The start of "Is Fashion Modern" at MoMA.

Consumer demand for sustainable fashion is steadily rising and brands must work swiftly to gratify a growing customer base. And while companies are making great strides in the adoption of sustainable practices throughout their supply chains, the mission to untangle the web of countless strategies and technologies for greening fashion is a challenge for brands wanting change.

For an industry with an estimated worth of $2.5 trillion, accountability is key. But as it stands today, 85 percent of textiles are sent to landfills each year and the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world after gasoline.

Glasgow Caledonian’s Fair Fashion Center, which launched in 2015, demonstrates the “business case for sustainability” and empowers brands to move beyond CSR and implement sustainable practices into the fashion industry. The GCNYC Fair Fashion Center assists companies by providing categorized resources that can effectively advance change. Cara Smyth, the vice president of Glasgow Caledonian New York College, executive board member of Glasgow Caledonian University and founder of the Fair Fashion Center, told WWD, “Businesses should be corporate statesmen. Ceo’s should be leading the world toward change. And nobody’s giving a how-to guide.”

The Fair Fashion Center’s how-to guide is thorough and exhaustive. Its online research is divided into 11 categories: awards, strategy, climate, finance, governance, labor, materials, technology, water, transport and recycling. Each category expands to provide detailed information about relevant organizations’ goals and locations, which streamlines the sifting process for brands. And the Fair Fashion Center delivers solutions across 16 sub-businesses of fashion, from regenerative agriculture and chemicals to real estate and waste management.

“I think that as fashion takes on its new shape and form for the future, we are actually in the process of redesigning it from the inside out. I think that there are many, many good stories that don’t get linked together, but I think fashion is actually the industry — which is already hardwired for change — that can set the trend on sustainability and really create the intersection between social good, environmental sustainability and profitability,” Smyth said.

GCU is a 142-year-old Scottish university with seven campuses worldwide serving more than 20,000 students. In June, Glasgow Caledonian New York College became the first international institution to receive degree-granting authority to teach and offer degrees in New York from the New York Board of Regents.

Professor Muhammad Yunus, the chancellor of the university and an international antipoverty campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner, asked GCU if fashion could be a force for good. After years of research, the Fair Fashion Center was founded to answer this question.

“As we redesign our industry, [fashion brands] become the ingredients and the lens at which everybody is looking at everything, and I think actually it would be fashion more than any other industry that can force the change that’s coming,” Smyth said. “The question is, how do you shift and change the bigger companies that grew up in a different time? How do we collide that with all of the new sexy faces of sustainability to kind of re-brand sustainability and make it sexy?”

Photo Credit: Aldo Soligno. Photo courtesy of the GCU Fair Fashion Center. 

Fair Fashion looked to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework. Its 17 goals are broad and include “zero hunger” and “reduced inequalities” as well as “decent work and economic growth,” to name a few. But the framework’s breadth allows for a range of inclusivity. And if the goals “are translated into actionable business practices that align with our disciplines and our business units,” Smyth said brands can cherry-pick organizations that best suit specific sustainability goals.

Without a guiding framework, the goal of becoming sustainable “is a great North Star, and sort of abstract,” according to Smyth.

To drive the message home, the Fair Fashion Center’s latest collaborative project is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibit, which presents 111 items of culturally influential clothing and accessories from the 20th and 21st centuries, embodies Fair Fashion’s research into a data-visualization piece that displays the “ecosystem” of fashion and the various ways the industry can deliver on the U.N. Sustainable Development goals.

Through the artistry of Italian data scientist Giorgia Lupi, the stunning and complex visualization is printed across three 20-foot-high walls, and the data is organized by a key of colors and symbols that illustrate how fashion is advancing sustainability industry-wide. The exhibit is on display through January.

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