So You Want to Work in Sustainable Fashion?


Originally published on EcoCult, a destination for ethical and sustainable living in NYC and beyond. 

A shirt from   Uniforme  , an ethical fashion label by emerging designer Alice Wang

A shirt from Uniforme, an ethical fashion label by emerging designer Alice Wang

Actually, it isn’t one reader email that spurred this, but a dozen. Fashion students and professionals are starting to wake up to the massive environmental damage and worker exploitation inherent to the conventional fashion industry, and want no part of it. But they often don’t know where to start. So they email me, or sustainable fashion designers, or advocates, looking for advice. They want to know how to do sustainable fashion.

This guide is intended to answer that question definitively once and for all. Or, at least for the next year or so. The sustainable fashion scene is quickly evolving and expanding. Which is great for people like you, who want to get a piece of it.

I talked to three people:

  • Tara St. James, whose bonafides are actually too long to list here, but let’s start with Founder of a leading sustainable fashion label Study NY; plus Production Coordinator & Research Fellow in Zero Waste Manufacturing at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA); and Educator in Sustainable Design Certificate at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • Amy DuFault, sustainable fashion writer, consultant and activist, Director of Communications at the BF+DA.
  • Faye Lessler, a friend and sustainable fashion blogger who moved to NYC a year ago in search of a job in sustainable fashion. After trying a bunch of different routes, she now works at the BF+DA and is pumped to go in to her job every day.

1. Get specific.

One of the problems the experts and I encounter is the broad, hazy quality of the question of how to get into sustainable fashion. How do we answer it without knowing what your experience, wants, and skills are?

“If it’s a designer or student, I always ask them what part of sustainable fashion they are most interested in,” Amy says. “Is it the human rights perspective? Is it materials innovation? Is it working with young designers? What is it about sustainable fashion that you like? What is it that you think needs to be changed? What do you see yourself doing for five to ten years? And that really narrows it down. Look at that piece and what the different jobs are that can come from that.”

“For every specific area you choose there’s a rabbit hole to go down,” Amy continues. “And there will be a whole other world of issues, in terms of human rights or water efficiency or materials. It’s systems thinking. That’s how an established or emerging brand would handle this issue of ‘sustainability.” In other words, become an expert in an area, and you’ll be ready when a company comes looking for that expertise.

But if you literally just watched The True Cost last night and honestly have no idea where to start, it’s OK. Start at #3 and #4. Read blogs on sustainable fashion, like Ecouterre, and books, like Magnifeco. I do a link roundup every Friday that includes sustainable fashion stories, too.

If you can be specific, that’s great! We can then point you in the right direction, give you a person to talk to, tell you a course that would fit your needs, etc. Of course, be realistic and respectful of the time of experts. Remember before asking for a brain picking session that coffee is $5, while an hour of a fashion leader’s time is worth much more than that. Though, “coffee is better than nothing,” Tara says. “By the time I’ve agreed to meet with someone, I’ve kind of vetted out all other people, and they are the lucky few I’ve skimmed off the top who I think are legitimate and want to go somewhere with it.” If she thinks you have the potential to really impact the industry, she’ll give you some guidance.

2. Be flexible.

But on the topic of knowing what you want, don’t be so rigid you get stuck. “The people who are recently graduated or transitioning from traditional fashion businesses, they tend to already have a place they’ve been pigeonholed into, whether they love it or not. They’ve already invested a lot of time and money into the current skill set they have. They oftentimes aren’t seeing the bigger picture and other options, because those other options require more education or a change in skill set,” Tara says. “Those people I find the hardest to help, because they are looking for something specific.” If you’re not finding what you need, again, try #3 and #4 and expand your knowledge so you can break out of that box.

3. Attend sustainable fashion events and network.

“This is what really helped me,” Faye says. “I started going to events and meeting people. Not just meeting them and saying, ‘Hi can I have a job?’ but learning about what they do in sustainable fashion and how they got there and all the ways you can be involved that are not being a designer. It gave me a lot of connections so when they had a job opening, I could just know.”

And there are a lot of sustainable fashion events in the city. There is a core group of experts and consultants that go from party to party, and if you go to enough you will quickly become familiar with them and they with you. But believe me, the people who organize these things love to see an audience or party full of strangers. That means they’re preaching to someone besides the choir.

Don’t go to just free events, though. “Go to conferences even if you need to pay for them, because they have really good networking,” Tara says. Those are the places where the CEOs and industry leaders hang out.

Where to find out about these things? Sign up for the BF+DA‘s newsletter. Also, I throw up pretty much all the sustainable fashion events happening in NYC in my events roundup that goes up every other Friday.

Read the rest of this piece on EcoCult


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