Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

Strengthening and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Fashion professor takes students behind the curtain of sustainability with new community-engaged research project

In May 2021, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Equity and Success announced Kimberly Guthrie, associate professor and associate chair of the VCU Department of Fashion Design + Merchandising, as a Community-Engaged Research Impact Grant recipient for her project Textile Waste Not Want Not: Creating Value by Diversion. The project will be a collaboration between FASH 391 “Fashion and Sustainability” and FASH 350 “Promotions” students and two community partners, Central Virginia Waste Management Authority (CVWMA), a public service authority that coordinates recycling and solid waste management programs, and Circ, a textile recycling innovator in Danville, VA.

Black and white photo of Kimberly Guthrie. She has her arms crossed around her waist and is looking to the left. She's smiling and wearing a long sleeve white top.
Kimberly Guthrie, associate professor and associate chair of the VCU Department of Fashion Design + Merchandising

Guthrie’s research interests include sustainable fashion and eco-fashion design education. She has presented research at the Fifth International Conference on Design Principles and Practices in Rome, Italy and the 15th International Conference at RDM Campus Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Her most recent project involves educating students on ways to divert textile waste from landfills.

This project will begin in Guthrie’s Fashion and Sustainability class, where students will conduct post consumer textile recycling research and share their presentations with a panel that will include members of CVWMA and Circ. The panel will critique the presentations, after which the students will revise their projects and present their findings to students in the Fashion Promotions class taught by assistant professor Tammy Davis. The Promotions students will use the research to create a consumer education awareness campaign to change the way people think about how they get rid of their clothes. 

Amanda Hall, Ph.D., director of Community-Engaged Research, said the CEnR Impact Grants program aims to increase representation in exposure to and experience in high-impact experiential learning for undergraduate students, especially for first generation, pell grant eligible and underrepresented minoritized students; expand community-engagement focused academic development opportunities for faculty and staff, especially junior and underrepresented faculty; and further recognize community partners in CEnR as co-educators/co-researchers. The Impact Grant will help Guthrie give her students access to the most current, relevant and valuable information for their research. This includes subscriptions to Ecotextile News, an environmental magazine for the global textile and clothing supply chain, and bringing in guest speakers from underrepresented voices in sustainability.

This work is important because the fashion industry generates a huge amount of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 11.3 million tons of municipal solid waste ended up in landfills in 2018, a majority of which was composed of textiles. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. Even donating clothes can have adverse effects. While donating can keep clothes out of landfills, a significant amount of donated clothes are exported overseas, and the effects on local communities can be devastating. For instance, Green America states that “the sheer volume of exported clothing has suppressed local clothing industries and developed an increased reliance on other countries.” Local industries suffer because they cannot compete with the constant influx of inexpensive secondhand clothing imported from the United States.

Guthrie's Fashion and Sustainability students pose in front of a screen with a presentation slide by community partner Circ. The students have masks on and some are holding up peace signs.
Guthrie’s Fashion and Sustainability students during fall semester of 2021.

VCU Fashion has been diverting studio waste from landfills since 2014. The department partners with the Office of Sustainability to collect textiles in two big bins in the Pollak Building. The contents are taken to a Goodwill shredding center where hardware is removed from the textiles before being shredded and re-combined to create shoddy, a cloth made of recycled textiles or textile by-products and used in things like carpet padding, installation and dog beds.

Striving towards sustainability in fashion will take more than innovative recycling techniques.  It will necessitate that designers work with the end of the garment’s life in mind and that purchasers completely reassess the way they buy and value clothing.

“Waste is a design flaw at the end of the day,” Guthrie said. “So we need to teach our design students that there should be no waste. And there’s value there, so waste is not a bad word–there’s value attached to all of that waste. So how do we as a society reconfigure our own internal value systems to look at our clothes and other textile products in a different way, that they’re not disposable?”

On the consumer end, Guthrie advised having a plan for the end of a garment’s life when purchasing it.

“We know that [the garment] cannot go into the trash can. We have to buy with that much intention. So how do you get enough consumers to care at that level to reduce that amount?”

Fashion is something that I love and I need it to be something that is lovable.

Kimberly Guthrie

Changing the way people think is a monumental task, in part because of a lack of information or misinformation. According to Guthrie, many students enter the fashion major with preconceived notions of what sustainability is, and those notions are often only half-true and paint an incomplete picture of sustainability. She shared that students often think sustainability is about a specific brand of clothing or using organic materials, but those things are “the front of the curtain of sustainability.” Instead, Guthrie wants to help take students “behind that curtain” to critically examine and be more sustainable at each step of the fashion life cycle. This includes examining our own roles as purchasers of clothing.

“The amount of clothes in the trash cans [in Richmond’s the Fan neighborhood] is so bad. And people don’t even know how bad it is. There is no connection between them taking that garment and just tossing it into that green can. They don’t know how much energy went into making that fabric and to grow it if it’s a plant-based fiber. They don’t know who touched it and took the time to make it. And then when they toss it away, those garments have chemicals in them. When they go to landfill, they leech, so they’re poisoning our soil and our waterways.”

It is clear that the effects of the fashion industry on the environment are not positive. However, more research is needed to truly understand the extent of the fashion industry’s effects on the environment. According to Guthrie, brands and individuals want hard science with measurable data before taking action, and she hopes that data is coming soon. Guthrie also mentioned, however, that there is a history of research being suppressed by big plastic and big oil companies.

Guthrie and her Fashion and Sustainability students watch a guest speaker presentation from Circ, a textile recycling innovator in Danville, VA.

For example, in the 1970s, marine biologist Edward J. Carpenter was conducting research on plastic pollution in the North Atlantic Ocean. Carpenter found a significant amount of plastic in the ocean and evidence of small bits of plastic in plankton, fish and fish larvae. His study was the first of its kind and was published in the renowned journal Science. In episode nine of the Plastisphere podcast, Carpenter shared that following his first study, a man from the Society of the Plastics Industry flew out to visit him. Carpenter remarked feeling intimidated by the man, who criticized and questioned his work. The man visited Carpenter again prior to the publishing of Carpenter’s second study on plastic pollution. As a young professor without tenure and two children to take care of, Carpenter didn’t want to cause trouble and jeopardize his future, so he dropped the subject after just two studies. On Plastisphere, Carpenter wondered what would have happened if he’d continued putting pressure on the plastics industry early on.

Knowing all of this, it seems easy to be jaded by the immense amount of work that needs to be done, especially with the oft-cited slogan that we have only until 2030 to reverse climate change. But when asked whether she is hopeful about the future of the fashion industry and the environment, Guthrie said, “I’m a stubborn optimist.”

“Fashion is something that I love,” said Guthrie, “and I need it to be something that is lovable.”

In reality, practicing sustainability doesn’t have to be complicated. Rather than feel overwhelmed with all the information out there, Guthrie boiled sustainability down to its roots.

“Love what you have, take care of what you have, only buy when you need it and buy the best that you can when you can with what you have,” Guthrie said. “It’s just slowing down.”

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