Fashionably Forward: College students lead the way toward an environmentally minded industry



On a blustery afternoon in mid-March, The Getup Vintage of Ann Arbor, Michigan is a sight for sore, wintery eyes. Bright pops of color pepper the plethora of pieces that greet customers upon stepping through the purple threshold. From EPA quotes in their dressing rooms about textile waste, to cleaning their garments using house-made organic soap, to a curated collection of colorful clothing made to last, The Getup Vintage prides itself on sustainable practices.

In the United States, 81 pounds per person of clothing and household textiles are thrown out annually, while 95% of that which is thrown out has the potential to be recycled according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. The EPA has estimated that 3.8 billion pounds have been recovered through donation and recycling, which is about twelve pounds per person. In a 2017 Statista survey of 980 respondents aged 18 years and older, it was found that more than 50% of respondents own upcycled materials, including textiles.

People seem to be jumping on the recycling/upcycling train, with a specific demographic leading the pack: college students. Located just steps off campus, students frequent The Getup Vintage. They constitute almost 80% of the customers.

“I think especially the younger generation is pretty sick of fast fashion, of Forever21 blouses that fall apart after a wash,” said Kaylan Mitchell, co-owner of the shop. Mitchell commented on the increase in popularity in the past few years, and specifically cited an increase of 30% in sales in the past year.

In a global market where the apparel industry is worth almost $2 trillion, this shift in the consumption behaviors of a sizeable demographic – roughly 20.4 million students at American universities alone – starts to chip away at the impact of the industry.

“I like to quip at people that my mission is to save all the cutest things from landfills, but realistically that is actually what I’m trying to do,” said Mitchell.

She and co-owner Lindsey Leyland spend their time sourcing garments from all over. They focus on clothing ranging from the 50s through the 90s and in doing so have constructed a collection of forty years worth of textiles that have skirted a fateful demise in landfills.

Mitchell has seen a shift in the fashion industry with a focus on reusing textiles. Recently, designers seem to be creating new collections from vintage fabrics because, as Mitchell put it, “Everything has been done before.” Because of this, the popularity of sustainability is on the rise as the younger generation ages into the consumer role and impacts the fashion market.

Specifically on the University of Michigan campus, students have been the spearhead for sustainable fashion practices. Erin Wakeland, a sophomore in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, has been upcycling clothing for the past two years. She collects clothing from friends and family as well as secondhand stores that she then embellishes with original embroideries.

Currently, Stamps does not offer textile courses that deal with sustainability. However, Erin has found that taking interdisciplinary courses on environmental topics can inform her art practice. Through the application of sustainability, Wakeland has found a way to create garments that support the ethos of her company, I Wear The Plants In This House.

“There is a beauty in the combination of applied knowledge and [improvisation],” said Wakeland, in reference to the idea that through a combination of what she has learned and her individual creative perspective, she’s been able to develop her own practice in upcycling clothing.

For schools that focus specifically on fashion, a shift in the mindset surrounding the creation of textiles has occurred. The Fashion Institute of Technology is one of such schools. They created a Sustainability Council in 2009, showcasing the innovative nature of college campuses as the basis for a shift in clothing choices based on education regarding global environmental issues.

“The Council was formed as a way to develop projects, educate and bring awareness to sustainability on campus,” said Nomi Kleinman, a faculty member at the Institute teaching Textile/Surface Design and a member of the Council. The school offers courses such as Sustainability in Fashion Merchandising, Sustainable Packaging, Sustainable Practice Today, and more.

Prominent clothing companies have also jumped on the bandwagon, including Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. Careful consideration goes into their resource use, textile creation, energy consumption and life cycle of their products. They’ve started to better publicize their environmentally friendly behaviors through the use of social media, specifically on Instagram where the user demographic is made up by a majority of adults aged 18-29 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

Patagonia launched a clothing recycling program called Worn Wear in 2013. Worn Wear is a blog and sales platform promoting and enabling the repair and reuse of Patagonia garments, keeping them out of landfills. Worn Wear is also equipped with a truck and employee team who tour internationally to repair well-loved clothing items.

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In 2017, Worn Wear toured college campuses in partnership with PLAN, the Post Landfill Action Network which is a nonprofit focusing on the zero waste movement. The team visited the outdoor retailer, Bivouac, just steps off of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus. Visiting a hub for education and research into the environment meant a highly attended event.

“Inspiring people to change their relationship with stuff,” is the goal of Worn Wear, said spokesperson Tessa. They hope to encourage people to change their mindset when it comes to consumption. Rather than sticking to the consumer mindset that buys and throws items away without regard, they hope to foster an owner mindset that calls for the investment in quality items that are maintained over time.

Not only are college campuses being visited to spread this message, but they also are home to their own beloved stores where the patrons shop with the environment in mind.

The checkout line is about twenty-five people long at Salvation Army in Ann Arbor on a Saturday afternoon in February. Generally, the line is made up of people from all walks of life but dominated by a specific demographic: college students who cling to their newly discovered, but not-so-newly fabricated items of clothing. From flannels to fishnets, the students are about as diverse as the purchases they intend to make but seem to be united by a similar force.

Finding funky things at thrift stores allows for greater creative expression and for people to have fun with their wardrobes at a lower price,” said Wakeland, a student at the University of Michigan.

Motivated by a desire to save a few bucks, sport the most unique pieces, consume more sustainably – or likely all of the above – the students give the garments another life.

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