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Octavia Sun (MES ’18) is turning her sustainability research into a platform to discuss environmentally conscious practices in the apparel industry

For a fashion-forward Penn alumna, sustainability is always in style

“Sustainability is the future of fashion,” says Octavia Sun (Master of Environmental Studies ’18). “People think of the fashion industry as the opposite of sustainable, but my work aims to prove that it is possible to curb excessive consumption in the industry.” A longtime fashion aficionado and recent graduate of the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program at Penn, Octavia envisions a career working toward sustainability within the apparel industry. In the meantime, she takes an active role in the ongoing conversation about sustainable design, drawing from her capstone research and her ongoing interest in the intersection of fashion, sustainability, and women’s labor.

Octavia’s capstone project examined the sustainability programs of four luxury apparel brands in order to see how they approached different environmental frameworks such as life cycle assessment, B Corp certification, and Carbon Disclosure Project standards. “I created my own ranking system using the certification standards and what I’ve learned in MES courses,” she explains. Octavia’s project was inspired in part by the elective courses she completed in global supply chain management and fashion law, and in part by the internship she acquired through the MES program’s network. Working with a sustainability management consulting firm whose clients range from a global fast fashion retailer to a small private company whose sustainability practices actually stand up to its socially conscious branding, Octavia developed an expansive perspective on what corporate sustainability can look like in the fashion industry. “Being able to learn so much about sustainability has made me really confident going into job interviews,” she adds.

This fall, Octavia appeared on a panel called “Transcendentalism, hosted by the Humanitas Movement as a part of DesignPhiladelphia, which focused on the ecological and social impact of clothing. She also spoke at a Fair Trade Philadelphia event at Drexel University discussing the role of fair trade in empowering women. She values the opportunity to connect with other high-profile speakers and find ways to include greater numbers of people in the global conversation. “Sustainability is an emerging field, but is not emerging fast enough,” says Octavia. “We all live on one planet, and we need as many people as we can get from all different walks of life. Sustainability should be attainable to everybody.” In that respect, Octavia says, the community at Penn is taking a step in the right direction: “The MES program is accessible in the way your curriculum can accommodate working schedules, and flexible in the way that you can take the classes that best fit your interests.”

“The networking makes the MES program really worthwhile. I actually love networking,” adds Octavia, who served as Chair of Communications on the executive board of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly while at Penn. “I gained a lot of communications and leadership skills in the program, and Penn has such a wide alumni network that it has been great for getting to know the Philadelphia area and surrounding communities.”

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