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How Fashion Schools Are Tackling the Sustainability Puzzle

The fashion industry is struggling to understand the scale of its environmental challenges and how to solve them. It starts with education.
Source: BoF
  • Sarah Kent,
  • Helen Ifeagwu

LONDON, United Kingdom – Nancy Diniz has built a career turning microbes into material. Now, she wants to teach a new generation to unlock bacteria's design potential.

An architect by training, Diniz will lead Central Saint Martins’ newest programme: a masters in biodesign that will launch in the new academic year. The school’s ambition is to educate a future wave of designers and entrepreneurs who can break down barriers between disciplines and lead advances in bio-materials.

Underpinning the course is an understanding that technological shifts and growing climate concerns will require a new way of thinking about and teaching design.

“We are living this moment of ecological crisis,” Diniz said over coffee at the design school’s campus in Kings Cross, London. “It really legitimises the importance of this degree, and others as well.”

This new way of thinking is reflected in a broader shift rippling through fashion academia, as educators and students grapple with mounting concerns over the industry’s impact on society and the planet.

We are living this moment of ecological crisis.

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world and has relied for years on exporting labour to countries with little care for workers’ rights. The industry is based on excessive consumption of items made from plastics or resource-intensive natural fibres like cotton, and contributes millions of tons a year to landfills globally.

Those issues have hovered below the radar for decades, only rarely bursting into mainstream consciousness as a result of major scandals. But that’s changed over the last few years, following catastrophes like the fatal Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, and rising consumer consciousness about fashion’s environmental impact.

Many brands are trying hard to tackle these issues, taking steps to understand their supply chains, investing in start-ups and releasing products that use less water or avoid single-use plastic. But training the next generation to start looking for solutions from the start is another front in the battle to fix systemic industry challenges.

“The whole conversation about sustainability is changing and getting louder,” said Noorin Khamisani, a London-based fashion lecturer and creative director of ethically-focused brand Outsider. “Of course, we have to look at education because we’re still training designers to work in an industry that doesn’t work for the future.”

Incorporating these concerns into fashion design, marketing and business curriculums is a new challenge for many schools. While it’s already common for students to have the opportunity to learn about these issues through guest lectures and specialised units or courses, a growing number of schools are now feeling a responsibility to place fashion’s social and environmental impact at the core of their teaching. They’re adding new courses and hiring professors with expertise in new technologies, circular design and sustainable materials. Some are rewriting curriculums to make an understanding of fashion’s environmental and social impact a requirement that affects students’ final grade.

“We need to regulate and intervene, and we need to teach,” said Lidewij Edelkoort, dean of hybrid design studies at Parsons School of Design. “In all colleges there should be somebody explaining what is happening to this planet, not just one lecture a year.”

We have to look at education because we're still training designers to work in an industry that doesn't work for the future.

While there’s no uniform approach, this shift is being reflected in a rapid wave of changes across the academic landscape as schools scramble to adapt to new thinking and demands, adjusting curriculums and introducing innovative new courses.

Parsons named Burak Cakmak dean of fashion in 2015 — an industry veteran who made his career spearheading sustainability initiatives. Edelkoort was brought in around the same time to develop new inter-disciplinary programmes and strengthen the school's focus on textiles — ground zero for fashion's sustainability challenges.

Elsewhere, CSM's new masters in biodesign will launch with 12 students in September. The London College of Fashion, UAL has worked with its Centre for Sustainable Fashion for more than a decade to drive teaching on environmental and social issues, recently cementing those efforts into college practice and introducing a compulsory unit for undergraduates.

In France, L'Institut Français de la Mode asked would-be students to outline their vision of responsible fashion as part of their application for the first time this year. The Amsterdam Fashion Institute laid out a new manifesto to guide its curriculum last year, placing the idea that fashion should be a force for good at the heart of its academic mission. And Australia's RMIT will bring in a new curriculum for design, technology and enterprise programmes in 2020, which aligns the school's teaching with the sustainable development goals established by the UN.

“We have progressed beyond the almost tokenistic, stand-alone project,” said Charlotte Turner, head of sustainable fashion and textiles at environmental consultancy Eco-Age. “We’re really starting to see curriculums begin to address this across course and subject areas, but the take-up isn’t full.”

Though the scope of the challenge for the fashion industry is increasingly clear, schools are still struggling with what sustainability means and how to teach it in a way that isn’t demoralising or didactic. Some are choosing to focus more on issues of diversity and social exploitation, while others are approaching the subject from an environmental perspective.

For students, the implications range from the practical to the academic. At IFM, the school is trying to shift to using recycled materials for students' pattern canvas, with a goal of reducing the footprint of the 17,000 metres of fabric its students consume every year. RMIT is experimenting with restricting first year students from using any new material at all. AMFI is taking projects' sustainability credentials into account when marking students' work. The Leicester-based De Montfort University, tackles sustainability within the faculty. It went plastic free in the fashion department, collects student's work in recyclable bags and graduate students only exhibit four garments to reduce fabric waste.

“The quality of students’ work has gone up, because they’re spending more time thinking about implementing sustainability, rather than churning out garments with whatever fabric they can afford,” said Jessica Joy Donnelly, programme leader for fashion communication and styling at De Montfort University. “It’s making students much more employable.”

Training the next generation to start looking for solutions from the start is another front in the battle to fix systemic challenges within the industry.

Behind the scenes, educators are still scrambling to understand and manage changing demands; it isn’t easy.

Many institutions operate within tight cost constraints and complicated, siloed bureaucracies that make any kind of curriculum change slow and cumbersome. Academics who have built careers in design, marketing and business over the last decade generally don’t have an in-depth knowledge of the environmental and social issues schools are now looking to incorporate more deeply into their teaching.

“A lot of fashion education has been static for quite a while,” said Robyn Healy, dean of the fashion and textiles school at RMIT. “A lot of the work we’re doing is re-educating our staff.”

Sustainability isn’t a new concern at LCF, but when the school decided it wanted to embed responsible design more deeply within its curriculum, it put in place a five-year strategy. The university used that time to coordinate across senior management and faculty to develop a new specialised unit for all undergraduates.

“We needed to make sure all our tutors feel engaged in the conversation and feel empowered to create a learning experience for their students,” said Nina Stevenson, education for sustainability leader at LCF's Centre for Sustainable Fashion. “We needed five years to do that.”

Central Saint Martins’ new masters in biodesign is the first completely new course that the school has introduced since it launched an MBA in 2017. To pull it together, the school has invested substantially, building a new lab and moving to hire several specialists, including Diniz.

But the pressure to adapt is coming from all sides. Students entering education now are often already very aware of fashion’s negative impact and eager for more information, educators say. More than half of AMFI’s graduating class chose to work on issues of sustainability last year, and that number grew again this year, said Leslie Holden, head of postgraduate studies at the school.

“It’s a huge change and it’s happened very, very fast,” Holden said. “It’s something of the spirit of the age we’re living in; particularly the younger generation are really embracing this as a cause.”

The pressure to adapt is coming from all sides.

Companies are also increasingly engaging with the issue, providing students with an additional incentive to learn about the subject. Over the last five years, a growing number of companies have put in place specific divisions focused on sustainability, offering aspiring graduates a clear line of sight into a potential career.

“That makes a huge difference in terms of the aspirations of students,” said RMIT’s Healy, noting that the age of rock-star designers has come to an end and students need to think differently about their careers. “It’s old school, a lot of the ways we think of designers.”

Many brands have also taken steps to finance research or sponsor courses. Luxury giant Kering SA has partnered with LCF to create a 15-week, cross-disciplinary programme for masters students, as well as an open-access online course in sustainable luxury fashion. Burberry PLC gave the Royal College of Art £3 million ($3.8 million) in 2017 to research more sustainable materials and techniques, while earlier this year Zara-owner Inditex SA agreed to provide $4 million to finance research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.

But while universities are shifting, the focus on sustainability varies significantly depending on the institution and there’s no standardised form of teaching. For students, it’s more important than ever to look carefully at what different schools are offering to determine what may be right for them.

The concerns cut across broader upheavals that are upending traditional models of teaching and pushing educators to think beyond established silos as shifts in the industry and digitisation force them to reconsider what design education should look like.

“Students are really being taught in the same way I was taught thirty years ago,” said AMFI’s Holden. “They’re reaching high levels of creativity, but in a way it’s for an industry that doesn’t exist anymore.

Explore our full report on The Best Fashion Schools in the World 2019 here.

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