How Can Fashion Design Students Help Fix the Textile Waste Crisis?

Through a new sustainability course, they become part of the solution.

The fashion industry produces roughly 150 billion items annually. That’s enough to provide 19 new garments to every person on the planet every year.

Plus, the average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothing a year, sending some 23 billion pounds to the landfill in the U.S. alone.

“It’s shocking and sobering,” says Carly Kusy, assistant professor of fashion design at Jefferson. “We have an industry fueled by over-production and over-consumption, which has led to a massive textile waste crisis.”

Mahdiya Trudeau-Williams standing next to her designs
Senior Mahdiya Trudeau-Williams stands next to the two looks she created for the “Sustainability Concepts for Fashion Design” course. (Photos by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

The fast-fashion trend has perpetuated this “culture of disposability” over the past 20 to 30 years, she says. These cheaply made garments generally get tossed after just five wears.

“We have brands literally making clothes to fall apart,” Kusy explains. “They’re not meant to be quality pieces that are lasting items in your wardrobe. They’re meant to be trendy and of the moment. Then, you’re on to the next thing and buy something new. We have to change the relationship we have with our clothing to one of respect and integrity.”

To shift the paradigm and build on work done through Jefferson’s Design X fashion show, Kusy has developed a new required course for all fashion design juniors. Now in its second semester, “Sustainability Concepts for Fashion Design” shows how the field can be a tool for positive change.

“Sustainability is such a multifaceted issue,” she says. “It’s at the intersection of politics, the economy, racial justice, equality and the environment. We tackle all of these issues.”

Student designs made for the sustainability course
As part of the sustainability course, students turn unwanted items and garments into new looks.

The course covers topics like the harsh conditions of workers making clothes in developing countries and the use of more sustainable textiles. For example, companies now produce natural alternatives, such as waste pineapple leaf fiber, for leather.

Kusy’s class also examines how the fashion industry can move from a linear to a circular system. Meaning, products must be scrutinized from the sourcing and manufacturing process through to extending their wear and recycling the items.

“I try to open up students’ eyes to the problems we face as well as how they’re being addressed and how they can be part of the solution—both as designers and consumers,” says Kusy, who has her own fashion line that focuses on sustainability and zero waste.

Carly Kusy and Mahdiya Trudeau-Williams standing outside Hayward Hall
Fashion design professor Carly Kusy (left) developed the sustainability course to show the problems in the industry and how students can be part of the solution. “I think this is one of our most important courses,” says senior Mahdiya Trudeau-Williams (right). “This is the direction that fashion must head in.”

In her favorite project in the course, Kusy tasks students to turn unwanted items and garments into a completely new look. She asks them to upcycle, repurpose or restyle pieces in their closet or drawer through problem-solving, creativity, resourcefulness and innovation.

As an added challenge, students can’t produce any new waste when designing the looks, now on display in Hayward Hall. They have used a variety of items, including a stuffed animal, an old nightgown, a vintage satin bedspread, a denim jacket and a flannel shirt.

Senior Brianna MacFarland earned the best student design award in the Circular Design Competition at Philly Fashion Week for one of her two pieces created for the class project.

Student designs made for the sustainability course
As an added challenge, fashion students couldn't produce any new waste when designing the looks.

She designed a jumpsuit and an after-party jacket, the latter accented with deflated balloons and streamers for an avant-garde touch. MacFarland created the looks that could be worn to “any party and for any season.”

“It gets rid of the principle of fast fashion,” says MacFarland, who also resourcefully used the balloons to cinch the jumpsuit. “This course widened my concept of how I should be designing.”

Not only that, she says the sustainability skills and knowledge gained during the course helped her to land a summer internship at American Eagle.

“Sustainability must be part of a modern, forward-thinking fashion education,” says Kusy, noting Jefferson will continue to explore additional ways to cover the topic in the curriculum. “Employers are increasingly looking to Generation Z to bring new ideas to the table. Sustainability is part of that conversation.”

Brianna MacFarland wearing her designs

Brianna MacFarland won a design award at Philly Fashion Week for her after-party jacket (on the mannequin). She’s wearing her second look, an exposed jumpsuit. (Photo/courtesy Brianna MacFarland)

Senior Mahdiya Trudeau-Williams says taking this course has further solidified her interest in pursuing a career in sustainable fashion, including zero-waste design, upcycling and natural dyes.

In one of her two looks, she used only nylon stockings, an item that rips easily and can’t be thrifted, Trudeau-Williams says. “I wanted to play on everyday clothes that get discarded like they’re nothing.”

She loved the problem-solving aspect of the project, which made her appreciate even more the amount of waste produced in design.

“I think this is one of our most important courses,” Trudeau-Williams says. “This is the direction that fashion must head in.”

Student designs made for the sustainability course
For this design project, Tiana McCarthy used two skirts and a tunic top (left); Danny Feeney repurposed a vintage satin bedspread, crochet table runners and a knit pillowcase (right).

Kusy says students generally become engaged and passionate about the issues surrounding sustainability after taking the course.

“A switch has been flipped,” she says. “They can’t unsee what they saw. They can’t unlearn. They know they have to move forward differently.”

Along with teaching students about sustainability, Kusy also hopes people become more conscious consumers, especially as the holidays approach.

“It’s about slowing down and thinking before we make a purchase,” she urges. “Where did this product come from? Is someone getting paid a fair wage to make it? If it costs $5, probably not. Are we going to take care of the piece and wear it multiple times? You can even shop secondhand. Anyone on any budget can be a more sustainable consumer.”

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Design and Style