Committed to the prospect of a sustainable school environment, the NAU Thrift Jacks is an on-campus organization that advocates for environmentally friendly fashion choices, including the “reuse, upcycling and recycling of clothing.” The group largely operates on donations, which are distributed to NAU students in need.

According to the Thrift Jacks page on True Blue Connects, its “pop-up thrift exchanges in residence halls and other locations around campus create excitement for thrifting and recognition of sustainable practices regarding clothing.”

Thrift Jacks President and sophomore Elaina Van Duyne plans and facilitates these events.

“We have Thrift Jacks club meetings every two weeks,” Van Duyne said. “At these meetings, we discuss how to make changes in our lives in order to be more sustainable with fashion and clothing choices. We’ve gone over where to acquire second-hand clothing in Flagstaff, as well as the impact that fast fashion has both on the environment and on factory workers.”

Amid pertinent conversations involving human-induced climate change, irreversible damage to Earth’s ecosystem, it is difficult to avoid trends that serve as responses to these issues. Despite the increasing popularity of upcycling, many still remain in the dark regarding its method and potential.

So, what is upcycling? According to Upcycle That, a website dedicated to the trend, upcycling is the process of taking unwanted materials and repurposing them into something useful. Upcycling differs from recycling in that waste is visualized as a resource, and actually serves as a potential creative outlet instead of merely being broken down and recast. 

A variety of projects can be inspired by upcycling: dish racks into file folders, old shirts into handbags and TVs into aquariums are just a few examples of common goods transformed into something spectacular. Truly, the creative possibilities are endless. 

Van Duyne is also sustainability coordinator for ASNAU and has jurisdiction over sustainability week, an event that takes place on campus each year, and is responsible for initiating events to commemorate the occasion. This year, on March 16, Van Duyne combined this effort with Thrift Jacks, and held a virtual seminar that delved into sustainable fashion, with a specific focus on upcycling. A panel of guest speakers provided a glimpse into some of the methodology behind sustainable fashion practices and offered quality discussion regarding the benefits of those procedures.

Claire Procter-Murphy, junior and student worker at NAU’s costume shop, provided a presentation on “rescuing” clothes, and illuminated a variety of mending techniques that can be utilized to stitch up old garments. One such technique is sashiko: a traditional Japanese mending style, in which the entire targeted area of fabric is stitched over with lines, crosses or more intricate patterns. Other approaches, such as invisible mending, where repairs are made with little visual effect on the garment, were also thoroughly explored and encouraged. 

While some of the procedures may appear overwhelming, Procter-Murphy said, new enthusiasts may surprise themselves through steady practice. 

Natalie Pierson, community outreach specialist for NAU’s Green Fund, discussed a variety of DIY upcycling projects, including garment alterations and scratch-made scrunchies and quilts. Some of the projects don’t require any sewing. Tutorials on converting bandanas or socks into face masks and T-shirts into bags provide some creative alternatives. 

Upcycling isn’t simply a way in which one expresses themself, Pierson said, it is equally a strategy to combat conventional “fast fashion” trends, which are a detriment to sustainability and the image of the fashion industry as a whole.

“In the modern world, the majority of clothes are made purely with the intent of being disposable,” Pierson said. “There’s a lot of clothing waste coming from the fast fashion industry.”

Fast fashion refers to a profitable business model in which companies mass produce replications of trendy, high-fashion design, often leading to an excess of goods. The lack of quality control in the manufacturing of these goods is evident in the product itself. The materials utilized in production, containing a slew of unwanted chemicals, break down quickly and often lead to the garment getting tossed out within a few uses, as stated by lifestyle website The Good Trade.

The environmental impact of fast fashion is far greater than many may think. According to a Business Insider article from October 2019, 10% of global carbon emissions can be attributed to the industry, which is greater than the emissions of international flight and maritime shipping combined.

The subsistence of fast fashion relies on consumership, so it is ultimately up to potential buyers to make a change.

Van Duyne said she holds this sentiment of change close to heart. She has been devoted to making campus a more sustainable environment ever since being appointed to these positions, and has been involved in multiple projects involving sustainability. Van Duyne and the Office of Sustainability even provided eco-friendly care packages for students in need during the pandemic.

“These topics are upsetting ... it’s hard to face the fact that this is our reality,” Van Duyne said. “However, one of my main goals in this position is to encourage students to be kind to themselves on their journey to a more sustainable life. Any change, no matter how small it seems in the moment, may add up to a huge difference in the long run.”

The seminar provided numerous recommendations to begin the journey to a sustainable fashion lifestyle, included innumerable potential creative projects and encouraged attendees to say no to fast fashion and begin to develop a foundation for real change.