Nearly all of our clothes and footwear are recyclable, yet of the 14.3 million tons of textile waste generated each year only 2.3 million is actually recycled or donated. That leaves a whopping 12 million tons thrown out in the trash. Most of it ends up in landfills. Tasha Lewis, Fiber Science and Apparel Design, wants to prevent so much of our old clothes going to waste.
Lewis is concerned with the sustainability and management of the global textile supply chain, from factory design to consumer purchase. Her research encourages the apparel industry to produce clothing in more ethical and sustainable ways. She also wants to educate consumers on the hidden costs and benefits of clothing.
In a project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, Lewis partnered with Canadian apparel company LB Designs to refashion used clothing into new garments. The researchers and LB Designs focused their efforts in Haiti, using secondhand clothes shipped from the United States and sold in Haitian markets. They worked with a Haitian apparel factory to best implement design and manufacturing practices. The refurbished clothing was then shipped to Canada to sell there.
“The idea was that in Haiti they could use something in our supply chain that was waste and start the supply chain over,” says Lewis.
Lewis’ goal is to rethink what our textile waste is capable of providing, besides just sitting for decades in a landfill. She says, “what if we start thinking about our waste as something that we have to deal with? What if it can be used in other countries, and we can contribute to economic growth and do something meaningful?”
A Model of Worthy Consequences
The apparel industry is one of the largest industries in Haiti, and the country’s expertise is sewing. The project put to use unused waste from the United States, generated jobs in Haiti, and provided new clothing to Canada. It was a win-win for everyone involved along the supply chain, Lewis explains.
Lewis and her collaborators were able to use a real-world “lab” setting—the Haitian factory—to develop a successful way of upcycling old clothing. Lewis now hopes to scale the system up by developing a model of secondhand, zero-waste production that can be used by factories in various other countries including Tanzania, Vietnam, and even the United States.
“We can apply this model anywhere that we can say that people are dealing with decreased landfill space," says Lewis. “My goal is to take this model, prove it every step of the way, and scale it up to be efficient and to make sense.”
Digitizing Pieces of Used Garments for Efficient Use
One of the challenges in scaling the process up is the available supply, Lewis explains. Though used clothing is plentiful, it’s difficult to turn the pieces of a men’s blazer into a stylish women’s skirt, for example. That’s where software can help. Lewis and her team were able to develop a process using technology that digitizes pieces of the used garments and overlays their patterns with the patterns of new clothing to see how to best use all of the available fabric.
Some used clothing, however, can’t be turned into new garments. Lewis is working with Anil Netravali, Fiber Science and Apparel Design, to give those textiles a second life, using a machine called a Fiberizer. With the tool, Netravali and Lewis aim to create composite materials that could be used as stuffing for toys, building insulation, or parts of furniture.
An App for Sustainable Clothes Shopping
Another challenge refurbished clothing faces is consumer acceptance and education. “The minute you tell somebody that things are made from used clothing, their perspective changes,” says Lewis. “But for people who are sustainable-minded, it doesn’t bother them.”
With the tool [the Fiberizer], Netravali and Lewis aim to create composite materials that could be used as stuffing for toys, building insulation, or parts of furniture.
To help people think more sustainably about their clothing, Lewis is working with an undergraduate researcher to develop a consumer app that will help people make purchase decisions while in a store. The app is currently in the design phase, but Lewis mentions that it could provide useful information about items of clothing. The app might point out, for example, that a jacket is made of nonbiodegradable material or might remind the user that he already owns six of the exact same shirt. Lewis says that she plans to have a prototype of the app by spring 2015 and to begin surveying and testing its practical use.
Lewis’ Path to Sustainability
Through all of Lewis’ work is a connective thread of wanting to improve the world by way of the fashion industry. Though the route has been a bit windy—Lewis went from Spanish major to a consumer and textile science masters to working in the fashion industry before landing at Cornell’s apparel design PhD program—she says that working in both fashion and sustainability made sense to her. It’s a mash-up of her childhood dream of becoming a fashion designer and her college dream of working for the United Nations.
“Fashion is so powerful in the world. It is actually something that you could use to drive change and impact people’s lives, work, and resources,” says Lewis. “If we make the fashion supply chain better, it will make a lot of other aspects of the world better in the process.”