In 1911, 146 female garment workers in New York City died when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building caught fire. With the doors to the stairways locked to prevent excessive breaks and stealing, the women had no escape routes and either jumped or burned to death.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is known as one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history and led to the passing of many worker reform laws to ensure the fair treatment of garment workers and laborers nationwide. Today, New York City is a budding hub of fashion-forward movements with ethical standards for workers.
But around the world, workers in other countries do not have it so lucky, which is one of the reasons why Rebekkah Colclasure, a senior fashion merchandising major with a double concentration in business and product development, has chosen to spend the latter part of her college career researching sustainability in fashion in an attempt to change the ethics behind the clothing. Rebekkah has turned this sparked interest into an ignited passion.
Rebekkah defines sustainability in fashion as, “making decisions that are in the best interest of the environment and global health.” Increased production of garments around the world has led to global issues such as polluted waterways, overcrowded landfills and the exploitation of workers earning unlivable wages in unethical conditions.
Many of these problems were brought to Rebekkah’s attention while she was studying abroad in Paris, France in her sophomore year through Marist’s Mod’spe program.
“I had a teacher...she was such a passionate sustainable fashion speaker that she just absolutely inspired me to explore this new side of fashion that I didn’t even know existed,” Rebekkah recalls. “When I found sustainable fashion, it clicked with me, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. From this point on, there seemed to be no limits to where this passion could take her.
This past summer, Rebekkah interned for Manufacture NY, a Brooklyn-based company that is actively making efforts to increase garment production to the U.S., rather than overseas. There, she had the opportunity to help start branding their new nonprofit: The Manufacture Foundation. With this program, Rebekkah conducted market research to help locate nearby designers and artisans who would teach classes on homemade fashion and help support local economies.
Another New York-based company that Rebekkah has also worked for is Eco Fashion Talk, an online website founded by Sass Brown, the Interim Dean for the School of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Ecotalk features sustainable designers and brands from all over the world to highlight which sellers American consumers can trust. Such brands include some of Rebekkah’s personal favorites, such as People Tree and Urban Zen.
Inspired by Brown’s website, Rebekkah decided to start her own online fashion outlet, which came in the form of her Instagram account @ecofeels. Here, high fashion photos of products or of Rebekkah modeling sustainable clothes are posted alongside information and data about what is really going on behind the scenes in the fashion industry.
The statistics that she lists as captions on her Instagram are her pet project, as she is constantly spending her free time researching and absorbing as much information as she can. “I just have a very educational mind, so I read all of this stuff and I’m moved to share it with other people because I’m just baffled by it,” she says.
Currently, Rebekkah is keeping busy with a new project of hers: The UN Ethical Fashion Initiative. Modeled after the branch of the UN which allows artisans in Africa and Haiti to work for livable wages and sell their products, Rebekkah hopes to bring this to Marist by having local Hudson Valley artisans and designers sell their items to students.
In the meantime, Rebekkah is staying involved at Marist through her second love, theater. A long time theater enthusiast, Rebekkah has been involved with roughly 34 productions throughout her life, acting in some, stage managing in a few and lighting in others. She performs in at least three shows a year, which she jokes, “is a ridiculous time commitment.” Still, even with her tight schedule, Rebekkah finds time to do all of these things, while having plans for more.
For her capping project, Rebekkah hopes to collaborate with other departments at Marist to research sustainability through a variety of lenses, like environmental science or political science.
“We are hoping to do some sort of collaborative research project on textiles and microfibers, and how [they] affect water pollution or even how different textiles affect the soil.” Rebekkah believes collaborations with a variety of disciplines are the future of the fashion industry. She hopes to either work for a sustainable fashion company in the U.K. or Brooklyn, or assist in helping companies become more sustainable.
In 1911, 146 garment workers died in New York City due to factory conditions that were unsafe and unethical. In 2017, it is people like Rebekkah Colclasure who can say with confidence that they are a part of the reason that a worldwide movement is erupting so that workers in other countries can receive the fair treatment that they deserve—and the fashion industry needs.