8 Takeaways from the UN's Sustainable Fashion Summit

On February 1, the United Nations headquarters here in NYC hosted the Sustainable Fashion Summit, a one-day conference devoted to advancing sustainable standards for the future of fashion. A panel of experts from various industries gathered to approach fashion's social and environmental impact from every angle - from Leland Melvin, former NFL player turned NASA astronaut, to Ara Katz, microbiome scientist. Against the backdrop of New York Fashion Week, the UN's summit offered a deeper sense of purpose and perspective - a hopeful glimpse at the industry's evolution. Here are some takeaways from my attendance for inspiration and integration!

Collaboration is key.

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." (African proverb). Sustainability is about the long game. Doing what is right, not what is easy. The glory days of big name fashion houses, propelled by a single ego, are dying. We're returning to community and collaboration, to living within our means, to a human-centered approach to industry. We must break free from egocentrism and embrace the mission as collective. Perhaps we have induced this planetary crisis subconsciously to force ourselves into working together.

Waste is a resource.

Globally, we're embarking on a material revolution to a circular waste economy, where waste will be our largest resource. Byproducts and deadstock offer interesting - and seemingly endless - opportunities for innovation. Plastic bottles, spoiled milk, and discarded orange peels are all being turned into textiles. One industry's trash is another one's treasure! 

Nature knows best.

A senior UN official dropped a frightening fact: "There are only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues." Everything in nature - except modern humans - instinctively knows how to live within its means, and furthermore, regeneratively. Coming back into balance with our resources means mimicking the design principles of the natural world. But even naturally-derived solutions for sustainability, like organic farming, have to mind this balance when it comes to scaling production. 

Technology is an ally.

Jifei Ou, an MIT researcher, presented recent developments in 3D printed textiles. By a process similar to cloning, MIT is working on a revolutionary replacement for fur that replicates hair-like structures using organic material, which involves neither animal products nor synthetic materials. The innovation and resources of the tech world could lead to exponential leaps in sustainable solutions.

A shift in consumerism is essential.

Ara Katz, founder of Seed, reminds us that solutions begin with prevention. "The solution to sustainability is not paper straws, it's how do we drink less things that need straws." In seeking solutions, we must check our confirmation biases continually and question our own ideals relentlessly, with less attachment and more curiosity. The current rate of consumerism is suicide - we must overcome self-interest and be willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the whole. 

Voice is power - and responsibility.

A panel of influencers, from Dapper Dan (father of hiphop fashion), Nora Vasconcellos (professional female skateboarder), and Burak Cakmak (Dean of Parson's School of Design) spoke to the power - and responsibility - of having an audience. We need to use the momentum and magnitude of channels like hiphop, instagram, celebrity culture, and modern academia to make sustainability cool. 

Representation moves us forward.

Céline Semaan, the event's founder, created the conference out of a commitment to diversity. A Lebanese refugee, activist and leader in sustainable fashion, she noticed a void in minority perspectives in the industry. Stories were shared by factory workers on labor rights, Native Americans on natural resource protection, sexual assault survivors on women's empowerment and minority business owners on the importance of representation. Sustainability requires global collaboration and incorporating the wisdom of all people and cultures. Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a female research engineer from MIT, said, "We reflect on solutions by talking to people from sectors outside of our own." We must make a commitment to our human family to create a world that works for everyone.

More access, less competition.

The fashion industry is notorious for heavy influence on exclusivity - most designers protect their supply chain secrets under lock and key. Christopher Bevans of Dyne, a forward-thinking menswear label, is disrupting the narrative around opacity - "I'm passionate about access. I lift the hood up so people can see how we built the company, the collection and the culture that we've established." Sustainability involves sharing resources and knowledge, breaking free from the artificial competition of our current civilization. 

 

Interested in learning more?

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