With growing jobs and climate action in the news, fashion sustainability is a field that designers can no longer ignore. The practice of making quality clothes while preserving the planet is the mission behind the new Fashion Sustainability certificate at Parsons. Jennifer Whitty, Assistant Professor of Fashion Systems and Materiality, created the certificate to give designers the insights they need to be at the forefront of the sustainability movement and the power to make an impact on people and the planet.
Originally from Ireland, Whitty is an internationally award-winning designer and educator. She has worked in Paris, London, Copenhagen, Dublin, Shanghai, and Beijing among other major cities. She has been published globally and is one of the first foreign recipients of the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) Scholarship (2019-2022) in Xi'an, China. She was also awarded the Gold A Design Award in Sustainable Products, Projects and Green Design Category, 2016 – 2017 in Milan, Italy, and the Supreme Award Winner, New Designer Grand Prix, Onward Kashiyama, in Tokyo, Japan.
Whitty recently reflected on the global reach of fashion sustainability, the social responsibility of brands, and how the industry’s priorities have shifted during COVID-19.
How has your international experience influenced your teaching?
It has cultivated a need for constant observation and awareness and has kept me sharp and attuned to pay close attention to everything. It has also helped my critical thinking questioning many of our western neo-liberal paradigms, and legacies such as colonization anthropocentrism.
I think it has broadened my scope and general knowledge, and given me greater empathy and respect for different cultures and different ways of being and doing. I’m used to being humble and flexible in my thinking and teaching, recognizing that what I take as a "given" or a norm may not be in another culture.
As our world continues to shrink and become segregated, having a global perspective is important to try to understand alternative worldviews to help bridge a divided world. My network is broad and global, I can connect students to practitioners across the planet. The world feels boundless and full of possibilities and this is something I instill in my students, so they too feel citizens of the globe and are respectful of all its inhabitants.
What trends have you noticed worldwide in sustainable fashion?
Much of the fashion design industry is preoccupied with the finished product – the "things"- the "garments" that are often developed without consideration of the entire context – the entire lifecycle of clothing, its use phase and end of life. I have learned to reimagine the fashion system as part of nature, a "whole place," that honors and is conscious of all worldviews and different modalities of time. Being able to have a meta/global view helps one to understand what opportunities or leverage points there are to disrupt the status quo, to foster social and environmental good.
Designers are considering opportunities for design to happen across the entire value chain, beyond just the "thing," the garment and how it is made, but how the entire fashion system is organized and operates - new business models, networks, infrastructures, policy, and on a meta existential level why fashion is produced and consumed.
How has COVID-19 shifted the priorities for fashion sustainability?
Due to COVID, everything has been opened up for reinvention, as the inequalities, and inequities of our fashion system have been exposed. Millions of garment makers; the majority are women of color, the most vulnerable players in this system, despite being the largest proportion of the fashion workforce; they hold no power and are the first to be hit by the ravages of the pandemic. For myself and many others working in the change space of sustainable fashion, these cracks were not new to us. They existed long before COVID-19. It is symptomatic of much larger entrenched issues in the fashion system and the larger economic and political system in which it operates. Despite our best efforts, change has occurred on the margins, not at the core, where it needs to happen. What is urgently needed is a reconstruction of the real value chain. To create one that is in harmony with the needs of us all, through inclusivity, with the purpose of betterment, and the protection of the entire ecosystem.
Why do you think fashion sustainability is important to study now? How have you seen the field evolve?
The field of sustainable fashion is a global movement that is gaining in power and traction every year, it is now a force to be reckoned with – a far cry from when I started working in it over 15 years ago. Studying this field is important as it helps make fashion relevant to the 21st century. It is an opportunity for an individual or an organization to be at the forefront, leading the way to create meaning on an individual and societal level. It is a chance to give your work meaning so that it has a positive impact on people and the planet.
What are the challenges to sustainable fashion practices? Why is it so difficult for popular brands to achieve?
The challenges are manifold, our shortened attention span and short-term thinking make us easy prey for a system that is adept at driving artificial need. The current system does not encourage people to be active clothing wearers – rather we are kept passive, and clothing values and feelings that are derived from connection, justice, kindness, and empathy are not given time to flourish.
It’s difficult for brands to be “sustainable” as most focus more on a component of the system – the garment – than the system as a whole. A single garment cannot be sustainable – it is how it is made, used, and disposed of that makes it sustainable.
Most brands are short-term in their thinking, focusing on material replacement or the technical level rather than at a higher-system level. They also are not prepared to open up the complex dialogue that sustainability truly is, and be open to dissenting opinions, radical ideas, and progressive solutions.
Everything is interconnected. If your entire company is built on low cost/high volume and disposal items that the brand does not take ownership of, having a sustainable line is just a token gesture; it undermines the entire authenticity of movement and is deceitful to consumers. Customers need to do their bit and give brands a chance to turn things around and not get everything right immediately.
What are some small steps designers can take to be more sustainable in their practices?
Becoming more intentional about every action - whether it be communication, packaging, fabrics, or transportation. Each decision has an impact - asking little things like does that garment really need those layers of plastic for wrapping?
What kind of materials are considered more sustainable?
Broadly speaking sustainability has both social and environmental considerations, so it’s important to not only consider how something is made, but where and by whom. Linen is one of my favourites, it’s associated traditionally with Ireland, where I’m from, and has been used in clothes making for thousands of years. Hemp is on-par with linen when it comes to its sustainability credentials. Organics cotton grown without pesticides helps protect the cotton itself, as well as nearby flora and fauna, and cotton workers. As someone who tries to buy cruelty-free I also love peace silk as the silkworms are not killed in the process as they are with regular silk. Second hand - post consumer, or pre-consumer waste or recyclable are also good alternatives that bypass the need for virgin fibres and all that they entail.
What aspects of the certificate are hands-on?
There are many opportunities for students to get hands-on with the cert, they can dive in straight away to analyzing their own workplace or wardrobe. They can do this through data analysis, observation, but also reverse engineering, sketching, designing, and making to make their ideas manifest. The course allows for people to work to their strengths and use multimedia as part of their process. Ultimately this course is about looking for "real-world" opportunities to apply the ideas developed in the course in a given context to activate change - it doesn't get more "hands-on" in my opinion than that!
Who do you think should enroll in this certificate?
I think this course is suitable for a range of people – some might be looking for a project to get their teeth sunk into from a social and environmental perspective. Or it could be someone working in fashion who would like to learn to overcome barriers to change, to rewrite a fashion career towards their intrinsic values.
Sustainable fashion is a good career to pursue as it mixes passion with purpose. One can be part of the vanguard of new roles that are transforming the field of fashion.
What other skills can be developed with this certificate that can be used in other industries?
Throughout this certificate students will develop a broad skill set and a shift in perspective that can apply to any given field. This will include learning the basics of the methodology and methods of design thinking, methods and frameworks for social innovation, strategic thinking, business acumen, and an understanding of how to implement ideas.
What do you hope students learn about the fashion industry from the certificate?
I hope students learn the ability to see opportunity in any given situation, that they activate their strategic thinking, and are able to analyze their workplace or personal practices in a broader context. I hope this is coupled with the confidence and conviction to take action.
The industry is vast and varied, and just because something has been done a certain way for several years, it doesn't mean that it has to continue if it is causing environmental and social harm. There are many opportunities in which to intervene.
Check out the new Fashion Sustainability certificate or explore our other fashion courses. Learn more about Jennifer Whitty's sustainable fashion initiatives on Space Between.