We’re finally at a point where most people have acknowledged the terrible impact humans have inflicted on the planet and are becoming aware of the dire consequences we will face if we don’t take decisive action soon. Whether it’s the extinction of animals and habitat, rising sea levels, or the toxicity of our air and water, these are all manmade problems, and only we can fix them. While more organizations and individuals are making a difference through grassroots efforts, the reality is that without governments and industries doing their part, we won’t be able to create sustainable change before it’s too late to save the planet.
Some of the most significant industrial polluters are plastics manufacturers, fossil-fuel companies, agri-business, and the fashion industry. Yes, the fashion industry. Most people don’t realize that the fashion industry is now the second-largest polluter in the world. It has earned this position because of a combination of the way clothing is manufactured, industrial water pollution, synthetic materials made with oil, and the effects of fast fashion. Fast fashion enables consumers to buy more products cheaply and then quickly dispose of them when they are no longer in vogue, or they wear out. As a result, humans go through 80 billion pieces of clothing each year which could supply up to six generations.
In many garment-producing countries, neglected toxic wastewaters from textiles factories are dumped directly into nearby rivers. Wastewater contains life-threatening substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, among others. These are extremely harmful to aquatic life and the health of communities living near these rivers. And every time we wash a synthetic garment, roughly 1,900 individual microfibers are released into the water, making their way into our oceans for small aquatic fish to digest.
In addition to environmental pollution and waste, the fashion industry is known for the appalling way that it sources and treats its’ labor force and sources materials. Over one billion animals are slaughtered for their fur or hide every year, usually after living in terrible factory farms, and many humans aren’t treated much better. According to Human Rights Watch, Cambodian clothing factories, which export around $5.7 billion in clothes every year, pay workers 50 cents an hour for an 11-hour shift without allowing them even to use the restroom.
Fortunately, younger consumers like Generation Z are more aware of the environmental and human consequences of the fashion industry and are reducing their consumption or buying from eco-friendly companies. Major retailers are also beginning to invest in sustainable technologies and have pledged to reduce their environmental footprint. In addition, many new fashion companies are basing their entire brands around sustainability. HBCU Clean Energy Initiative recognizes three entrepreneurs of color committed to changing the reputation of the fashion industry.
Galeria.la is an eco-fashion company founded by Dechel McKillian. McKillian is a celebrity stylist from Los Angeles who launched her online and retail brand to present sustainable and unique designers mindful of their carbon footprint. After working and traveling alongside her celebrity clients, Mckillian was able to see the negative impacts of the fashion industry first-hand. From the way factories were run to the polluting manufacturing process, she realized how unsustainable the fashion industry was and recognized that she could have a significant impact by showcasing sustainable fashion. Eventually, she launched her brand selling clothing, clean beauty, and lifestyle goods. Many of her products are locally manufactured in Los Angeles, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of shipping and creating local jobs. Her philosophy is fashion with integrity through the thoughtful curation of sustainable fashion from emerging brands.
Aurora James, a New York City creative director, began her journey with a background in art, music, fashion, photography, journalism, and horticulture. Combined with a love of artisanship and her sense of humanitarianism, James founded her company to keep traditional African design practices and techniques alive while also creating and sustaining artisanal jobs.
Products are handmade, and materials are sourced globally from farmers who use sustainable practices such as vegetable-tanned leathers, soles produced from recycled tires, hand-carved wood, and various other by-product materials.
Nia Thomas is an ethically made, independent fashion brand founded in 2018. After graduating with a BFA in Fashion Design from The Fashion Institute of Technology, Nia Thomas created her brand a year later, producing one-of-a-kind garments and eccentric jewelry inspired by her nomadic lifestyle. “I take pride in being a part of a new generation of designers that believe in doing work that is revolutionary in sustainable ethics and social commentary about the times we live in.”
She often uses recycled or deadstock fabric and brings the color back to life with plant-based dyes made of food scraps. These ingredients, used for centuries, are much better for the skin and do not contain chemicals poured back into the fragile ecosystems. The company also manufactures in New York City, and Nia regularly conducts in-person visits to ensure that employees are paid fairly, treated respectfully, and work in safe conditions.
As the fashion industry is the second-largest industrial polluter, it is refreshing to see entrepreneurs that believe the change begins with them. Through innovation and sustainable practices, these women produce beautiful creations and make a positive impact in the world. Environmentally friendly manufacturing, ethical sourcing, and utilization of local artisans ensure they make a difference in the entire product lifecycle while also protecting economically disadvantaged communities, which inevitably bear the brunt of unsustainable practices.
To learn more about HBCU Clean Energy Initiative, click here.
To find out which HBCUs offer fashion programs, click here.
For more information on other environmental pioneers, click here.