Back in high school Heather Stelter thought that recycling was a hoax and that green initiatives were a waste of time. Today she has done a complete 180 and is working to implement sustainable practices in the fashion industry. She began as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Colorado studying American military history and African textile history. She cites her studies in African textile history as what drove her to go into textile preservation. While in college, Stelter visited many museums around the world but said the National Museum-Decorative Arts and History of Ireland was her favorite museum because of the unique textile history in Dublin. Their culture emphasizes sustainability for clothing and it’s ingrained in their way of life. Due to the poverty that plagued Ireland “part of the reason they were able to care for clothing is because it was so expensive, and it was very inaccessible to a lot of people” says Stelter. People had to learn how to repair clothing, and take really good care of what they had because they didn't have much. One aspect of Stelter’s research is figuring out how to get consumers to care about their clothing again in a world full of affordable fast fashion. The ease and accessibility is what consumer love, but fast fashion creates billions of pounds of textile waste per year, which usually ends up sitting in landfills or being burned and creating pollution.
After college Stelter began working at the Greeley History Museum in Colorado where she helped preserve a textile collection that had been left in storage for two decades. Textiles are extraordinarily expensive and difficult to maintain, mostly because sewing, darning and repair are skills most people don't have anymore. Finding someone who has that specialization is really tricky but Stelter already had many of the skills needed. The Greeley collection included about 1,000 textiles and were anywhere from 20 to 130 years old. Prior to her arrival, the collection had been moved from building to building, stored in lockers, and musty old moldy buildings. “The fact that this clothing was still intact is a testament to how well it was made in the first place and how well it had been cared for throughout its lifetime” said Stelter. She said that “working with those piece and helping to put on exhibits...really got me interested in how we extend lifetimes of current clothing.” The Greeley Museum also has a centennial village attached in an attempt to make living history possible, part of which includes replicas of clothing. “We did this whole display before I left on 100 years of dress in Greeley in the Union Colony, and people from all over Greeley...would come in. People had stories about remembering seeing their grandmother in that or having seen an aunt or a friend wear something. It was a really cool connection, and to see people have those fond memories of clothing really sparked a lot of my study for sustainability.”
After leaving the Greeley Museum, Stelter worked full time for a women's athletic wear company called Athleta. Athleta was one of the first B Corporations in the United States, which means the company puts as much money into the environment as they do creating and advertising their products. This includes supporting fair labor practices, being credible and transparent about their sourcing, and making materials that are either from recycled objects or are recyclable. “It's a really rigorous process, there's a lot of vetting to it, so to have earned that tag, to be a B corp is a huge deal and it really means you are buying from one of the most sustainable companies you can” said Stelter. She mainly focused on community outreach programs at her branch, working to bring fitness and healthy diets to girls and women. Though she enjoyed her work, Stelter felt like pushing sales goals was counterproductive to her belief that consumers should purchase less and waste less clothing.
She settled on OU for her masters degree because of the notable sustainability program. Many professors have long sustainability careers and were pioneers in the Oklahoma Wind Initiative, which has pushed Oklahoma to be the 3rd highest wind producing state in the US. Though there is no specialization in fashion sustainability, Stelter doesn't see it as an issue. “There may not be anybody here who focuses on fashion but there are people here who focus on agriculture. Well agriculture directly laces over a lot of my research because I have to look at cotton production, I mean we even look at flax, hemp, and pineapple production...there's a huge cross over. Same thing with people who focus on employment initiatives and fair labor practice, which directly overlays with the fashion industry.” Sustainability is the nexus that has many different aspects. There's so much overlap of subject matter in sustainability that it doesn't really matter what you study.
Since Stelter’s main goal is to involve consumers in sustainable practices, her thesis is developing an app for your phone that will let you scan and enter the information from the “Made In” tag on any piece of clothing you're buying first hand or from a second hand store. The app will give 2 scores, says Stelter, “the first score is a sustainability score so it’ll tell you how environmentally friendly the garment is overall, from where it was produced to what fibers were used in it. The second score is a lifetime expectancy, so lifetime expectancy would help you understand about how many washes the item would last you, whether its durable or not.”
This idea is based on the tagging that Patagonia and Athleta currently have where they discuss the perks of their clothing. It’ll tell you if the garment is water resistant, naturally grown, and even pesticide free. Stelter is also proposing in her thesis that companies add a wash expectancy to their tags. Whenever you would pick up a piece of clothing in a store, on the bottom of the price tag it would say about how many washes you would expect it to last and whether or not that's worth your investment.
Unfortunately, sustainability in fashion is still in its infancy. “10 years ago this wasn't a conversation you could have with anybody” said Stelter. “A year ago we were still talking about how many bags Burberry (a high end clothing retailer) was burning and that it was ok that they were burning them because it was preserving their integrity as a brand. Just 2 months ago Burberry announced that they are no longer burning bags, so this is all very new.” In February 2019 Stelter attended a United Nations sustainability fashion summit, which kicked off Men’s Fashion Week in New York. “It's really cool to go and kick off fashion week with a bunch of designers and students within the industry” said Stelter. The summit was hosted by the ethical clothing company Slow Factory, who has completely stopped production of any clothing until they can find a way to produce items that are totally circular, meaning they won’t end up in the waste cycle. The summit had panelists who were designers, textile developers, and fashion industry professionals, but it also included biologists, NASA Astronauts, MIT Lab researchers, and environmentalists in the discussion. They reminded the industry of the role of global stakeholders and reemphasized that sustainability cannot touch one industry without touching the other. “You can't just talk about reforming how clothing is made or wasted without talking about how people are treated, without talking how people are educated, or how we forward science” said Stelter.
Stelter plans to complete a PhD that focuses on furthering her app and in the future she wants to work as a professor teaching general sustainability. “I really think it should be something that's taught the same as an English class. Everyone has to learn it at some point and I think unless we start teaching it that way, we’re never going to see people fully get into the circular cycle.” She hopes to develop both professional and student programs that allow people to learn sustainability and increase their knowledge or ability as the field grows. This summer she will be interning at the company Natural Fiber Welding that produces products such as natural plant based leather, free of synthetic glues or binding. They are currently working on developing a fully cotton yarn, welded together from other recycled cotton fabrics. With this yarn, they can create a cotton sewing thread, unlike the usual polyester or silk, which can create fully recyclable garments. Stelter will be their sustainability intern, creating samples, testing products, helping with Life Cycle Analysis, and assisting with their cradle-to-cradle program.