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Harlem's Fashion Row launches inaugural sustainability forum

By Kristopher Fraser


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Image: Harlem's Fashion Row

Harlem’s Fashion Row launched its inaugural sustainability forum on April 21. The goal of the event is to educate the multicultural fashion community on issues and careers in sustainable fashion, and allow designers and retailers to integrate sustainability into their brands, reduce production waste, and find innovative solutions to producing fashion with minimal impact on Earth. This year’s sponsors include American Eagle Outfitters, Macy’s Inc., Rent the Runway, and Tapestry.

Kimberly Minor, president of fitness apparel company Bandier, pointed out that one of the hot topics around sustainability today is how resale, vintage, and thrifting are treated like something new when they’ve been going on for years. Rather than looking at what we have already been doing to focus on sustainability, we should look at what we aren’t doing yet. When the conversation around sustainability began, the first thing the industry did was go after fast-fashion brands, when they weren’t the only environmentally unfriendly culprits.

“The three key things people want from sustainability are to be on-trend, have a really good price point, and save the Earth,” Minor said. “The problem with that is these three things are like kumquats, apples, and tomatoes.”

Minor said one of the important aspects of sustainability is getting customers to pay more for quality products and buy fewer products overall. In the spirit of getting people to shop less, there are apparel rental programs.

Megan Farrell, senior director of sustainability at Rent The Runway, pointed out that whereas brands you see on the runway will have four to six seasons, fast fashion operates on a 52 micro-season cycle. This creates rapid overconsumption, and today we are buying double the amount of clothes we purchased in the ‘90s. According to Farrell, 3 out of 5 fast-fashion purchases end up in a landfill.

In addition, most fast-fashion products are manufactured abroad by communities of color who are more subject to climate catastrophe if we continue on an unsustainable path. Companies, like Tapestry, are taking a reduce, reuse, and recycle approach to alleviating fashion waste.

Coach’s repair program involves U.S.-based factories repairing any Coach bag within the brand’s 80-year history. Coach’s (Re)Loved Exchange program also offers customers the chance to trade in their bags to be recycled or reimagined. This helps create a less wasteful approach to things.

For others, sustainability starts in the classroom. Danielle Brown, a fashion design professor at Bowie State University, says that one way to reduce waste rather than throwing your old clothes away is to donate them to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like her own institution. Young students often don’t have the resources for endless supplies of fabric, and donations like these could help uplift HBCU's fashion programs.

Her goal in educating the next generations of designers is to get to a point where we are as close to 100 percent sustainability as possible. “I want to get to a point where if you aren’t wearing sustainable clothing, you’re frowned upon,” she said.

Large-scale retailers, like Macy’s, are doing their best to put their money where their mouth is. Macy’s made a 5 billion dollar commitment to equity and sustainability, and is working toward best practices for sustainable fashion.

For their brands, they try to help them find places to incorporate sustainability into their products. It can be as simple as avoiding certain dyes and chemical processes. Brands also need to re-evaluate and review what factories they are using to ensure they are sustainable.

As Keelin Evans, senior director of sustainability at Macy’s, puts it, “Sustainability means longevity.” As companies work on moving toward more sustainable practices, Harlem’s Fashion Row’s Sustainability Forum as a how-to guide.

Harlem's Fashion Row