One of the buzziest themes of this past New York Fashion Week was carbon neutrality. Gabriela Hearst produced a runway show with a reduced carbon footprint, complete with local models in heat-free hair styling. Industry giant Gucci publicly shared that the brand is now wholly carbon neutral, an announcement that comes months after Burberry shared its own plans to do the same. It may seem as though a sustainable fashion future is one built from the top down, but the work being done within fashion education courses at schools like Central Michigan University might prove otherwise.
"It's one of the first questions young people today are asking," says Professor Michael Mamp regarding sustainability and the new students he encounters in the school's Fashion Merchandising and Design program. Mamp, Professor of Fashion, Merchandising & Design, has been at CMU for the past seven years and believes, "Gen Z really is extremely aware of, and concerned with, issues related to the environment. Upfront they're asking questions about, how do we integrate sustainable practice — practice that could help transform the industry." Thankfully, these are questions that speak right to CMU's DNA.
"Sustainability has really been a part of our mission statement in our department and in the fashion program for quite some time," says Mamp, who teaches classes in 3D modeling and design, fashion history and queer fashion at the Mount Pleasant campus. "Many programs say, 'this is the sustainability course,' but we've been looking holistically. It's one of the imperatives of our university."
It's no surprise that the fashion industry is known for producing in excess and one of the main priorities at CMU is educating students to be more waste-conscious. "When a [design] goes to a manufacturer somewhere overseas, there's a sample," explains Mamp of a common practice. "It gets updated, sent back, and they make another sample. What we've been focused on for decades now is the integration of technologies into the process that attempt to reduce the need for that waste in sampling."
As Mamp says, this technology education includes learning how to utilize industry-specific, Computer-Aided Design (or CAD) software — something CMU has used for decades. Students learn how to develop and approve a design without the carbon footprint of physical sampling. Additionally, in the last few years, the school has begun to incorporate 3D printing. This method trains students to create "through an additive process versus a subtractive process," Mamp explains. "You're only using the materials you need to create that product versus when you're cutting materials away and then discarding them."
Further sustainability efforts include offering online courses to obtain CMU’s fashion degree, and therefore reducing the strain on personal and environmental resources required to live on campus. In addition, thanks to recently-appointed university president, Robert Davies, the entire school is aligned to prioritize sustainability in all areas of study.
Ultimately, the example CMU is setting goes far beyond the classroom. As Mamp shares, the training students receive at CMU directly relates to work they pursue post-graduation. "Our students go into jobs like project development specialist, product manager, sometimes CAD designer," he says. While some pursue a path at a smaller, high-end brand, Mamp points out that CMU students' greatest path for employment, as well as to lead change, are at mass consumer brands such as Target, Kohl's or Meijer. "The focus and the opportunity is really more on mass consumption, but then how do we make mass consumption sustainable."
Along with the Guccis and Burberrys of the world, arguably it's the mass fashion producers that have the most work to do — and the biggest potential impact to make — when it comes to improving their use of resources and reevaluating the ethics of their supply chains. Like Mamp, they might look to the example of incoming CMU students who don't hesitate to question how sustainability is prioritized. "Although fashion constantly changes, our processes in the industry are like moving a glacier through the eye of the needle," says Mamp. "Hopefully when they go out into the industry they have an ability to try to help to continue to break that cycle."