In response to the growing climate crisis, Cornell students and researchers have jumped on the global trend of sustainable fashion with studies on earth-friendly materials and dedicated academic programs.
From COP26’s inclusion of fashion in its yearly climate conversation to corporate promises to end plastic waste and reduce their carbon footprints, the sustainable fashion conversation has overtaken the world.
In the first days of 2022, New York became the country’s first state to require big name brands to provide logistical information about the production of their pieces, such as the volume of recycled material used, through the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act.
Under this rule, brands like Nike will be subject to fines of up to 2 percent of its revenue of $450 million or more if legislation isn’t adhered to.
The same national and state urgency behind fashion’s role in science can be seen at the University as well. Cornell’s focus on the interface of fashion and humanity drew fashion design management major Mia Bachrack ’25 to the university in the first place.
“What really drew me to the school is its heavy science arm and its focus on sustainability,” Bachrack said.
Bachrack emphasized the value of a human ecology viewpoint on fashion, noting that fashion is essentially the study of people and their individual styles.
When masks were in short supply at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bachrack did research on the mechanics of non-woven options and created her own face coverings for family members who struggled to obtain high-quality masks.
According to Bachrack, the particles of non-woven interfacing are like a bowl of spaghetti –– they’re all tangled up, so they can block a lot of particles. Bachrack purchased bandanas to tie around her face and ironed non-woven polyester interfacing in between.
Building on her preexisting design and creation experience, Bachrack took advantage of Cornell’s programs to learn new ideas and techniques. She took a summer class at Cornell University to design a fashion collection: a profile of several sustainable garments built from scratch. When designing the garments, she made sure to include sustainable materials.
Drawing inspiration from Mimi Prober, last year’s designer-in-residence in the College of Human Ecology’s Jill Stuart Gallery, Bachrack utilized natural dye techniques where she colored her clothing pieces with fruits, vegetables and insects in the College of Human Ecology’s natural dye studio.
This dying technique, similar to the tye dye effect, involves dampening the apparel of choice, adding acid to retain the color and sprinkling in items of choice — for Bachrack it was flowers, seeds and beetle parts.
During her time at Cornell, Bachrack expressed her interest in exploring the mutual relationship between fashion and the environment.
Prof. Margaret Frey, human centered design, noted the importance of a circular fashion to improve sustainability in the industry. Circular fashion focuses on post-consumer use, reusing discarded resources and remaking them into new pieces.
Frey stated that incorporating non-fashion related items into this cycle, such as using remade polyester from plastic water and soda bottles for apparel, is also beneficial.
However, Frey said that even reused polyester products — like nylon and spandex — are non-biodegradable fibers. They do not break down in the environment and thus have contributed to the emerging issue of microplastic pollution.
However, there are ways a consumer can mitigate this occurrence. Individuals can place microplastic filters in their laundry machines to capture them before they enter the water stream. They can also put clothing in specialized bags within the washing machine to contain all microfibers, and there are many gadgets that can accumulate microfibers to prevent pollution.
Until the fashion industry collectively minimizes its negative impact on the environment, consumers must pick up new habits to align with a more sustainable future, and Cornell’s creators and researchers are primed to assist in the process.