The Scoop on College Sustainability Programs

By Faran Krentcil

4 min read

Plant Studies

From Clueless to Project Runway, fashion is a key (and super-fun) part of our culture. But how is the next generation of style leaders learning to embrace their vision and also the Earth? That’s partly up to Dr. Karen Pearson

She works at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and serves as its Sustainability Council Chair, ensuring that future Stella McCartneys can learn about killer miniskirts and bee pollen in equal measure.

Here’s what Dr. Karen wants you to know about college kids, rooftop access, and seals.

How did you become part of the sustainable fashion community?

Well my background is in chemistry. I’m now FIT’s Department Chair of the Department of Science and Mathematics, actually!... But I'm gonna date myself a little here, and say when I was first starting out as a chemist, the technology we were working on was the concept of Kindles, eReaders, smart screens. These were imagined future technologies, and they were exciting because they allowed us to reduce our dependence on physical paper and printing… And seeing how we could make things that everybody wanted, that also solved an environmental problem, was very interesting to me. Fashion is another example.

How have fashion schools changed their approach to the environment?

The knowledge of the undergraduate student population has changed so dramatically in the last, you know, 15 years. Our students come in with knowledge that fashion is a big impact polluter globally. So they’re learning to make good design choices, good business choices, and truly an understanding of the pillars of sustainability in a holistic way.

Are fashion students on the right track, do you think?

Absolutely! I think it’s very cool that instead of saying, “No, never mind, fashion has an environmental footprint,” they’re saying, “I still love fashion. How can I learn the best way to make an impact through what I love?” That willingness to make a difference is part of what I admire about our FIT students.

What are some things you oversee as Sustainability Chair?

We have bees on campus, because pollination is important, and a dye garden where the students cultivate their own pigments for design projects. We have a lot going on on the roof! Things like that allow the campus to be a living laboratory… But that ‘cool’ stuff is balanced by day-to-day choices that may not sound exciting, but they’re amazing… Like recently, our facilities team was able to replace the chiller plant on campus to be energy efficient. They didn't choose the cheapest model. Instead, they chose the model that was actually going to reduce our carbon footprint, and they measured how much that’s going to happen. To me, that’s huge.

What’s something that fashion has taught you about environmentalism?

That there's not one perfect answer to every question!

Yeah, we’re big fans of ‘progress, not perfection’ at Wild Elements. 

So in the work I do, I’ve become acutely aware that even if you’re doing all the correct things from a scientific standpoint, you need to weigh if you’re also doing the correct things from an environmental justice, a social justice, and an economic justice standpoint. If not? The cost may be too high, and it’s not a cost that I can personally live with. Equity and respect of people at all points within our supply chain is something that I think, in the end, is really what moves us forward. It’s not optional.

What advice would you give to people looking to enroll in a university, or who have kids looking at colleges right now? 

Ask questions about how they’re making sustainability work for them. For example, for many practical reasons, we don’t have a giant food garden at FIT that provides all the vegetables for the dining hall. That doesn't mean we don't have a strong commitment to sustainability, and that our dining services aren't partnering with farmers and other sustainably-sourced ingredients. But we're in the middle of Manhattan. We don’t have an agriculture field here.

But you do make your own dyes!

Exactly. So go visit with your eyes open, and think about your school’s commitment to sustainability in a holistic fashion, not necessarily in a micro one.

Want to tell us your favorite animal fact?

This seems unfair because I love animals, but I’m going to tell you a very specific animal fact. Do you remember the children’s book, A Seal Called Andre? Well I am from Maine, and I knew Andre personally. 

You did not!!! 

I really did! My dad and my mom would take me down to see him in Rockport Harbor! I loved Andre the Seal. But in general, did you know that harbor seals actually migrate with the water temperatures, and they will pass to the same locations year after year? I love that they have such an important homing instinct. They’re like birds that way. They have places that mean something to them.