In Conversation With | Anika Kozlowski, Sustainability Expert (Part 1)

Can you explain to us what is it that you do?

Anika Kozlowski

Anika Kozlowski

I'm an assistant professor of Sustainable Fashion Design at Ryerson University. My role is to introduce sustainability into the Fashion Design program, to make sure sustainability is filtered through all design classes, and that designers are taught about it, and how to work in a world where we must abide by the critical elements of our planet.

For my PHD, I looked at small brands operating in this space, and how they integrate sustainability into their business and design practices. I also developed a tool specifically for them. It’s called the (re)design canvas currently, and I am making into a set of cards that designers can iteratively work through at their own pace.

These days I’m looking at how we can use bacterial pigments and grow materials, to combine processes that already exist while tapping into bio design. I want to know how we can tap into nature a little bit more, and use the processes there that already exist, while scaling them up for industry.

What is the biggest problem or challenge facing the fashion industry today?

I mean it's a very complex topic, so it's hard to say that one thing is more important than the other. But I suppose the biggest thing that the industry is battling right now is just the fact that we're over-consuming and overproducing.

One hundred and fifty billion items a year, in fashion alone are being produced, but there's no way that we're consuming that much. And less than 1 percent of all clothing produced is actually recycled back into other clothing or textiles—so 90% of everything we produce ends up as industrial or consumer waste.

What should we take on first to tackle this problem? OVER-CONSUMPTION?

Yeah! Because all the other problems that arise—the pollution, social impact, slave labor, etc —all of these are just exaggerated by the speed and the sheer amount of stuff we're producing. Everything is really magnified by over-consumption, and that’s really the big problem.

Cotton and polyester, for example, are the two dominant materials in fashion. But cotton takes up a lot of agricultural land, and as food scarcity increases with climate change, weather patterns, floods, droughts, etc. we can't have fiber crops competing with food crops. We need food!

So, I'm asking if there are ways of increasing the longevity of products. Can they can be recycled, or made into another product so that at least we keep reusing those resources instead of constantly using new ones?

My research is about creating efficiencies in recycling, and closing those material loops via design systems, because we're just not going to have the space or the resources to keep producing the volumes we're currently producing.

We see a lot of companies making recyclable apparel, or trying to eliminate the use of virgin plastic…

This is a good first step. My problem is when these companies call themselves radically transparent—radical transparency would mean that you are naming absolutely every single factory. It would mean highlighting that you have sustainability goals and showing how you're achieving them. They would be giving actual progress reports, and many companies don’t.

It's like choosing organic cotton over traditional cotton. It's a great first step, but all you've done is change your materials and actually, everything else is the same.

But, Adidas, for example, has created a shoe that is actually recyclable, instead of just using recycled material. I think there’s a big difference.

Are there good practices for companies to follow?

The way products are traditionally made and sold today is what we call a linear system. So, you make it, you use it, and then it goes into a landfill. True sustainability is about creating a circular system, where products are recaptured, and then recycled and remade.

The problem is most products are not designed to be recycled. In order to have something truly recyclable, it has to be designed that way from the start. Recycled polyester, for example, is recycled PET bottles, which are plastic water bottles that have been transformed into polyester. Well, that process is actually super energy intensive and releases a toxic chemical called antimony as a byproduct.

Blended products, like cotton-polyester blends, are also difficult. The more materials in a textile, the more fibers, and the more difficult it becomes. Because then you have to develop separate recycling processes to deal with each of the different types of fibres. Extracting cotton from polyester is going to be different from extracting from spandex, polyester, nylon, etc. Certain fibers will respond to chemical processes and others won’t. Or they may destroy each other.

So, those are really not great systems.

Instead, you do something like Adidas is doing. You create a shoe that's designed to be recycled safely and easily when you get it back from the consumer. This way it doesn't take more resources to recycle.

A lot of the time it can take more energy to recycle something than to make things from scratch. That's why virgin materials are still so popular—it’s just easier and cheaper and less resource intensive to make things from raw resources than to actually recycle something.

How can companies look to build a truly sustainable system?

So, even what Adidas does, with their Parley shoe—it’s great, but, then you have companies like Patagonia, who are ultimately trying to reduce the amount of products being created in the first place. Adidas is still trying to sell as much as possible, and that kind of mentality can’t sustain us. We have to dismantle the current economic system, the old business models. We need to have new, circular business models that prioritize sustainability and diversity.

It's also about building a culture of sustainability, targeting things like colonization and systems of oppression. I mean, if you're talking about sustainability and not looking at the oppression within our current systems, you’re not fixing things. We go into these developing economies, and use their labour and resources but don’t do anything to build them up. We then ship our waste back to them - also known as waste colonization.

What would it actually cost to pay these workers a living wage? Maybe less than a dollar more per product? This is an easy fix, and it's not happening. But until those old power structures are dismantled, and we have more equity, then it will never be a truly sustainable system.

Updated: Here is Part 2 of the series where Anika talks more on greenwashing, solutions to the single-use plastic problem and how we can make some sustainable changes in our daily lives.

About Anika Kozlowski

RxS is a platform that shares stories of innovation and creation. Powered by the humans of Rightsleeve, a promotional products agency.

Hayley Green