Sustainability: The Next Generation

By guest author John Russel Jones. John Jones is a freelance writer based in Jersey City, NJ, USA. He primarily covers men’s style, fitness, and grooming, but sustainability is a personal (and public!) concern. When he’s not herding cats with his husband, he’s probably at the gym or hanging out in St. Augustine, FL, the USA’s oldest city. He is on all the socials: @JohnRusselJones      

Global student climate strikes held in 2019 were a clear demonstration that the next generation is taking climate change much more seriously than its predecessors. While many in the fashion and related industries do what they can to mitigate the impact of centuries of bad behaviour (starting with the Industrial Revolution); leading fashion schools are arming their students with skills to deal with both the immediate effects of the crisis, as well as those needed to address long-lasting, sustainable change. How are these colleges and universities preparing tomorrow’s eco-warriors?    

 Mission Based

“One in six people work in the fashion industry; from farmers to spinners, manufacturers, designers, marketers, etc. It is vital for each person to understand how their individual job relates to all of the other sectors in the industry and how they can work together to reduce operating inefficiencies and create systemic, sustainable change across the fashion industry,” says Cara Smyth, vice president of Glasgow Caledonian New York College.

“Sustainability is at the heart of the Textile Design Program’s core teaching and learning at Chelsea College of Arts (CCA) (part of the University of Arts London), and has been a significant focus area of research for both staff and students,” says Caryn Simonson, program director for Textile Design. “We engage our students in areas of design activism, [as] part of the changing roles the designer can play in responding to and positively impacting climate emergency and discovering new material and immaterial approaches to textile design, new business models, systems, and services,” says Simonson.

“As textile designers of the future it’s essential to research and understand the impact of materials use within environmental and ethical contexts so our graduates can go on to inspire and shape the future of design responsibly with exciting visions, including as influencers within the industry,” she says.

From undergrad to PhD programs, CCA embeds socially responsible design into its curriculum. In fact, the University of the Arts London—which includes design schools Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion (LCF), as well as CCA—has declared an out and out climate emergency, placing the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions at the center of three major initiatives across its campuses. Campaigns Officer Amber Goneni is quoted on the university’s website, on behalf of the Arts Students’ Union, saying “Students are leading the campaign to create a better world for the next generation, learning from the mistakes of our predecessors.”

Student-Led Change

At Central Saint Martins, students have formed action groups that challenge the school to develop plans around particular issues including waste, curriculum, and activism. The college hosted a Climate Emergency Assembly in October 2019 to address concerns of staff and students alike.

At the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), in New York City, NY, USA, Textile Development and Marketing professor Ajoy Sarkar says that sustainability initiatives at the college have always been student-led.

“One of the very first projects was a rooftop garden. A few of our students decided that, because natural dyes were making a comeback, they wanted to see if we could grow them in an urban space,” says Sarkar. “That was successful, so we applied to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a grant to sponsor a related project. In this case, another group of students recognized that FIT’s fashion design students were throwing away 300 to 400 pounds of muslin (used for draping garments) a week. These students proposed collecting the discarded muslin to see if we could use it to create compost as a nutrient for the garden. In the end, we were able to break down the muslin, creating compost to grow indigo coreopsis and other plants; extracting dye and using it to dye cotton; thereby closing the loop.”

“Students come back to the instructors and let us know what they would like to study in more depth, based on what they’ve researched in other classes. They are so well-informed, so we have to create the framework for them so that they get the right knowledge,” says Sarkar. “There’s a lot of false knowledge on the internet, so the challenge is to channel student interest into respectable, valid research, with a solid basis in science,” he says.

“We have infused sustainability into all parts of the curriculum,” Sarkar elaborates. “Students seem to love this.  But, we also have a college-wide minor in ethics and sustainability. The advantage is that a student can choose courses from the Business and Technology, Art and Design, or Liberal Arts divisions of the college, including related classes in economics, aesthetics, and the social responsibility part of sustainability.”

A Force for Good

The Better Lives Unit is mandatory for all first year undergraduate students at LCF. The program introduces the foundational themes of sustainability, diversity, and social responsibility and asks students to consider the themes through subject-specific practice. After some aptly-themed lectures and interactive learning experiences, students move on to projects that connect their practice back to the issues at hand.

Burak Cakmak, dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, emphasizes a systemic approach to design in general; incorporating the traditional approaches of collection design, materiality (focusing on the supply chain), and product design; but also focusing on fashion systems and society. “When I worked in industry, I tried to figure out how to address sustainability, but it was difficult to create change without addressing the entire business model, a system that (among other things) is governed by trade agreements and tariffs. Sustainability has always focused on bringing efficiency to the value chain. How are we thinking beyond the way it works today?”

“What is the student most passionate about? Designers today are influencers,” says Cakmak. “What’s their role in changing the system? We push design students to think in a systemic way, with the user in the centre, having a positive impact on society. The challenge is that the industry is not always ready for it. Often our graduates start their first jobs, then are disappointed because there is little or no innovation and they feel trapped in traditional roles.”

While the Scotland-based Glasgow Caledonian University is not specifically a fashion school, many of the students in its New York City-based graduate program come from that industry.

“A key skill for students to develop within the realm of sustainability is to be comfortable (and savvy) with cross-sector collaboration,” says Smyth. “All three GCNYC degree programs have the sustainability thread running throughout the curriculum, but the core classes really hone in. One is Values-Based Leadership for an Interconnected World; essentially, how are you making decisions in the workplace that represent your personal and professional values? How can you make values-based decisions for the environment, people, and the industry at large? Navigating Global Change: Business Practices for the Common Good touches the most on systems thinking and human centered design, learning how the world can work for the world. Finally, Business Strategy as an Instrument for Economic, Social, and Environmental Sustainability focuses on how to use industry—fashion, finance, or otherwise—as a force for good at the intersection of profitability and sustainability,” says Smyth.

The Next Generation

We are faced with a need for immediate change—as both an industry, and as a society—to ensure that our planet survives our own interference. It may behoove us to allow this newly prepared generation of graduates the latitude and resources they require to perpetrate vital, systemic innovation; while those of us with more experience take on a more advisory role.