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Sustainable fashion in NWA

Anna Pittman and Annalise Robins lead the Sustainable Fashion Club at the University of Arkansas
Mackynna Parsons
Anna Pittman and Annalise Robins lead the Sustainable Fashion Club at the University of Arkansas

Sustainable fashion aims to make all products, processes, activities and actors in fashion sustainable and ecological. Two people in Northwest Arkansas are spending a lot of time thinking about this trend.

“I'm a sophomore at the University of Arkansas studying Apparel Merchandising and Product Development with a minor in sustainability,” Annalise Robins said. “I currently run a small business called Finders Keepers where I resell vintage clothing. I also recently started the Sustainable Fashion Club RSO at the University of Arkansas and we have been very active since August of last year.”

“I am an English Education major sophomore at the University of Arkansas,” Anna Pittman said. “I've been super interested in sustainable fashion probably since high school. I started an eco fashion club at my high school and I'm still very close with the club and the club sponsor. It's just really cool to see how that's grown. And that was really helpful to get to transition into the University of Arkansas and help out with the Sustainable Fashion Club here. I serve as Vice President and I also have a small business called Monarch Thrift. It's a nonprofit and we donate all of our proceeds to students and families in need.”

Sustainable fashion is in reference to the front end of production. Likewise, after production, eco-fashion focuses on the redistribution of garments in ways that aren't harmful to the environment. Robins and Pittman say one of the largest issues currently working against sustainable fashion is the fast fashion industry.

“Fast fashion is made insanely fast and very cheap," Robins said, "and a lot of times in places overseas where they're not getting paid or being paid very little in what we call a sweatshop.”

“Because of the lack of regulation, it’s definitely very problematic,” Pittman said. “Also, this fast fashion model has made clothing seem sort of disposable. Clothes don't just decompose. They stay around for a very, very, very long time. So these fast fashion cycles will feed into the fact that people just want to buy things. Something may be trendy but quickly it’s not cool anymore. Now I want to wear this style. It just piles up.”

Fashion has historically been used to define status and standing, but it's moving more towards a way of expressing oneself and cultivating community.

“Gen Z has no income," Robins said. "We have such a desire to be wanted online and to be up with trends and to keep up with what we call 'micro trends' that are moving fast. So fast fashion is what a lot of people will turn to. And it's a cycle.”

With this lack of income in mind for the majority of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, it can be hard to find clothing in sustainable and eco-friendly ways. This is where small businesses, clubs, and student organizations come into play.

“I think the biggest thing for me with the Sustainable Fashion Club is making sustainable fashion cool” Pittman said. “As we said, there's a lot of social pressure to keep up with trends and always wear something new. But creating a community of people where we can come together and do clothing swaps and work together or do an upcycling project and get to meet different people with a common goal makes it so much easier to reach that common goal."

“Greenwashing is the idea of a business essentially lying about its sustainability efforts,” Robins said. “For example, we may know that 80% less water and cotton manufacturing, but a business says they're using 30% less water in cotton manufacturing. They call that sustainable, but we know you can actually use 80% less. So, is that really the most sustainable we can be? Sustainable Fashion Club trys to focus on education around topics like that. We also try to build a community of like-minded people that are all around the same idea of we want to promote and we want to connect people to the local community that is being sustainable.”

The Northwest Arkansas community has been referenced before as a "Diet Austin, Texas” in terms of its focus on sustainable and vintage fashion. Robins said that local connections have also played a crucial role for Sustainable Fashion Club and other small businesses in the area.

Signora Solare is on the square,” Robins said. “We had a shop with them. They're amazing. I also love the Library Vintage. I cannot say enough great things about them. They are completely set up to do rental as well as selling. Another one is the CoOp.”

“The CoOp was one of my favorite community connections we had because I was the one to reach out to them,” said Pittman. “They answered within like five minutes. It's really cool to just be embraced by that community. And it's such an amazing space. Whenever we pop up there, a lot of people come up and they didn't even know we’d be there. And then they get to learn about us and we get to tell them about our club. It's been really cool getting to meet people in that way.”

So, often people's first step towards sustainable fashion is cleaning out what they already own. But the real question is what happens to the clothes we donate?

“I think if you're giving to somewhere small you can see how this is cool and personal," Robins said. "If you're giving to something that is going to be a larger corporation you really do not know where stuff ends up. It depends on the area. Essentially what happens if you're donating clothing at their store is it’s going to end up on the racks and it will stay there for about a week. Maybe two weeks to try and move fast because they're now trying to keep up with resellers. After that, they are going to separate it. Some stuff they say they're sending to recycling. I don't know how true that is because with recycling as we 100% that material. But, the rest they're going to send overseas and then landfills. So, there's no telling where stuff will ending up.

“At Savers right now they have a machine where you can put your clothes in it and it'll cut off the buttons and the zippers and all the stuff to make it recyclable,” Robins continued. “That's 100% that material. I don't know how many Savers have that. I don't know how accessible that is. And that's kind of where the issue lays. There's no exact truth. We are at so much overconsumption. We don't need that. We produce so much textile waste per year.”

Robins said all you really need is a needle and some thread thanks to all of the resources online about how to maintain clothing items. But if stitching is not your thing there are local organizations designed just for that too.

The Library Vintage on Thursdays from one to five have crafter-noons and have things set up where you can mend clothes and that is what they do and they love doing it," Robins said. "Bam Buck Sewing is local to Fayetteville and they actually just reached out to Sustainable Fashion Club offering their mending services.”

According to ThreadUp’s 2024 Resale Report, the global secondhand apparel market grew by 18% in 2023 alone.

“I'm just so proud of the Fayetteville High School Eco Fashion Club,” Pittman said. “They just got nominated for the mayor's Environmental Stewardship Award and won. They're being recognized for their outreach and education, activities, and growth initiatives. It's just really cool to see the young people being recognized for all their hard work. It's just very hopeful.”

“I think sustainable fashion starts with vintage," Robins said. "You want to be different. You want to look different. That's how I started and then it merges into the realization that there are social issues with fashion and environmental issues so let's talk about it.”

On average, consumers have spent half of their budget for clothes on resale clothes in the past year. Resale grew 15 times faster than the broader retail clothing sector in 2023.

“I think don't put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect,” Pittman said. “It's really hard to be perfect, especially in this consumerist society that we've been placed into, but just do your best. Try to make sustainable choices. If you can mend your clothes, mend your clothes. If you can host a clothing swap with your friends then host a clothing swap with your friends. Just try to be aware of where your clothes are coming from when you're shopping online.”

Robbins said one option to be in control of where your clothes end up is to "shop it." "If you have the capability to start a Depop, do it."

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Mackyna Parsons is a sophomore at the University of Arkansas studying Multimedia Storytelling and Production. She was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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