Ariel Kraten is the co-founder of GoBlu, a sustainability accelerator that helps apparel and textile companies advance in responsible ways. Kraten is teaching an Experimental College course this semester called #outfitoftheday: Clothing, Sustainability, and the Global Implications of Getting Dressed. Kraten sat down with the Daily to discuss the relationship between consumerism and sustainability and what students can do to reduce their environmental footprint.
Tufts Daily (TD): Tell me about the course you’re teaching this semester.
Ariel Kraten (AK): The idea is to use clothing as the lens to examine what does it mean to be an empowered consumer, what does it mean to understand the impacts of the choices we make and what does it mean to understand the very basics? We all buy clothes, we all wear clothes, but what does that mean globally for workers and the environment?
TD: What brought you to sustainable work?
AK: I’ve been in the field for about eight years now. My background is more from the sustainable development perspective. A lot of people who work in sustainability and fashion either come from a design perspective or a hardcore chemistry background. I was more development-focused, and access to clean water was my entry point. So when I started to understand what the garment industry was doing to different communities in terms of getting access to clean water, that was my hook.
TD: What tends to surprise students most about their sustainable footprint?
AK: The thing that surprised people in the class, which I was surprised that they were surprised about, is that when a label says “Made in America” it doesn’t actually mean that it was made in America. Another thing is that you can’t assume that a higher price means better quality or more sustainable because a lot of the same factories are producing for luxury brands [and] fast fashion brands. I think another thing that would surprise people is that the inclination is that if fashion has this terrible reputation, I should shop local, I should shop small, I should shop boutique. Actually, in this case, it’s not going to improve the footprint of the product because you have to think that smaller companies are begging suppliers to make for them and they don’t have the leverage to say “meet this labor standards requirement.”
TD: So does the consumer have the option to make sustainable choices and shop responsibility?
AK: That is the ultimate question, and right now it’s really hard to be a consumer. We’re really at the start of this journey that I hope will bring fashion into a more sustainable existence. But it is so hard for a consumer to understand what went into making their clothes because the clothing brands themselves are struggling to understand what is sustainable. So it’s this really tricky balancing act of trying to make the right choices, knowing that the information that you’re basing your choices on is probably incomplete or incorrect. However, there are some interesting resources out there. There is an app called “Good On You,” which is a good place to start. You can look at various different rankings of clothing sustainability. One just came out that looks at global brands in China and ranks them on transparency and impact within the supply chain.
TD: What do you make of the school’s current sustainability policies?
AK: I don’t know a lot, but I did get an email recently from one of my students … the bookstore was selling some Tufts apparel made of recycled materials. I thought that was really neat because for a lot of people they just don’t consider it. People don’t consider how large the fashion industry is. One in six people in the world work in the fashion industry in one way or another. It’s massive. So you think your one little purchase doesn’t matter, but of course it does.
TD: What advice would you give to the consumer to have the most direct impact in this fight for sustainability?
AK: Vote. But also, I would say that people really underestimate their ability to have an impact as a consumer. I was in Sweden two weeks ago sitting with a brand that I’m working with, and they were talking about how they are tracking all of their comments that come into their customer service department about quality or sustainability and that they’re seeing an uptick in these types of questions. And every brand is tracing that. And so a couple of people start making calls, and it lands in the same customer service department — that is going to make an impact. They exist to satisfy us, so if we tell them what our needs are that will really make an impact.
TD: Do you think the option to be sustainable comes from a position of privilege?
AK: Of course. These developing countries are polluting too often to satisfy our needs. A lot of what they’re manufacturing are goods that will be sold in the U.S. We would never do these things to our own water supply or own soil, so we’ll do it over there. So it’s important to acknowledge the privilege and hypocrisy.
TD: So then what’s the proper route of governance moving forward?
AK: A lot of these companies are trying to work with these countries to become more sustainable. If the suppliers are living in fear of losing the business of the brands, they’re not going to be honest about the issues that they’re having, and so the most impactful brands are working in partnership with the suppliers to be more sustainable.
TD: Are you hopeful for the future of sustainability?
AK: There are a lot of things that are possible now that weren’t possible 10 years ago, even five years ago. There’s a new whistleblowing platform that I just heard about yesterday where people working at these companies can report concerning things going inside companies, and reporters can pick it up and investigate. There are also new platforms for factories to rank the platforms that purchase from them. They can say “Hey this company was really terrible about paying us on time, which meant we couldn’t purchase the fabric we needed on time, which meant we had to work overtime hours.” It’s platforms like these that work to stop the domino effect. And the technology is changing so fast which is really encouraging. Textile recycling technology. We think we throw things in the recycling and that becomes a new t-shirt. We’re only starting to get there.
TD: Has teaching the class given you any hope?
AK: Absolutely. After every class, one of the students will come up to me and tell me about their sustainable choices. One of the things that I love about this particular group I have is that they all come from different backgrounds. Probably the largest chunk is [studying] International Relations. But then we also have chemical engineers, computer scientists, economics students. To see the different thought processes they bring to this problem has been great. One of the things I want to impart is that we need these creative ways of thinking in the fashion industry.