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The Impact Report

Moving the needle: toward a more holistic and ethical fashion industry

A Q&A with Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator founder, Debera Johnson, on accelerating sustainable and digital technology in apparel production.

The Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA), a Pratt Institute initiative, is a hub for ethical fashion and design that provides design entrepreneurs, creative technologists and industry professionals with the resources they need to transform their ideas into successful, triple bottom line businesses.

About 15 emerging design businesses are selected to work from the BF+DA. Each year, the BF+DA also serves over 70 apparel production clients, 300 digital fabrication clients and 4,000 event, tour and educational program attendees. It’s also recently launched sustainability consulting offerings to further its mission and reach.

Debera Johnson is the BF+DA’s founder and executive director. She also founded the Center for Sustainable Design Strategies at Pratt Institute and has been leading the integration of sustainability into Pratt’s art, design and architecture programs for over 15 years.

Bard MBA’s Lindsey Strange spoke with Johnson about BF+DA, its function as a hub for ethical fashion and responsible technology and how it promotes triple bottom line values by linking financial success to an ethical and sustainable supply chain.

Lindsey Strange: What is the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator?

Debera Johnson: The Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator is a hub for ethical fashion. There are really three things that we’re focused on doing. First — redefining the fashion industry around the environment and society. We’re very concerned about the impacts of the industry on the planet and on people. So, we have a business accelerator to work with emerging design firms and help them not only achieve financial success and stability but also the triple bottom line. 

Second — we have production facilities open to designers. Our goal there is to be a local resource for sustainable production and to help educate designers about how to implement strategies around efficiencies and sustainable supply chain.

The third and probably the newest part of what we’re doing is becoming a research and design center for the integration of technology into smart garments and functional textiles — and, most importantly, with the idea of sustainability alongside it. Innovation can really take off, and people get very excited about new things, but what we’ve forgotten to think about the environment and the kind of labor we’re producing as we create these innovations. And so the BF+DA is very committed to having that dual conversation that connects sustainability and technology. 

Strange: Even when consumers start to understand the environmental and ethical implications of their fast fashion choices, it’s hard to convince them to buy for the value of the product. How do you help entrepreneurs navigate that landscape?

Johnson: The apparel industry is so price- and margin-conscious. Fast fashion is beating down the price of what we expect clothing to cost, but we’re not looking at the material concerns and, especially, the ethical concerns around the labor that’s creating that product. Our consumer culture wants the bargain, the deal, often despite the quality of the product.

Consumers need to decide whether they’re more interested in saving pennies or saving the environment. Products that are quality are going to cost more.
Consumers need to decide whether they’re more interested in saving pennies or saving the environment. Products that are quality are going to cost more. We just have to decide where we stand. 

At BF+DA, transparency is a big piece of how we do storytelling — letting people know who made the product, how it was made, what materials were used and whether the dyes are toxic or organic. When you start to understand a product in that way, you’re able to make better choices about what you buy, and you have the information to justify spending more. 

Strange: Can you tell us more about the different BF+DA labs?

Johnson: The idea of the BF+DA was to create a place in which you could go from idea to prototype to manufacture to market in one place — to see it all happening and be able to walk across the hall and talk to someone in the s.LAB (Sustainability Lab) about making a product more sustainable and then walk through the door to the p.LAB (Production Lab) and see those ideas being built into the product.

The t.LAB and d.LAB are focused on the future of fashion. There’s so much technological development going on around the creation of products in manufacturing as well as the integration of new materials that have special functionality. The d.LAB focuses on digital technology and its relationship to apparel. Now, instead of measuring someone, we can body scan them. We then take that scan into a design platform and drape virtually on a machine using software. That information goes into a pattern-making program, which gets output to a digital pattern cutter and then goes to the sewer. The digitalization is essentially the process.

One of our goals at BF+DA is to provide the types of resources that the big companies are using to small, independent designers, so that they’re at the front edge alongside the big companies. 

Strange: Do you see any other areas where sustainability and technology are coming together in a good way?

Johnson: The digitalization is one of them. I also think that biotech is creating really interesting materials in laboratories and not farms. It’s exciting to start to think about other types of fibers like cotton that can be made in closed-loop systems rather than farmed. That will have huge implications. People are making leathers in laboratories, and they’re growing pigment and indigo in petri dishes.

Then you also have things like blockchain to help with traceability. It can track a fiber from where it was grown to where it was milled to where it was cut and sewn and assembled. And there’s also nanofibers, which have special functions like being able to read pressure or be infused with vitamins so your clothing will essentially give you your vitamins or medicine.

There’s a lot coming down the pipe that will really change our perception of what clothing is and will add new functionality that we haven’t thought about previously. 

This Q&A was an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Oct. 19 The Impact Report podcast. The Impact Report brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

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