A Q&A with fashion sustainability expert Sonali Diddi

Department of Design and Merchandising Assistant Professor Sonali Diddi participated in the Change Fashion Challenge Forum and Workshop at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City on June 27. The workshop, an invitation-only event, focused on the role of science and technology in working toward sustainability in the fashion industry. Diddi sees this as one of first steps toward a circular fashion industry, and her Q&A explains how this conference could create a lasting impact.

What is your educational background and how did you end up working in the area of fashion and sustainability?

Sonaili Diddi outdoor portrait
Sonali Diddi

I earned my undergraduate degree in fashion technology in India and worked in academia and industry for seven years before pursuing my master’s degree in fashion & textiles at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. While studying in Australia, I was exposed to the concept of sustainability and the abundant waste that is created due to human consumption. My industry experience and exposure to a consumer-centric culture made relating sustainability to fashion a natural outcome. I further examined consumers’ relationship with their clothing consumption decisions, specifically with brands engaged in corporate social responsibility, during my doctoral studies.

I strongly feel we are growing into a society that increasingly emphasizes materialism and over-consumption, and that there is a diminishing differentiation between needs vs. wants. Fixing this may require a paradigm shift in thinking, but that is possible through awareness and education on the effects of consumption. The fashion industry is plagued with numerous environmental problems and social inequalities that many consumers are not aware of. A large part of this is also driven by consumers’ demand for cheap clothing that doesn’t last long. People relate to organic, local, or Fairtrade food, but it is very difficult for them to understand the same values in the context of clothing. Environmental and social effects of the fashion industry are distant problems for consumers, and my research is focused on exploring how stakeholders can contribute toward making this a clean industry.

What are the problems of sustainability that the fashion industry faces?

While the global average of consumption for clothes is 11 pounds per person, an average North American consumer bought 35 pounds of new clothes in 2014. That’s the same as 64 t-shirts or 16 pairs of jeans. A global survey by Greenpeace in the same year found that the average consumer bought 60 percent more items of clothing every year and kept them for about half as long as 15 years ago. At the current rate of consumption, we will see around a 60 percent increase in fashion waste from now to 2030, amounting to approximately 148 million tons. In the U.S., an average American consumer throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year. The Environmental Protection Agency projects 35.4 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste will end up in U.S. landfills by 2020.

Fashion overconsumption also has adverse effects on earth’s natural resources, its capacity to absorb the greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous chemicals, increased use of water and the billions of tons of fashion disposal waste entering into the landfills every year. It is also responsible for polluting 20 percent of global fresh water sources due to chemical processes involved in fiber, textiles, and clothing manufacturing. This industry is also surrounded by numerous social inequalities like sweatshops, child labor, unsafe working conditions, and extremely low wages, all found in the factories of some of the biggest fashion brands. According to the International Labor Organization, about 170 million children are engaged in child labor, and many work in the global fashion industry.

What were the goals of the workshop in helping solve some of those challenges?

The Change Fashion Challenge (CFC) Forum and Workshop focused on the role of science and technology to shape the future of the global fashion industry. It took a “systems thinking” perspective to develop innovative solutions for the entire product lifecycle to move toward a circular fashion industry. Invited participants included business leaders in the fashion industry, academia, nonprofit organizations, and public policy makers.

The goal of the workshop was to develop a sustainable fashion research agenda and road maps for the priority areas identified in the agenda. CFC Working Group Sessions covered five stages in the circular ecosystem of the fashion industry – materials, production/manufacturing, retail and consumer, supply chain, and closing the loop (re+upcycling). Each working group developed a definition and scope for the stage identified, documented its current state, developed an ideal state, outlined opportunities/actions and barriers/resource requirements, and identified priority areas of research going forward.

What were the outcomes of the workshop and what do you see as next steps?

Next steps following the workshop will be geared toward focusing on the identified research agenda and working with diverse participants to understand how science and technology can influence sustainability in the fashion industry and move toward a circular economy.

What are your areas of research and expertise in sustainability in the fashion industry?

I take a systems approach with a transdisciplinary lens when I think of sustainability in the fashion industry. I feel that it is important to address whole provisioning systems, including clothing consumption practices and production conditions, as well as life-cycle impacts and the economic, political, social, and cultural imperatives that compel consumerist lifestyles. My research has components related to corporate social responsibility of apparel companies, social-psychological aspects that influence consumption, post-consumer textile waste in landfills, and how these affect human health and public policy implications. Another stream of my research explores education to promote sustainable clothing consumption.

Early intervention through education and awareness may influence future generations to engage in sustainable consumption and disposal practices. CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability has supported the clothing and sustainability research group composed of faculty from five colleges at CSU through their Global Challenges Research Team (GCRT) grants for two years. This funding helped the GCRT to understand the current state of knowledge regarding sustainability of the fashion industry around campus and in the larger Fort Collins community. Numerous events, such as the mending café and various movie screenings, were organized by the GCRT as part of education and awareness regarding clothing sustainability.

What can everyday consumers do to support sustainability?

Consumers are a crucial part of the global fashion industry. Demanding accountability to companies/brands/retailers about where and how clothes are made, who made their clothes, and where the clothes end up after use, are some of the ways that individuals can engage  in with their local fashion industry.  Some of the strategies to be a sustainable clothing consumer could be:

  1. Buying better clothing that will last longer
  2. Buying less clothing
  3. Buying thrift or vintage clothing, and reusing items that were already manufactured
  4. Taking better care of clothing so that it will last longer
  5. Learning and teaching to repair clothes to extend its life
  6. Engaging in conversations with younger generations about the effects of consumption
  7. Supporting socially responsible and sustainable brands
  8. Supporting local brands
  9. Understanding that “Sale” does not mean that consumers need to buy

The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.