Planting the Seeds for Sustainable Fashion

Textile Development and Marketing Seniors
Bring Rooftop Natural Dye Garden to Life

2014 Class Gift Helps Project Flourish

This Earth Day, we celebrate the extraordinary work of Textile Development and Marketing (TDM) seniors Caitlin Powell ’14, Amber Harkonen ’14, and Meghan Navoy ’14, on their concept for the FIT Rooftop Natural Dye Garden. The concept was selected for the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) and was among thousands of proposals submitted by college students across the U.S. and globally. The students recently presented their proposal for the natural dye garden at CGI U which addresses global challenges and underscores FIT’s commitment to sustainability.

To further grow this project, 2014 graduates will be able to play a role in its success by donating to their 2014 FIT Class Gift, as part of the I Chose FIT campaign. We are proud of students’ innovative work in projects like these, and we are grateful that their fellow classmates are committed to keeping FIT on the cutting-edge with their generosity. This garden will be the gift that keeps giving, where future generations of students will be able to gain hands-on learning as it also helps sustain the Earth. We caught up with Caitlin Powell (TDM ’14) about the impact the garden will have, the conference, her studies, and much more.

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Why did you choose FIT?
I really wanted to study Textiles after falling in love with the subject while completing my first degree in Fashion Merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University. I stumbled upon the Textile Development and Marketing program here at FIT and never looked back. It has been the single best choice I have made in my life.

Which professor or course had the most influence on you?
This is a tough question, because so many professors and courses have steered me in directions I never imagined, but Dr. Arthur Kopelman and his Ecology and Environmental Problems class, was the beginning of my foray into sustainability on the FIT campus. His tireless efforts to make students aware of our climate crisis have been an unwavering torch in the night for me. I never thought that I would find a community like this at a fashion school.

Tell us about working with the FIT community as VP of Sustainability for the FIT Student Association.
Since I am the first VP of Sustainability to ever exist on FIT’s campus, my position was an open book. While I didn’t achieve a lot of the pipe dreams I set my sights on, I did succeed in raising awareness about the impacts that people were having on our environment. I was able to open up a dialogue with people that they had never heard or considered before. People would stop me and say I think twice about printing stuff now because of you or I recycle everything now because of how much you nagged me. While those may be little successes, they mean a whole lot to me. The best thing about my role is the people I’ve gotten to meet. There’s a community of people here at FIT that care about sustainability and social justice initiatives. I never would have found these like-minded individuals if it weren’t for the opportunity I was given as VP of Sustainability.

How did the idea to create the FIT Rooftop Natural Dye Garden arise?
Well, my group member, Amber, had mentioned one day that she had attended a workshop with a professional knitwear designer and natural dyer named Liz Spencer. Amber then invited Liz to come speak to the AATCC Club about her natural dyeing experience. In her discussion, she told her story about starting a natural dye plant garden in London, where she attended school. We thought that was just great. Amber said to me one day, rather flippantly, “I wish we could have a dye garden here at FIT.” Fortuitously, I had just been elected as VP of Sustainability and I said to her, “You know, I can make this happen for us.” Even more fortuitously, the Clinton Global Initiative Think Big Challenge had just come to be and I knew that it was serendipity. We had to put our dye garden idea in there. We never in a million years thought we would be selected, because everyone had such wonderful ideas. Lo and behold, we were chosen!


Congratulations on being selected! As TDM majors, you had an acute awareness and passion for this issue, right?
Amber, Meg, and I are well aware of the toll that the fashion (specifically textiles) industry takes on the environment. I think we were just tired of standing idly by while the industry that we will soon be joining held our planet hostage. This has been our way to mitigate some of our actions that have negatively affected the environment.

How will current and future students benefit from the garden?
The garden will be a place where students can come to learn about why synthetic dyes are so harsh on the environment and also be provided with an outlet to help ameliorate those effects. We hope that students will find serenity in the act of natural dyeing, which can be a laborious, yet rewarding process.

Will it be open to students outside TDM?
Yes, once the garden is fully operational and the first harvest arrives, we will be holding educational workshops for students and faculty from all majors/departments. We really believe in hands-on learning, especially in the great outdoors. We have already had so much interest from students who want to learn more, those who want to help teach, and even from faculty who have botany/horticulture experience. This will absolutely be an interdisciplinary educational and collaborative project, because there is not nearly enough cross-pollination between majors here on campus.

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Will there be room for expansion?
The wonderful thing about gardens is that they can keep growing and branching in many different directions. I think it will be really interesting to see how each generation of students progresses with the dye garden. Next step, a spice garden. After that, compost and rain collection. Then, a produce garden that provides for the dining hall. Eventually, we want to see natural dyeing and the dye garden incorporated into the curriculum.

We’d really like this project to take on franchise proportions. The idea is that people hear about the dye garden and want to know how they can have one too. Since we (meaning FIT) will have already done the leg-work for them, we can give interested parties a nice little package that tells them exactly how to create their own dye garden. In this way, our tiny seed of an idea can travel from rooftop to rooftop around NYC. Precisely because the city has so many rooftops, it is in a position to become a Mecca of rooftops that help alleviate global warming rather than exacerbate it.

What were some of your personal takeaways from the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University conference?
It was a very humbling experience to be in a setting with so many young people who overflowed with passion, gumption, and enthusiasm for positive solutions. Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea are astounding people. I particularly like how avid they are that people, especially young people, are participating in politics.

What do you plan to do after graduating in a few weeks?
I’m headed out West. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll get a job with Patagonia or REI, both of whom are companies that believe in environmental stewardship. The company I work for right now has connections with both of my dream companies, so the future looks very rosy. I also plan on finally having a yard where I can grow all of my own food and, of course, dye plants.

What advice would give to those who want to reduce their carbon footprint in their personal lives and in their work?
Buy less. Think long and hard about where the product you want to purchase came from, but more importantly, where it’s going to go when you’re done with it. Never use plastic bags or bottled water. Eat less (or no) meat. Reduce your consumption of packaged goods. Fresh produce comes in its own, wonderful, miraculous, 100% biodegradable “packaging.” Join a CSA. Support local agriculture.

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2 Responses to Planting the Seeds for Sustainable Fashion

  1. Amber Harkonen says:

    My name’s Amber Harkonen, I’m part of this wonderful trio who dreamed-up and is implementing the Rooftop Dye Garden. I just want to reiterate that we received so much support from the faculty here at FIT, especially in the Textile Development and Marketing program. From Professor Ann Denton, who advises the AATCC club where we hosted Liz Spencer’s talk, to Professor Ajoy Sarkar, who has generously supplied us with space and the tools we need to get started with the natural dyeing process. TDM’s chairman, Professor Jeffrey Silberman has also been a great help and wonderful resource. Thank you all.

  2. TDM wishes Caitlin, Amber, Meghan and the entire class of 2014 our sincere congratulations.

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