Designing with Sustainable Methods ft. Tara St. James
Tara St. James launched Study NY in 2009 to create clothing using ethical fabrics and production methods. Shortly after starting Study NY, Tara began educating the next generation of fashion designers on the importance of sustainable design. She has experience in lecturing and teaching including a class on sustainable textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Tara has also, impressively, built a sustainable textile library and sourcing service and will launch the new Re:Source Library consultancy in July 2019.
You designed using sustainable methods for 15+ years and founded your own sustainable fashion brand, Study NY. What catalyzed this decision to focus on sustainable fashion?
I knew very young that I wanted to design clothes and work in fashion. I studied menswear in college because I liked the rigid structure of tailoring. I still apply a lot of those principles to my womenswear designs. Another underlying principle I learned from studying menswear - though it was not mentioned outright - was a disregard for trendy items, with a focus on craftsmanship, fit and longevity of wear. I started my career working in the denim industry, then worked for larger fast fashion brands in Montreal and New York. In 2009 I left my last job designing a high street brand and started Study. I started Study at a time in my career when I was very frustrated with fast fashion and mass production. With Study, we wanted to source sustainable materials but also produce the collection locally. There is a bit of a disconnect between sourcing sustainable materials and then producing garments in a large factory in China. I had a lot of experience sourcing sustainable materials through previous roles, however, producing the clothing locally was something completely new for me, very different, but a really enlightening experience. I love being so hands on. We have also looked at our business model and want to provide an alternative to fast fashion and the traditional fashion calendar. We have moved away from seasonal collections, which never made sense to me.
You've built a sustainable textile library and sourcing service to help the fashion industry use responsible materials. For consumers looking to begin building their sustainable wardrobes, what materials would you advise them to seek out?
Well, if I'm being completely honest, the most sustainable garments consumers can find are the ones that are already in their closets. If buying something is necessary then I usually recommend buying vintage, second hand or swapping first before buying new. I realize that contradicts my role as a designer of new product, but my role as an environmentalist and a human take priority here. When buying new it's important to read the labels, the same way we do regularly with food. My recommendation would be to seek out high percentages* of certified organic cotton or recycled cotton (5% recycled polyester does not make the garment "sustainable"). And research the brand, is it communicating its sustainability strategy and sourcing methods or is it being obscure about those things? I realize most people don't have time to do this when they're shopping, which is why I recommend buying second hand first, and keep garments in circulation longer.
What materials would you advise consumers to avoid if they are looking to reduce their environmental footprint?
This is a little easier, I avoid buying most virgin materials: non-organic cotton, polyester, nylon, viscose or rayon. If it doesn't have a certification or a sustainability claim (that can be verified) associated with it then I avoid it.
Which clothing certifications or labels do you advise consumers to get to know?
FairTrade certification covers labour issues in the supply chain, GOTS covers organic certification for fibers, and the GRS standard from Textile Exchange would be the top 3 I recommend getting to know and look for on garments. While I don't believe certifications are a perfect solution, I do believe they provide a good starting point. I also think GoodOnYou is a good resource for consumers to understand the general sustainability of the brands they buy from.
Can you share a good resource to learn about sustainability in fashion?
This is a tough one, there is so much information out there, I think it can be overwhelming, even for people who understand the fashion industry. I love what Fashion Revolution are doing to educate consumers (which is all of us) and keep brands accountable for their actions.
Beyond materials, what is another step that fashion brands can take to become more eco-friendly?
There are so many steps brands can take to be more responsible. They can start by examining their supply chains to see how far back they can trace their materials, and then take steps to improve conditions along the way. They can examine working conditions and wages in the factories they use. And they can design products that are more durable, have a longer lifespan and can be deconstructed and recycled or composted at the end of their use. These are not simple tasks but we are past the point where small endeavours are enough to be considered sustainable. We need to take big actions to make big changes to this industry.
What is your wish for the fashion industry?
I really hope the industry can find a way to reduce consumption responsibly and become more circular. The industry has a take-make-waste attitude towards consumption which has to be rapidly redesigned into a more circular supply chain. And while I believe degrowth (reduced consumption) is the only way we can reduce emissions, waste and human rights violations in fashion, it doesn't account for the millions of individuals, mostly women, who are currently employed in the fashion industry. We need to find a way to reposition the manufacturing workforce for an equitable future for all. This requires collaboration from all industry players, open source information and access to new technology. I think we can get there if we work together.