By Sarah Stone

Wilson College of Textiles students taking the course “Sustainability in Fashion, Textiles and Retail” this semester have their classmates to thank for the opportunity. 

The undergraduate course, which Professor Karen Leonas introduced this fall, was inspired by the student body. 

“Students were very vocal about how they felt that they needed more sustainability in their program,” Dr. Leonas says. “Other faculty members and I could add a lot of courses because we think things are important, but we heard a real outcry from our students.” 

Not only did Leonas listen to this outcry, she asked to hear more. That’s why she hired two research assistants to provide insight as she planned the course. Both Anna Labar and Alex Tointon had taken Leonas’ FTM 217 course their first year at NC State and left with an increased interest in sustainability. 

“I realized that this is a pretty big issue, and I’m going to be working in this industry, so I want to know more about it and help,” junior fashion and textile management student Anna Labar says. “After that class, I shopped more consciously.” 

Labar and Tointon’s research question boiled down to this — what do students want to learn about sustainability and how do they want to learn it?

“I can tell you what I think should be in this class, but I really need to get their input so that it hits home,” Leonas remembers thinking. “What are the kinds of projects that they’re going to learn the most from? How do we really design this in a way that they’re going to learn from it and understand it?”

Put simply, the course provides a foundational understanding of what sustainability means and how it’s examined, including: 

  • Existing frameworks and theories.
  • The history of sustainability. 
  • What eco labels and certifications exist and what they actually mean. 
  • How to read and interpret sustainability reports. 
  • The relationship between the global textile complex and sustainability. 
  • How to use existing tools to evaluate sustainability. 

As a part of their research, Labar and Tointon also developed a virtual, interactive learning tool called the “Textile Sustainability Experience.” Users can pick from five garments to learn everything from its fiber content, to its dyeing process, product afterlife and how the people making it are treated. Visitors can also watch video messages from industry professionals at companies like Patagonia about the role of sustainability within their brands. 

Through this research, both students say they’ve become aware that sustainability is anything but “one size fits all.” 

“I’ve just really come to understand how much goes into what makes something sustainable or not, and it’s not necessarily black and white, sustainable or not,” junior fashion and textile management student Alex Tointon says. “You can say, ‘Yes, it was made with organic cotton.’ But then you have to take into account how much water is used to make organic cotton possible.” 

She and Labar both say sustainability will plan an integral role in what jobs they apply for. It’s this understanding of, and passion for, sustainability that Leonas believes is more critical than ever before. 

“It’s vital that we not only make students aware of things in the industry that cannot just go on as they’ve gone on, but also, ‘How do we look at changing this? How do we go about moving to a circular economy,’” Leonas says. “My hope is that these students will go out and be change agents.”