When you think about industries that are harmful to the environment, chances are metals, plastic, or coal come to mind. But not the clothes in your closet. So consider this the next time you try on a sweater or buy a new pair of shoes: the fashion industry places such a heavy burden on the environment that some critics call it one of the dirtiest industries in the world.
“The fashion industry has really been under the gun lately, from manufacturing processes to how it treats employees,” says Darby Hobbs, a Questrom School of Business lecturer in strategy and innovation.
That’s starting to change. And some BU students and alumni are determined to play a leading role in that change. They are part of a growing sustainable fashion movement, launching ethical businesses and nonprofits that seek to make the fashion industry cleaner and healthier for consumers—and the environment.
New life for old jeans
When you donate clothing to thrift stores or collection bins, you just assume the clothes will be reused—perhaps even locally. But that’s not always true. Donated clothing is often shipped overseas—primarily to Africa—putting African clothing makers out of work and filling the continent’s landfills.
This is what inspired graduate student DL Lundberg (SPH) to help launch Make Fashion Clean (MFC), a nonprofit that helps artisans in Ghana create upcycled fashion from secondhand American clothing. MFC’s newest product is the Blue Circle Bag, a handbag created from discarded American jeans and sold back to American consumers. “By making fashion out of existing denim, we support living wages for artisans and eliminate the environmental pollution that would be associated with using new fabrics,” Lundberg says.
In addition, MFC creates work for artisans whose livelihood is threatened by the glut of donated clothing. “Many women who relied on seamstress jobs have been put out of work because of the overwhelming amount of donated clothing arriving in Africa,” says Lundberg, who lived in Ghana for two years and participated in the Innovate@BU Summer Accelerator Program in 2018.
“Used garments are not waste,” Lundberg says. “They have value, and they are waiting to be created into something new.”
Technology matches buyers and sellers
As a BU undergrad, Alexandra Shadrow (CGS’12, COM’15) wanted to sell some of the clothing and accessories she no longer loved. But how? She started an online marketplace, UNItiques.com, and her first goal was simply to help college students unload excess clothing and make a few bucks, but her mission broadened.
“I learned how badly the environment is impacted by fashion waste,” Shadrow says. For example, growing cotton for fabric is so environmentally harmful that it takes 2,720 liters of water and one third of a pound of pesticides to make a single T-shirt. And only 15 percent of clothing and textiles are reused or recycled, with the rest going to landfills or incinerators. “I realized the fastest way to change that was to stop buying new fashion,” she says.
She recently relaunched her online marketplace as Relovv, a mobile app that uses technology created for dating apps. Using data analytics and machine learning, Relovv matches buyers and sellers of secondhand fashion based on factors such as size, style preferences, and budget.
Relovv’s mission is to make it easy for fashion fans to enjoy the brands they love while saving money, preserving natural resources, and protecting the environment. “The more items sold, the less that ends up in landfills,” Shadrow says. “By making it a great experience, I want to shift the paradigm. I want to give people a fun way to get involved in sustainable fashion.”
A desire to apply design in exciting new ways led Cody Ben Lewis (CFA’16) to use computer algorithms to reimagine traditional sock patterns. For example, Lewis used open source drawings contributed by worldwide players of the game Quick, Draw! by Google to design socks with a unique cat pattern.
Started as a design thesis during his senior year, Lewis’ sock company, string&&loop, sells limited-edition socks featuring patterns you won’t find anywhere else.
Making ethical choices about sourcing was a top priority for Lewis. When he sought a manufacturer for his socks, he skipped Asia and turned to Greensboro, N.C., a city with a long history of textile manufacturing. The family-run company he selected uses locally produced raw materials to bring string&&loop designs to life. “Where the materials are made is important to me, and fair labor practices are also important,” he says.
Lewis is proud to offer products that align with his values while giving his customers high-quality, creative socks. “When I received the samples, they were honestly just amazing. They are some of the softest and best socks you’ve ever worn,” he says. “I would only sell what I wear and love myself.”
Turning trash into treasure
Seeing piles of clothing, bedding, furniture, and other items abandoned on sidewalks outside dorms and apartments convinced senior Pablo Ferreyra (ENG) that students needed an easy way to sell unwanted stuff. But after hearing friends complain about how stressful it is to peddle used products through platforms such as Craigslist, he knew there had to be a better way.
“A lot of people throw stuff away because it’s so impractical to sell it,” says Ferreyra, who participated in the Innovate@BU Summer Accelerator Program in 2018. “Students don’t want to spend time figuring out how to list something. And they don’t feel safe meeting up in person with a complete stranger and paying for something in cash.”
Ferreyra and classmate and fellow senior Soon Hong (ENG) created Verto, a machine learning–enhanced secondhand e-commerce platform that allows students to buy and sell used goods affordably, safely, and efficiently. Unlike other online marketplaces, Verto verifies users as students by requiring them to register with a .edu email, provides secure payment options, and offers flexible delivery options, including same-day delivery by local courier services.
Although Verto started mainly as a marketplace for electronics, it recently added fashion items such as athletic shoes, jewelry, watches, and handbags. “Verto is a good way to reduce students’ carbon footprint and keep some of these products out of landfills,” Ferreyra says.
Alice Lesch Kelly (GRS’92) is a freelance writer. Send emails to email@example.com.