Local designers, vintage shoppers offer options to ‘fast fashion’

Instead of overconsuming garments, these design experts detail ways in which you can shop more sustainably.

ST PAUL, Minn. — They call it fast fashion. It’s the fashion industry’s latest trend that focuses on producing clothes quickly and cheaply – think brands like Shein or Temu – to accommodate every consumer’s every whim.

But from landfills to air quality, both designers and scientists warn that fashion’s latest trend is taking a dangerous toll on our planet.

According to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the average consumer buys 60% more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago. At the same time, the agency said each item is only kept for half as long.

That, while the agency also notes the fashion industry accounts for a staggering 2-8% of global carbon emissions.

“We’re failing. “We’re not doing a good job at all at being sustainable,” said Dr. Missy Bye, Apparel Design Professor at the University of Minnesota College of Design.

‘We overconsume…We overproduce’

Sitting in an office filled with pictures and fashion memorabilia, Bye frequently refers to a sheet of facts that represent the extent of this fashion crisis.

“We have enough clothing that’s manufactured or imported for every person to purchase around 90 new garments a year, which totals 28 billion garments,” Bye said, noting that the statistic only accounts for garments made in or imported to the United States.

“We overconsume, but the bigger piece is that we overproduce,” he added.

And that simple imbalance, Bye said, is creating a deleterious imbalance for our environment.

“We’re using up our resources in the earth. “All synthetic fibers come from fossil fuels, which we already know is a big concern,” he said, adding that natural fibers – like cotton – also carry a burden, given it requires both significant land and water to grow.

And while production alone may contribute to waste, Bye also illustrates how clothing returns and “donations” also add to the landfill piles.

“Only about 10 percent of that ever gets resold,” she said, noting that the rest get packaged to be: “Shipped overseas, mostly to Western African countries… And what they don’t end up selling ends up in their waste stream, a lot of it in their water.”

Add in the pollution from the dyeing and finishing processes – and the fact some high-end designers will burn their garments, rather than see them end up in a second-hand market – and Bye sees plenty of reasons for discouragement.

But she also sees hope in future designers committed to sustainable fashion.

“One of my students is working with zero waste,” Bye said, noting that the student is avoiding the 10-20% waste that results when scraps end up on the cutting room floor by: “Trying to look at concepts for design where you use every inch of the fabric.”

“I have another student who is working on designs for longevity and that can transform,” Bye said, noting that the designs could include a pair of pants that would become shorts.

And still another of Bye’s design students is harnessing both her own talents and the wisdom of her Native American elders for guidance on sustainability.

‘We need to listen to Native people’

As part of her PhD dissertation called “Clothing Values ​​of Anishinaabe,” Sage Davis seeks to capture the wisdom within her own community.

“I interviewed four Ojibwe-language speakers about their clothing practices,” she said, adding that the goal was to learn, “How we can be more sustainable with our clothing use.”

Among the practices that Davis documented is an Anishinaabe appreciation of the full clothing cycle from production to actual use. It’s an appreciation Davis said is not shared by most fashion consumers.

“As consumers, we just walk into the store and we see all of the beautiful garments and we don’t see, you know, all of the work that goes into it,” Davis said, describing the current reality.

Beyond the hands-on understanding of what it takes to create clothing, Davis also says Anishinaabe designers focus on detail – “exquisite” touches she says also invite sustainability.

“Because of all the work that goes into it, it’s not something that people just throw away,” she said.

And Davis notes Anishinaabe designers also show a keen awareness of the materials used in their designs.

“How do we get those materials? We need to go about it in a respectful way,” she said.

Essentially, Davis believes Anishinaabe designers practice sustainability by understanding the relationship between materials and earth and, even, consumers with themselves.

“If we understood ourselves more, we would understand our styles more. And then that would start to limit what we buy,” Davis said from her workshop filled with brightly colored ribbons and pictures of her grandma, aunt and other relatives who’ve taught her the Anishinaabe traditions.

“We need to listen to Native people,” she reflected.

‘Why would you get something new when we have enough already in this world?’

Leave it to the ladies of Lula Vintage to represent yet another option for sustainable fashion.

On a chilly recent weekday, the shop on St. Paul’s Selby Avenue was bustling with loyal Lula customers trying on fashions from past years, even past decades.

“Fashion is trend, style is forever,” said one of the enthusiastic shoppers who looked like she was dressed in couture from head to toe.

“I love history. So I like that part about it that it’s unique in that way, that it also had a life before and that it carries on,” said Genie Castro while shifting through a patchwork of beautiful vintage jackets.

The store itself has carried on since 1992. But the St. Paul treasure is also marking something of a new era when it comes to its widening appeal among customers.

“More teenagers are coming here. More, more young people get their prom dresses here,” said Hayley Bush, Lula’s owner, who added that she opened the store because: “I love vintage clothing, and I always have.”

And while Lula’s loyal, original customers also continue to flock to the store’s color-coordinated shelves, Bush believes this new, broader interest will only boost her business while also protecting the environment.

“The more it’s normal, the more people will participate in it, and then the less likely there’ll be fast fashion,” she said. “Why would you get something new when we have enough already in this world?”

What YOU can do

The United Nations is helping to lead the fight against the fashion industry’s toll on the planet. Through the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashionthe organization is coordinating sustainability efforts across countries and the industry.

But Professor Bye said individual consumers can also play a part in fighting fast fashion.

“Be thoughtful in the process,” Bye said.

More specifically, Bye and others recommend the following for consumers striving to become more sustainable:

Shop at a vintage or second-hand store.

Buy fewer items that are high-quality (similar to the Anishinaabe beliefs in valuing one’s clothing).

Swap clothes with a friend.

Consider renting clothes.

Shop your closet, given that Bye notes: “We only wear seven percent of what’s in our closet.”

Bottom line, Bye recommends a little self-reflection before embarking on a shopping spree.

“Just think before you buy,” she said, before suggesting you ask yourself one simple question: “Do you absolutely love it?”


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