Mar 23, 2023
Sheri Hall
In College of Human Ecology, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Human Centered Design

Human Ecology faculty members are addressing climate change and its repercussions across diverse fields of study, including sustainability in the fashion industry, environmentally friendly buildings and malnutrition across the globe.

These initiatives, which are part of The 2030 Project, a university-wide program focused on climate solutions, were the topic of a March 8 webinar, “Human Behavior and the Climate Crisis.” Hosted by the Human Ecology Alumni Association, the event was moderated by nutrition alumna Wendy Sterling ’99, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.

“The 2030 Project is a great example of what Cornell can do when we all work together and draw on our breadth of expertise,” said Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology. “The College of Human Ecology has a critical role to play in this work, and our contributions span all of the different areas of expertise in the college.”

People working with piles of fabric on tables

Students in Frey and Kozen's new course visit FabScrap, a textile recycling facility in Brooklyn, for an immersive experience in the fashion industry 

Eco-friendly fashions

The Department of Human Centered Design offers a new course, Global Textile & Apparel Sustainability, that immerses students in the real-life, contemporary challenges of sustainability in the fashion industry.

“We all want fashion, we want new clothes, and we want to look good,” said Margaret Frey, the Vincent V.C. Woo Professor, who co-teaches the course with senior lecturer Fran Kozen. “The industry has trained us to want cheap, quick fashion. It adds a lot of waste to landfills each year.

“The problem is clear, it’s complex, and it’s large,” she said. “Who is responsible for making this industry sustainable? Is it consumers, is it the brands, is it labor unions, is it governments at various points around the world? And how can these groups come together to address this?”

To help students grasp the complexity of the problem, Frey and Kozen structured their course to connect the fashion industry to the 17 sustainability goals outlined by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The class examines all aspects: from harvesting raw materials, producing yarns and fabrics, creating and selling clothing, to determining what happens to a garment when the consumer is done with it.

“This movement is reemphasizing the importance of design in the entire textile and apparel life cycle,” Frey said. “We’re training excellent designers, but we’re also training them to simultaneously look at social innovation, health and well-being, strategy, sustainability, materials, and technology. We think they’re going to be very ready to innovate in this new industry.”

three people outside a building looking at a stretch of ground cover plants
Mark Vorreuter/Cornell

Ying Hua (right) touring the energy efficiency improvements in Fernow Hall

Sustainable building solutions

For Ying Hua, associate professor in Human Centered Design, a sustainable building is not just about promoting energy efficiency and using climate-friendly materials: It’s also about the health and well-being of the building’s occupants and how they perform in the space.

“By putting a great amount of attention on diverse user needs, we’re looking for design solutions that support different uses,” she said. “We extend our attention to multiple life stages [of the building] and multiple stakeholders. It not only takes good engineering and design solutions, but an understanding of the nontechnological barriers.”

Creating tools that measure a building’s performance is an important aspect of sustainable building, Hua said. “I’m trying to expand the definition of the value that can be created by the built environment,” she said.

Hua works with students to help them understand and work toward more sustainable building practices. For their first project, she typically assigns students to evaluate a space on campus and make recommendations of how to make that space more sustainable.

“On a campus, it’s never a collection of green buildings,” she said. “We have to start with understanding the actual needs, the type of space that will support the education and research mission.”

For example, some library space on campus is underutilized because students now access knowledge in different ways. “Students look into different scenarios and different types of learnings that can happen in these library spaces,” she said. “They’re looking at libraries as platforms for cross-disciplinary learning.” Then the students create proposals for renovations that will increase use of the space and support the learning and research missions of the university.

Supporting maternal and child nutrition

Climate change is already having a serious impact on food insecurity and malnutrition across the globe, and Julia Finkelstein, associate professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, is researching sustainable solutions to combating anemia among pregnant women and children.

“Most people think of anemia as iron deficiency,” she said. “That’s right about half of the time, but we know anemia is complex and multifactorial.” B vitamins and folate are important actors in anemia, she said. Physiological changes in pregnancy, genetic changes and infectious diseases play a role as well.

“Poverty is the key to all of this,” she said. “We try to focus on the nutritional causes of anemia. In the face of climate change, we need collaborations across disciplines to develop sustainable interventions to improve population health.”

Finkelstein has studied biofortification and natural plant breeding (not involving genetic modifications) to create crops with increased nutritional content, which, she said, also presents “an opportunity to make crops more resistant to droughts and rapid climate shocks” and to increase yields. She is leading randomized clinical trials to test biofortification crops in large populations in India. Her research has found that biofortification improves iron status compared with using standard crops, leading to interventions that distribute biofortified crops among millions of people.

In addition, Finkelstein’s lab is looking into deficiencies of other micronutrients that contribute to anemia among women and children in a population-based research program. This work has helped to develop public health guidelines to improve maternal and child health.

“Here at Cornell, we are uniquely poised to develop solutions across the disciplines that target malnutrition,” she said.