How to Dress to Save the World

Innovation analyst Jyotsna Gopinath ’19 discusses small steps to addressing a big fashion problem.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to dressing in a way that’s better for the planet. Sustainability looks different for everyone so solutions must be specifically tailored (all puns intended) to each individual. But there are things anyone can do to help, says sustainable fashion innovation analyst Jyotsna Gopinath ’19.

“As I learn more about textile recycling and other end-of-use solutions, my belief in the importance of reducing consumption is reinforced,” she says. “I truly believe the most accessible solution is to simply reduce the amount of new clothing you buy.” Gopinath works for Fashion for Good—an Amsterdam-based global initiative that works directly with the fashion industry to support critical sustainable innovations.

The world produces more than 90 million tons of textile waste each year, according to the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency reports that 85 percent of the textiles we throw out end up in landfills. Those numbers can feel insurmountable; too big to make any sort of dent. But Gopinath says there are simple steps you can take to divert clothing from landfills. And these small steps not only have a significant impact on your own footprint but often have “a snowball effect” within your family, friends, and community.

Fashion For Good 23 6 2023 134
Jyotsna Gopinath ’19 during the opening of the latest exhibition at the Fashion for Good Museum. Photo by Elzo Bonam.

Gopinath spoke with Santa Clara Magazine about her own personal journey toward sustainable fashion enlightenment, and offered tips as we embark on our own.

(The following has been edited for space and clarity.)

Santa Clara Magazine: While at Santa Clara University, what propelled you to seek out a career in sustainable fashion? Have you always been interested in fashion?

Jyotsna Gopinath: I have always been interested in sustainability and environmental conservation, and in high school I started designing upcycled clothing, but that was always a creative outlet for me and I never saw it as a potential career. I continued designing through my undergraduate studies in engineering and chemistry, but I never saw a connection between the two.

Then I was given the opportunity to move to Bolivia to work for AHA Bolivia, a fair-trade fashion company, through the Leavey School of Business Global Fellows program. While in Bolivia, I started making connections about how the environmental degradation of the fashion industry tends to disproportionately affect the Global South. I realized there was a need for compassionate chemists and engineers who are dedicated to examining this complex problem through a lens of intersectionality and social justice, with the goal of creating solutions that will empower the communities that both provide labor for and bear the environmental burdens of the fashion industry. After SCU, I earned my M.S. in textile chemistry from North Carolina State University Wilson College of Textiles in 2021. In November of 2022, I joined Fashion for Good.

SCM: What does an innovation analyst do? What projects at Fashion for Good are currently exciting you?

JG: As the innovation analyst for the end of use portfolio at Fashion for Good, I am expected to demonstrate a strong understanding of the current recycling technologies on the market, all relevant players in the field, and any emerging technologies in this space. I also oversee the scouting and screening of End of Use innovators for our yearly Innovation Programme, projects, and pilots.

Some of my current projects include the EU Textile Recycling Excellence (T-REX) Project, which brings together major players from across the entire value chain to create a harmonized blueprint and business opportunities for closed loop sorting and recycling of household textile waste across the European Union. I’m also working on a project that focuses on scaling promising technologies in polyester chemical recycling.

SCM: What’s it like living and working abroad?

JG: Working and living abroad is both exciting and challenging. I have been enjoying the process of discovering this new environment and understanding how my complex identity fits into Dutch culture, which is very different from American culture. The most fulfilling part about living abroad is the self-discovery that comes with going outside my comfort zone—this is partly why my experience in Bolivia was so enlightening, because it gave me a new environment in which to discover what matters to me.

SCM: As more and more data comes out showing how heavily the fashion industry impacts the environment, it can feel overwhelming and paralyzing when thinking of personal accountability to help offset some of that toll. What are simple things we can do as individuals?

JG: The most sustainable thing you can do is to stop buying new items and educate yourself on best practices for extending the lifespans of the garments you currently own. A very easy way to prolong the life of your garments is to air drying your clothes rather than using a dryer. This also reduces energy consumption with each wear.

If you want to add new pieces to your wardrobe, seek out circular options! Instead of buying new, consider shopping for gently used garments already in circulation. Shopping at consignment or thrift stores, purchasing clothing on resale apps (The RealReal, Vinted, ThredUp, etc), borrowing clothing, and participating in clothing swaps are all ways to refresh your wardrobe sustainably.

When you think your garment has come to the end of its life, think again! There are many ways to extend the use phase of clothing, including mending, upcycling, or downcycling your clothing. And when it finally comes time to discard your clothing, make sure to identify disposal points specific to clothing and shoes, as these waste streams are sorted differently from other consumer waste streams.

SCM: For current students interested in working in sustainable fashion, what career advice would you share?

JG: My route into the fashion industry was very unique, as I have found my way in by seeking out opportunities that excite me. In fact, that is how I have been living my life–searching for and accepting unique pathways because I know that they will help me learn more about myself and the world around me. My advice for anyone is to strive to build a life centered around your passions and values, and say yes to the opportunities that will allow you to better understand how you can use your gifts to make a positive impact on the world around you.

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