NYU Gallatin Colloquium Thesis: The Marketing of Sustainable Fashion

During my time in college, I did more than just arbitrarily take classes to work towards some predetermined major. Instead I was a part of the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which essentially means I created my own major entirely. Termed a concentration, I called mine The Marketing of Sustainable Fashion, and I focused on understanding the fashion industry for all its history and flaws so that I could learn how to work towards a better, more responsible, fashion future. The Gallatin school requires students to be highly active in forming their own education and we work closely with our advisors to figure out what classes and internships we should take and why, always thinking of how those classes will help us to better understand our concentration. I have always been passionate about the environment and even in high school, as a member of the then fourth-ranked Model United Nations team in the country, I tended to focus on environmental committees and topics whenever possible. I have also always loved fashion, in a way because I have always been a highly visual person, and I am fascinated by the ways that a garment can shape and change an entire identity. When thinking about how to approach these two topics, the environment and the fashion industry, it was quickly evident that marketing would be the most logical choice. My background as a photographer and my aptitude for advertising meant that marketing came relatively naturally, even further evidenced as I started to blog more seriously and searched for ways to promote the blog. Thus formed my concentration and the basis for my studies. 

Gallatin isn't entirely a free-for-all, though, and they do have a series of core requirements, as well as papers that are required at certain intervals to determine our progress. The final "test," so to speak, is to submit a Rationale, which is a thesis paper that outlines the questions you have answered in your studies and references a wealth of texts from various sources (Plato, Aristotle, Beyonce, Danny Devito, none are off limits if they have said something that applies to your paper), and then to present those questions to a panel of three professors in a Colloquium, where they will discuss all that you have written in that thesis and make sure you have a well-rounded understanding of your topic and of the texts that you cited. The Rationale is meant to lead the discussion during the Colloquium and in mine I tried to outline some of the questions I'd had about sustainable fashion and the fashion industry in general and cite some sources for possible answers. While I obviously can't share my Colloquium discussion (which was so stressful I swear I thought I was going to pass out), I thought I'd share my Rationale for anyone who is interested in reading more. I wrote this and submitted it last year and if I'm being honest some of my opinions have since changed on some of the things I'd written. But isn't that the whole point of education--a way to shift your perspective and change the way you look at things, finding new angles to approach any given topic? I would love to hear your thoughts about anything I have presented in it, any questions or comments you have, so please feel free to comment below or email me. I hope you enjoy and maybe even learn something new. 


Emily Byrski

Rationale, Gallatin School of Individualized Study

Graduation Date: May 2017


The Marketing of Sustainable Fashion


       I have always been worried about preserving our environment and I have also always loved fashion. When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, sophomore year I decided to take a Fashion Industry of Italy class. My professor covered the various ins and outs of the industry, most of which I had never even considered, and I distinctly remember being so stricken realizing that I had never made the connection between my love of fashion and my passion for the environment. We watched the film The True Cost and spent a class discussing the horrifying ramifications of fashion in our modern society. Walking home that day I was resolute that I had found what I was going to study. I, like so many people, was blissfully unaware of the horrors that go into the production of fashion. I had always considered myself environmentally savvy yet I had overlooked the consequences of my addiction to fashion consumerism. An incredible professor and a well-made film propelled me towards years of study regarding environmentalism and fashion. Consumers need to realize the impact that they are creating with their rampant buying of cheap fashion. Few people know about or understand the issues that are facing the fashion industry today. It is the second most polluting industry after oil and has been the cause of decades of inequality, yet most are entirely oblivious and the few that do understand are unsure how they can affect change. With my background in photography and marketing, the marketing of sustainable fashion is a route to go that will allow me to utilize my skills in a way that can make a difference in the fashion world and our world at large.

       How can sustainable and ethical fashion be presented to our highly capitalistic society in a way that convinces consumers of its importance? My first introduction to sustainable fashion was watching the film The True Cost, which outlined the multifaceted problems plaguing the present fashion industry. But I was primed to be the ideal viewer: already concerned for the environment and already a consumer of fashion trends. I have spoken to others who have seen the film and while they find it alarming, it does not spur them to act in the way it did for me. So what can make people care? I would argue that knowledge is key. Thus I have propelled myself with great gusto into the world of marketing. According to a 2015 study by Nielson, 66% of Millennials will pay more for a sustainable product over an unsustainable product.[1] Several problems arise in that the product has to still be deemed of greater value, cannot be drastically more expensive, the consumer must know that the product exists and must know that the product in question is sustainable, and the consumer needs to understand why it matters that the product is sustainable. As admonished by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, “Everything we personally own that’s made, sold, shipped, stored, cleaned, and ultimately thrown away does some environmental harm every step of the way, harm that we’re either directly responsible for or is done on our behalf.” Further, Millennials make up only a fraction of the population and many older generations do not care about or understand environmental concerns. Marketing starts with defining a target audience, but I would argue every person must be the audience for sustainability. The planet cannot wait for Millennials and though their buying power is significantly growing, the Baby Boomers and Gen X are just as (if not more) culpable. The thing with marketing sustainability is that it cannot be the main selling point and though it should be an integral part of the brand, it should not be the only differentiator.[2] More than ever customers are buying into a brand story and a purchasing experience. Marketing must introduce the product while relaying a consistent message about the values and aesthetic that the brand embodies and why this brand should be chosen in relation to any competitors. Marketing is not just the photos posted on Instagram or the ads printed in a magazine, it is every single way the brand is presented to its audience from the packaging to the store layout to the influencers who wear it to the customer service provided. Every interaction a customer has with a brand is an opportunity to convey the brand’s values. Making those interactions seamless is fundamental to success. It essentially comes down to the acquisition of a customer, engagement with customers, and monetization by convincing the customer to buy. If we think about sustainability as a product, how can we convince a customer to buy into it? That is what I have aimed to discover in my studies.

       What can be done to slow the pace of the fashion industry, especially on an individual level -- what other options do consumers have? The short answer, to me, seems obvious: fix capitalism. Capitalism cannot exist without inequality; in fact, it is a system that, left unchecked, thrives on inequality. A free market with no checks perpetuates a system of disenfranchisement of the poor because in order to constantly drive prices lower, the person at the beginning of the line is constantly pushed to do more for less and if he/she will not do more for less, someone somewhere else will. Our system was created on the back of colonialism and slavery. By laying claim to vast swaths of land colonial powers were able to create a network of trade that thrived on the access to two key resources: raw materials and labor. When created, however, those two resources were essentially free of monetary cost. You do not have to pay for raw materials that you have conquered or for slaves to do the labor you force them to do. “We associate industrial capitalism with contracts and markets, but early capitalism was based as often as not on violence and bodily coercion,” writes Sven Beckert in his book Empire of Cotton. “Modern capitalism privileges property rights, but this earlier moment was characterized just as much by massive expropriations as by secure ownership. Latter-day capitalism rests upon the rule of law and powerful institutions backed by the state, but capitalism's early phase…was frequently based on the unrestrained actions of private individuals – the domination of masters over slaves and of frontier capitalists over indigenous inhabitants.” Though decolonization occurred the structure of capitalism had already been laid out and was seen as irreversible. Thus the economic inequality of slavery and colonialism could never really be rectified and now our entire global economy is dependent on this system. Franz Fanon, an anticolonial activist, discusses this dilemma in his book The Wretched of the Earth, arguing that the world will need to see a redistribution of wealth in order to pull itself from inequality.

       The only thing that has led to social progress has been government regulation for the common good. It is why Americans do not have child labor, are guaranteed a minimum wage, and are ensured a safe workplace, amongst countless other assurances. In studying sustainability, it is the only thing that can stop capitalism from destroying the planet. Capitalism breeds greed and animosity, which as Plato asserts in his descriptions of Atlantis, will only lead to the downfall of humanity. Of the Atlantian people who for generations were of a divine nature, caring nothing for possession, he says, “…when the divine portion began to fade away…and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts…”

       In the interest of working within the bounds of capitalism, however, there are some smaller-scale solutions. Accountability and transparency are hard and no one really wants to deal with them, but they are necessary. Producers must take responsibility for the products they make and consumers must take responsibility for the products they choose to purchase. A closed-loop system of production, if made possible, could solve the massive amounts of wasted textiles that fill landfills every year. A slower system of fashion is necessary, requiring a change in the mentality of how we shop. Fast fashion is driven by a desire for constant newness and consumers have grown accustomed to paying less and getting more; but imagine if quality became more important than quantity and sustainable production became a norm. This would not eliminate the possibility for new clothes but rather allow customers to take pride in the pieces they select as part of an individual wardrobe (as with the growing trend of so-called “seasonless” or permanent collection pieces).[3] There have also been recent trends towards consignment shopping which is now seen as a way to procure unique and timeless pieces. Clothes can only have a second life, though, if they are of a high enough quality to last for a long time and fast fashion clothing is not. These are just a few of the numerous directions the industry is headed and now it is a matter of convincing consumers that change is important.

       What role does fashion play in a broader sociopolitical context and how have definitions of fashion changed over time to reach the breaking point that we are currently at? What is the importance of fashion in society and how can this be leveraged to change people’s perspectives about fast fashion? Fashion is a language that allows us as individuals to assert our own unique perspective in the world as related to everyone else around us. Fashion, like any cultural phenomenon, cannot exist without a context. It is thus a reflection of the society that created it at any given time in any given place. Modern Western fashion can trace its roots back to the Renaissance (it should come as no surprise that the structures of modern fashion arose simultaneously with the formation of modern capitalism, which began roughly with the rising mercantile class and the shift from an agrarian to an urban society). In the Medieval period class structures existed but were easily discernable because the elite lived in castles and the poor lived in rural areas and in the few instances that the two mixed, clothing was of such clear differentiation it was not thought much about. During the Renaissance some important shifts occurred with a move of the population into densely packed cities and the rise of a mercantile class that threatened the hierarchical structures of wealth on which the nobility relied. With various classes intermingling in close quarters and the new possibility of social mobility it was necessary that distinctions be made to show wealth and power and this was in large part achieved through clothing. People of the time were concerned with authenticity, gender roles, the hierarchy of wealth, and a perfection of morals to achieve the good graces of those around them and of God. Appearance was everything, a direct representation of who you were as a person and how you valued other people, or as Baldessare Castiglione says in his Book of the Courtier, “Outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness. This loveliness…is impressed upon the body in varying degrees as a token by which the soul can be recognized for what it is, just as with trees the beauty of the blossom testifies to the goodness of the fruit.” These concepts have not changed much over time and we still today hear discussions of what our clothing says about who we are.

       Ideas of trends were always discussed, for example Della Casa in his book on manners Il Galateo says, “…A man must…try to adapt himself as much as he can to the wardrobe of other citizens and let custom guide him…You should not…oppose common custom in practices of this kind but rather adapt yourself to them with moderation…” Icons like Marie Antoinette set the stage for the couture houses that led to the designer-led system we know today, where trends are at the forefront of what it means to be fashionable. “We communicate who we are to a certain extent through clothing…throughout history…[fashion] is fundamentally a part of what we wish to communicate about ourselves,” muses Orsola de Castro in The True Cost. This desire for individualism is counterintuitive to following fashion trends, which really show certain conformity, and consumers are realizing that they do not want to be told what is cool by a brand, but rather want to find uniqueness and exclusivity themselves. This works well for the purposes of slowing down the industry because it allows producers to make fewer products and sell them for more money to the consumer who wants to be one of the few with a given product. By making slow fashion trendy we can leverage this mentality already engrained in the customer.

       How can we define environmental and ethical sustainability in fashion production? Why does preserving the environment matter? Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedic compilation The Natural History describes men as weak creatures, to whom nature gives no protective covering, who is born crying for regret of his situation, and who "...knows nothing...can learn nothing without being taught...he can neither speak, nor walk, nor eat...he can do nothing...but weep." Men are susceptible to diseases and they, physically speaking, should probably not have survived as a species. Because of their ability to reason and to feel they have persevered. Yet it is precisely these abilities that also cause so many problems amongst men. One of the most important things Pliny touches on is in comparing men to animals, that animals do not waste their time fighting with others of their own species, but rather most of man's problems arise from other men. So, too, most of Nature's problems arise from men. Inevitably all of nature is connected and every action by any species will have an impact on the environment around it but no other species has had such a destructive effect on the global environment as man. According to reports by NASA and the IPCC, global temperatures will continue to rise causing changes in precipitation patterns leading to increased rainfall, droughts, heat waves, and more intense storms; sea levels will rise by as much as 4 feet; all Arctic ice will have melted by the mid-century; and this is not to mention the unseen effects that are sure to occur. While most scientists agree that we are past the point of no return, a lot can be done in terms of mitigation and adaptation to our changing climate. In terms of the production of fashion there are significant environmental impacts at every level of production: cotton farms, textile factories, garment sweatshops, transportation, excessive waste, etc. This is not to mention the ethical harms on human lives affected directly and indirectly. Sustainability as we have come to define it means the responsible use of a resource so that it is not depleted and supports the long-term ecological balance. The ideal cycle would be using only as much of a resource at such a pace that it is constantly renewable and available without harming the surrounding ecosystem. Chemical runoff from cotton plantations is not sustainable; producing cotton in one country to be sent to another for processing to be sent to another for production then on to another country to be sold is not sustainable; dumping thousands of tons of textile waste into landfills every year is not sustainable.[4] With technological advancements and continued research into alternative methods, we move closer to moderating the system of production that we are currently trapped in. The hope is that we as a society can work towards fixing these wasteful processes thereby lessening the harmful impact that humans have on the globe.

       Fashion is an inevitable part of any society – we need clothes not just for protection from the elements but to define ourselves as individuals and communicate our place amongst our fellow humans. Throughout history fashion has played a pivotal role in supporting the hierarchical structures of the world and shaping individual values. But the modern capitalist-driven fashion industry is reaching a breaking point that it cannot sustain and consumers must understand the intricate activities that go into creating any given garment. The current disconnect of production from consumer has allowed people to be unwittingly unaware of the far-reaching impact of their purchasing decisions. In a globalized world increasingly connected by technology like the Internet, there is very little excuse why this should be the case. The best way to spur change is through the power of information and in educating the consumer we can help slow the pace of climate change and work towards a better world.

       Other considerations in regards to the problems with the fashion industry that I have considered in my studies include the lack of technological innovations in production since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the psychological effects fashion has had in making people feel like they constantly need the latest trend, the ways that fashion reinforces gender stereotypes, the cultural and racial insensitiveness to be found in a Western-dominated activity, and the use of fashion as a political tool both to encourage conformity and to revolt against conformity.




7 Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance

1.      Castiglione, Baldassarre. The Book of the Courtier. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.

2.      Della Casa, Giovanni. Il Galateo or The Rules of Polite Behavior. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2013. Print.

3.      Fonte, Moderata, and Virginia Cox. The worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1997. Print.

4.      Hippocrates. "On Airs, Waters, and Places." The Internet Classics Archive | On Airs, Waters, and Places by Hippocrates. MIT, 1994-2009. Web. Aug. 2016. <http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/airwatpl.html>.

5.      Plato. "Critias." The Internet Classics Archive | Critias by Plato. MIT, 1994-2009. Web. Sept. 2016. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html>.

6.      Pliny the Elder. "The Natural History." The Perseus Digital Library Project. Tufts University, n.d. Web. Sept. 2016. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plin.+Nat.+toc>.

7.      Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. Twelfth Night. August 2005 ed. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009. Print.


4 Modern Humanities

1.      Beckert, Sven. The Empire of Cotton. London: Macmillan, 2004. Print.

2.      Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review, 2001. Print.

3.      Fanon, Frantz, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 2004. Print.

4.      Lipovetsky, Gilles. The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.


4 Modern Natural and Social Sciences

1.      Somerville, Richard, and Hervé Le Treut. "Historical Overview of Climate Change Science." Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (2007): 93-127. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter1.pdf>.

1.      Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Patrick Coleman. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Trans. Franklin Philip. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. Oxford World's Classics.

2.      Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. 1st ed. New York: Picador, 2007. Print.

3.      White, Lynn. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Lynn White. N.p., n.d. Web. Sept. 2016. <http://www.zbi.ee/~kalevi/lwhite.htm>.


5 Area of Concentration

1.      Chouinard, Yvon. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

2.      Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. Print.

3.      Hopkins, Tansy E. Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book Of Fashion. London: Pluto, 2014. Print.

4.      Siegle, Lucy. To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? London: Fourth Estate, 2011. Print.

5.      The True Cost. Dir. Andrew Morgan. Prod. Michael Ross. 2015. The True Cost. Netflix. Web. Apr. 2015.


[1] Nielson. "The Sustainability Imperative: New Insights on Consumer Expectations." Global Sustainability Report (2015): n. pag. Nielson, Oct. 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2016. <http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/dk/docs/global-sustainability-report-oct-2015.pdf>.

[2] LaBrecque, Sarah. "10 Things We Learned about Marketing Sustainable Products." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 May 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/10-things-learned-marketing-sustainable-products>.

[3] Illingworth, Georgia. "How Designers Are Reclaiming Power with "seasonless", Mixed Collections | HUNGER TV." HUNGER TV Fashion & Beauty. HUNGER TV, 6 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <http://www.hungertv.com/feature/how-designers-have-reclaimed-power-with-seasonless-mixed-collections/>.

[4] "Reformation: Impact of Fashion." Reformation. Reformation, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2016. <https://www.thereformation.com/whoweare#impactOfFashion>.