Sustainability must start with universities if the fashion industry is to change

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(Photo by Cindy Ord/WireImage )
(Photo by Cindy Ord/WireImage )
  • Academics recognise the widespread consensus that universal action is needed to protect the planet.
  • However, if in universities we continue to teach within a commodified model of education, how will education for sustainable development be delivered?  
  • The fashion industry has a well-documented history of unsustainable practices, educating future leaders is critical to achieving sustainability targets.


With weeks to go until COP26, the delayed 2020 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, many people are considering how their personal and professional behaviour can help tackle the climate crisis. This includes rethinking the extent to which we are defined by our consumption or our citizenship.

Academics recognise the widespread consensus, demonstrated through a global commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that universal action is needed to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

READ MORE | Greta Thunberg uses Vogue interview to slam the impact of fast fashion 

But if in universities we continue to teach within a commodified model of education, how will we deliver education for sustainable development? England, for example, has the highest tuition fees in the developed world and the narrative of value for money has created a culture of students as consumers.

And where better to start than looking at how fashion students are taught to think about sustainability. The fashion industry has a well-documented history of unsustainable practices including intensive and excessive production, textile waste, lack of transparency and poor labour conditions. Attending an international conference on how to create a more sustainable fashion system I recall a delegate saying: “We need to talk to industry,” to which I responded: “Our students are the industry.” 

Demanding a sustainable curriculum

Educating future leaders is critical to achieving sustainability targets – and those working in fashion are no different. Graduates increasingly want to work with purpose, but are we equipping them with sustainability literacies – the information, skills and aptitudes – to challenge existing systems and structures, including the universities in which they study?

A 2021 Deloitte survey confirms my own experience that younger people are increasingly concerned with issues such as income inequality and climate change. Many are looking for purpose over pay cheques when weighing up job opportunities. The survey reported that 44 percent of millennials and 49 percent of Gen Z base their choices on personal ethics when it comes to the type of work or the organisations they would consider joining.

But it’s not just employers that need to change attitudes towards creating workplaces that are more responsible when it comes to climate change. Another recent survey of prospective international students found that a university’s reputation and commitment to sustainability ranked higher than its location. According to Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS UK), 60 percent of students want to learn more about sustainability, and 80 percent of students want their institutions to do more about it.

READ MORE | Ethical clothes: shoppers are open to making the switch – retailers must seize the moment 


A focus on students

It is only by taking a deep dive into sustainability that we can help fashion students understand how all the elements of the fashion business model and supply chain affect people and planet. This is greatly aided by new guidance on Education for Sustainable Development published earlier in 2021.

The annual Green Gown Awards give a snapshot of the exceptional sustainability initiatives being undertaken by universities and colleges in the UK. In 2020, UCL’s Positive Climate Campaign won the 2030 Climate Action category. The University of Plymouth was highly commended for its collaborative Net Zero pathway. And Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) student Emma Kidd was highly commended for her Fashion Detox Challenge.

GCU was also recently commended by the UN as an example of SDG best practice for its commitment to fully integrating the sustainability goals into all its activities. This includes developing research, teaching materials and assessment tasks and collaborating with outside organisations at the forefront of sustainability including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its work promoting a circular fashion industry.

READ MORE | Observing Earth Day with 3 iconic fashion brands with a conscious 

GCU’s British School of Fashion also produced a collection of teaching case studies, as part of Bloomsbury’s digital resource, on sustainable clothing pioneers such as Patagonia and Stella McCartney. Both businesses have an environmental mission and use creative ways to educate consumers about the climate crisis.

Patagonia published a reversible poem on Black Friday 2020 and Stella McCartney released her Spring 2021 collection A-Z Manifesto to “start a conversation about values”. By studying these businesses, students are encouraged to think about the negative social and environmental impacts of fashion, to debate the pros and cons of fabric and production choices and to actively promote more sustainable alternatives in line with their own values.

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