How Should Fashion Schools Address Sustainability?

Faculty at top design colleges reflect on what is — and isn’t — working.

Fashion schools are facing a predicament: how to teach sustainability in the context of profound climate change, when the multi-trillion-dollar industry students will presumably graduate into is responsible for a chunk of global wastewatercarbon emissions and tragedies like the Rana Plaza (garment) factory collapse in Bangladesh 10 years ago.

As fashion reckons with its impact on the climate and people around the world, schools are also thinking about how to address it within their curriculums.

This predicament dates back to the very beginnings of mass production. The fashion industry “established its production processes back in the Industrial Revolution, and then with the Ford manufacturing model of production — quicker, faster — and de-skilling of workers, that the West in particular has dominated and exported to every other country around the world as the system of fashion… And that system no longer works,” Dr. Sass Brown, the course director of Kingston University London’s Sustainable Fashion MA, summarizes. “It’s really important that we have dedicated academic space and time to research, analyze and find new solutions.”

It’s more difficult when you consider how, even in the broader industry, sustainability has become one of the hottest buzzwords, frequently resulting in greenwashing, with brands tossing around words like “eco-friendly” or “conscious” in marketing materials without definitions.

“Sustainability is one of those terms that’s become quite problematic because of its broad-based interpretation,” Dr. Brown says. “It was in broad terms defined by the [United Nations] Brundtland Commission back in 1987.” Unspecific to any industry, the commission described it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It’s the job of educators to cut through the noise, impart knowledge onto their students and equip them with the proper skills (and skepticism) to succeed in whatever they pursue after graduation. But sustainability is a moving target, and curriculum changes don’t happen over night.

Lynda Grose, a faculty member at California College of the Artsfashion design program, believes that a “bottom-up” or student-first perspective is at the foundation of effective teaching, and that might be a solution to engage with a challenging subject. “The most important thing for students to learn is the context,” she says. That includes addressing topics like ecology and wages, to help give a holistic understanding of how what they create impacts the world.

For fashion schools, weaving sustainability into design programs is top of mind. But how are they going about it? What’s working? And what does the path forward look like?

An Industry Conundrum

Grose argues that much of the industry is thinking too granular. “The bigger picture has been ignored, which is that we’re producing too much, no matter what fiber, no matter how it’s processed,” Grose says. “We’re extracting too much material, faster than nature can replenish, than even industrial systems can handle and more than people can possibly buy. And it’s going to waste faster than nature can process it. It’s actually very simple, and that simple truth, I think, isn’t addressed… We’re all distracted by the smaller, seemingly more complex parts.”

When talking about sustainability in fashion, an overarching question follows: How is it possible to produce consciously when there’s already too much? For students who are excited about fashion and starting their careers in the industry, it can feel daunting to think about this. Grose thinks that reframing it can help schools teach with a more productive focus.

“When you set a brief like, ‘How can we embrace that and slow the flow of materials through the fashion system?’ — or, ‘How can you satisfy desire for something new and joy in ways other than purchasing a new garment?,’ there are lots of different approaches,” she says. “Limitless ideas.”

Assistant Professor of Fashion Communication at Parsons School of Design Emily Huggard echoes the need to understand what makes students passionate: “Starting sessions by asking them, ‘What is it that you love about it? Or, ‘What is it that you hate about it? What are your values? What do you care about?’ That’s going to drive everything you do.”

Designing for a New Time

A huge part of today’s youth culture involves being more aware and making more intentional choices, which has helped fuel the secondhand market. That translates to students being more interested in sustainability in design than ever before, according to Jill Higashi-Zeleznik, chair of the fashion department at Otis College of Art and Design.

“We’ve been touching on sustainability for at least 20 years. When we first started talking about it, it was like, ‘What are you guys talking about?'” she remembers. “It’s something in our DNA, in terms of building and having conversations about it, teaching our students what it is to upcycle. They’re at the pinnacle of something happening in the business that can totally change their lives — everyone’s lives — and how they perceive fashion in general.”

Especially amid the pandemic, schools have embraced the shift towards digital, from design to product. But there’s still a stress on the physical, so teaching modularity — or the degree to which something’s parts can be adjusted and recombined — is gaining traction as one approach to sustainability. Grose says she has students looking at how “garments can last longer, be disassembled, reassembled, taken apart, put back together” this way: “They’re going at it and making discoveries that are their own.”

Higashi-Zeleznik talks about modularity at Otis (which recently added a sustainability minor), too, “trying to focus [students] in on how to utilize material and create something beautiful from it.”

For Dr. Brown, keeping ethics and people in mind is essential in conversations about sustainability. “The most beautiful garment from the most sustainable resource is still not beautiful or sustainable if it has taken advantage of the people in its supply chain,” she says.

A Path Forward

“What I think comes up consistently in conversations around sustainability with the students is, ‘What good is it if I can’t afford it? How can I access that world of sustainable design?’ I’m fighting against this idea that sustainable design is only for wealthy, middle-aged people,” says Gina Gregorio, adjunct associate professor of fashion design at the Pratt Institute. “There’s this incredible youth culture around thrifting and upcycling, but I think the role of the school is to show people how to scale.”

For schools to teach effectively, it can’t just about be students: It’s also about faculty. “A lot of institutions silo the part-time faculty away from the full-time faculty,” she says, which “makes change slow.” Collaborative environments would promote conversations across different levels, to help educators think more innovatively about curriculum. Gregorio, who’s part-time at Pratt, remembers serving on a committee that aimed to find ways to “within our curriculum, in every single class, advance tenants of sustainability.” Groups like these, she argues, can help effect change within educational institutions that can otherwise be difficult to push forward.

Grose also notes how important it is to not lose sight of the joy that fashion can inspire, even when tackling consequential topics. “When I went to fashion school, it’s because I loved fashion, and I loved dressing up — I always did,” she says. “Also, being from a working-class background, you dress up to be somebody. Nobody knows your background if you’re out in the town dressed up. It’s a very, very powerful means of expression, and you don’t want to take the joy away from that.”

This informs her approach to connecting with students, asking them questions like: “What is their interest in fashion? Why are they doing it? Can that be an entry point for them to go after this conundrum?”

The stakes are high. These issues are urgent, but educators are hopeful. They’re focused on productively reframing questions that may otherwise feel limiting, and challenging their students to explore new fashion systems.

“It’s very important for these young designers to think about the challenges that they’re gonna be facing in a positive way,” says Higashi-Zeleznik. “What changes that they can make? They’re not jaded by ‘This can’t be done,’ or ‘I’ve tried this,’ or whatever it might be. It’s a lot of possibilities, and it all starts with design.”

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