Fashion Industry Panel
Lori Kartchner, Curator of Education at the George Washington University’s Textile Museum, introducing curator (Laurel Anderson Hoffner) and panelists (Robin Ruge, Caitlin Rooney, Holly Thompson, and Tara Vassefi); Credit: Nahawi Hoop

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During an hour-long panel discussion with fashion activists, on Saturday, Sept. 24, students and visitors of the George Washington University Textile Museum learned how to approach fashion from a circular perspective instead of a linear one. Clothing, panelists argued, should be seen and treated as something people can rewear and repair, even when it’s no longer in style.  

“We think of clothes as something that’s disposable, but why not look at it as something to hold on to, something that we can reuse,” says Katherine Christopher, one of the organizers of the panel and the chairperson of Climate Classes DC, an organization that educates people on how they can address climate change in their own lives. 

In D.C., six percent of residential trash is made up of clothing and textiles. And, according to Tara Vassefi, a program analyst with D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment, the way residents get rid of clothes that are no longer in fashion—largely throwing items away—has an annual cost of $200,000.

“Right now we are working on a zero waste plan for the city,” Vassefi said during the panel discussion. 

The goal is to divert at least 80 percent of waste in the city from landfills, which can be accomplished by recycling. “We are organizing all these events around the city where people can swap their clothes, repair their furniture, and learn about recycling. It’s all for free,” Vassefi said, encouraging attendees to participate. 

The production of garments that consumers only wear for one fashion season makes up 10 percent of carbon emissions, dries up water resources, and pollutes rivers and streams. And when consumers don’t recycle their clothes after they go out of style, it takes 20 to 200 years for these materials—often made with toxic dyes—to decompose if they end up in landfills. 

While local climate and fashion activists are asking people to reconsider the consequences of overconsumption and textile waste, other fashion enthusiasts are reminiscing about New York Fashion Week, when American luxury brands revealed their latest collections for the upcoming season. The most important people in the industry fly in from all over to attend. The biannual event, which takes place in February and September, sets the tone and defines the newest clothing  trends. 

“In a way, we thought about this event as a response to New York Fashion Week. We want people to be wary of all these new trends,” says Christopher. “The next time people go out and buy a new piece of clothing, we want them to recall this event and the things they learned,” she said while acknowledging that recycling is not our only option when it comes to being mindful of sustainable fashion. 

Apart from donating clothes, trading garments at clothing swaps, and visiting secondhand stores, buying new items from fashion brands that also approach the industry from a circular perspective, is another way to advocate for change. 

Panelist Robin Runge, a law professor at George Washington University and expert on gender-based violence in the workforce, urged the audience to interact with these sustainable fashion brands. Writing reviews on websites and expressing why we support certain brands instead of others, is crucial, she noted. 

“We need to shout from the rooftops, we need to communicate, we need to let our opinions be heard,” Runge said. 

One such company that listens to the positive feedback from its customers and takes action to promote this circular approach is Patagonia. The outdoor clothing brand has been providing consumers with free repair services since 2005, and on Sept. 14, the founder Yvon Chouinard donated his company, which is valued at roughly $3 billion, to a charitable trust and nonprofit organization. With this initiative, the billionaire and his family are planning to use all of the company’s profits to fight climate change. 

“Companies need to hear from us when they are taking a chance and sticking their neck out,” Runge said. 

She believes this active approach to supporting a company’s decisions to show more awareness for their involvement in climate change will also help show that sustainability is still profitable. That realization will hopefully bring change in the fashion industry’s approach to the environment.