Photo credit: Kelley Bedoloto/Kiya Tomlin.

Sara Longo has always loved fashion.

“When I was younger, I thought that meant keeping up with trends and having a lot of clothes,” says the Pittsburgh-based sustainability consultant and National Geographic Certified Educator. “Although, as I got older and smarter, I learned just how bad the fashion industry is for the environment.”

The recent trend toward fast fashion has led to big profits, as new manufacturing techniques push out new styles from catwalk to customers at an incredible pace, for lower and lower prices. The heavy use of synthetic fabrics also has advantages, ranging from cost to moisture-wicking properties.

Yet, fast fashion has been criticized for its “throw-away” culture, as new styles quickly supplant older garments. The industry involves the heavy use of man-made fabrics, which shed microfibers, a form of microplastics that pollute local waterways and drinking water and harm aquatic life.

Longo is vice president of Style412 — a nonprofit that promotes the local fashion industry and helps to make it more sustainable — which is participating in Fashion Revolution Week from April 19-25. The international event marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people and injured many more on April 24, 2013.

Local Fashion Revolution Week events — ranging from a Mending Happy Hour to a Style Swap — are free and open to the public.

“This year, we’re mostly digital,” says Longo. “We’re hosting studio tours with local designers. One is in person (Kiya Tomlin’s studio), but most are digital. We have some Instagram challenges and giveaways, hosting discussions. One of our committee members is building an interactive map of Pittsburgh that has all the places where you can shop for secondhand and sustainable clothing.”

Work goes on during Kiya Tomlin Fashions’ opening event in Etna. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Work goes on during Kiya Tomlin Fashions’ opening event in Etna. Photo by Tracy Certo.

“It’s talking about mending and thrifting and stuff like that, ways for people to kind of get away from fast fashion,” says Anna Argentine, a former textiles educator in Stockholm who currently works in Pittsburgh as a seamstress for a bridal shop and is also involved with Style412.

One of the nonprofit’s projects is Style412 Lab, a podcast about ethical and sustainable fashion in Pittsburgh and beyond. It features interviews with everyone from textile engineers, to mending experts, to entrepreneurs such as Nisha Blackwell of Knotzland. There is even a full episode devoted to microplastics.

Ultimately, the best way to combat the microfiber problem — and the many other labor and environmental problems created by fast fashion — is to be aware of what you’re buying. Read the labels. Do the research before you buy.

Not that long ago, it was unusual for food companies to label things as organic or list the farms that their products came from. Now, it’s standard practice. There is no reason the fashion industry can’t do the same eventually, notes Longo. It could become normal to disclose what clothes are made from, where factories are located and even what workers are paid.

Some companies such as Patagonia are starting to explore the impact of microfibers shed by their clothing and offering directions on how to reduce their impact on the environment.

If the public demands it, this information could become as ubiquitous as the organic food label.

Style412 is working with Rust Belt Fibershed on a Rust Belt Closet Survey to help determine “material content, country of origin, laundry habits and more, with the goal of creating a healthier regional textile supply chain and keeping microplastic pollution out of our waterways.”

Another project Style412 and Rust Belt Fibershed are working on is called One Year, One Outfit. The plan is for participants, working as teams or individuals, to create one outfit (three garments or accessories) from within our “fibershed,” or 250 miles around Cleveland. Participants will display their outfits at Cleveland’s Praxis Fiber Workshop in November.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.