combat fast fashion – “I’ll be honest. I wanted to be put-together and not spend a lot of time thinking about it,” she laughs – Bryan-Hanson loves what she has created. “Like a lot of people, I like to shop for clothes,” she says. “But now I do so carefully, and don’t make impulse buys.” Her capsule has also allowed her to develop a more personal style that doesn’t depend upon trends. Buying something trendy is fine, too, she says, so long as you buy such items with thought and care.
Yes, you can
Think it’s too difficult to fight fast fashion? Here are some easy ways you can take a stand.
- Repair worn clothing.
- Donate used clothing.
- Recycle old items.
- Shop less, but purchase higher-quality pieces.
- Purchase clothes made from organic cotton. The manufacturing process for regular cotton items is quite harmful.
- Don’t purchase new leather items. Secondhand pieces are OK!
- Wash your clothes in cold water and dry them outside.
One goal Bryan-Hanson has as an artist and curator is to encourage people to see the beauty in handmade objects, imperfections and all. American culture is rather materialistic. We’re constantly shown ads and images of perfect objects, which makes us tend to view that shirt’s uneven stitch, or that coat’s crooked stripe, as ugly. But it’s not. “… I believe in the beauty of handmade objects,” she says, “and imperfections can add to their beauty.”
To that end, Bryan-Hanson curated the exhibit “Shelter & Clothing: Rethinking How We Live Today” as part of the “Fashion This” series. The “Clothing” portion of the exhibit showcases the works of Alabama Chanin. A leader in sustainable fashion, the clothing company uses repurposed and reclaimed materials in its pieces, which are fashioned from sustainably sourced organic cotton. Items are either handmade by local artisans or machine-sewn in small quantities.
The “Shelter” portion of the exhibit was located outside of the gallery and, in fact, out of doors, too, as it’s a tiny home. Tiny homes are defined as pint-sized abodes measuring 500 square feet or less. (This one comes in at less than 200 square feet.) The tiny home was created by Rebecca Rutter, a Wisconsin-born pastor whose only background in home construction previously was a seventh-grade shop class. She used many recycled materials and learned as she built; any so-called flaws in her home (such as the repurposed siding, which shows a few signs of age) only add to its beauty, says Bryan-Hanson.
Redefining beauty also means that just because something is ordinary doesn’t mean it’s not also special, says Beiswenger. The theatre studies professor, who has painted many a set, had a large collection of paint-stained T-shirts on hand. So when she and her colleagues were developing “Fashion This,” she grabbed those tees, along with others from local thrift shops, and fashioned some into a wallhanging of brightly colored flowers; others, cut into strips, became “yarn” for a crocheted skirt.
Beiswenger’s rebirthing of her stained tees begs the question, “What can I throw away?” You shouldn’t donate stained clothing, and you might not have the skill or interest to make a floral wall hanging out of it. “What can you throw away?” she asks rhetorically. “I don’t know. Go online and Google, ‘What do I do with ripped T-shirts?’ The biggest thing to become better at is being informed.”
Change your thought process
Ten or 15 years ago, very few people owned cloth bags, much less toted them along to the grocery store or mall. Now they’re ubiquitous. Why? A cultural shift occurred. A collective change in our thinking about the merits of plastic bags versus paper or cloth. That’s what the “Fashion This” creators are hoping to foster; a new way of purchasing clothing with no regrets for the past.
“We don’t need to waste time feeling bad,” says Ries. “But we do need to get to work.”
The “Fashion This” series
The series, which ran Aug. 29-Oct. 13, included these events:
- Exhibit: Shelter and Clothing
- Exhibit: “And Where She Ends She Doth Anew Begin: the 1000 T-Shirt Project”
- Installation: Clothing Swap Pile
- SNC Day Event: Boot Workshop
- Exhibit (at Silver Lake College): Katie Ries: “Werkboots”
- Clothing Swap
- Boot Mock-Ups Werkshop (at Silver Lake College)
- Film Screening and Discussion: “The True Cost”
- Mend-It Clinics
- Lecture by April Beiswenger: “Fashion This: Sustainable Clothing and You”
- Knights on the Catwalk: Fashion Show
- Panel Discussion: Ethical Consumption
Nov. 14, 2016