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Studies in green: how universities are embedding sustainability into learning

Sustainability in fashion is now business critical. Drapers uncovers how leading universities are preparing students for a greener future.

The next generation of fashion leaders has witnessed a sea change in attitudes towards sustainability. A massive surge in environmental and social awareness has meant retailers are finally taking steps to address fashion’s reputation as one of the world’s most polluting industries.

Tomorrow’s talent will be at the forefront of the battle to create a greener, cleaner fashion industry. As a result, leading universities are doubling down on efforts to embed sustainability within students’ thinking.

The designs of Graduate Fashion Week winner Brian McLysaght have sustainability embedded, as a result of studying at Edinburgh College of Art,

The designs of Graduate Fashion Week triple winner Brian McLysaght have sustainability embedded, as a result of studying at Edinburgh College of Art

University of the Arts London (UAL), which includes fashion powerhouses Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, announced in September that it will “will make sustainability a required part of the student learning experience, through the introduction of relevant learning outcomes across courses, starting in this academic year”. Academic and technical staff will also be required to undertake a “carbon literacy” training programme.

Students themselves are also demanding to learn more about sustainability. A Student Union survey at UAL, published in June this year, found that more than 88% of students believed sustainability should play a bigger part in the curriculum. Some universities – including UAL and Nottingham Trent University (NTU) – tell Drapers they have been petitioned by students to provide more sustainability content on their curricula.

Mindset change

Lectures from leading figures in sustainable design practices and undertaking industry placements remain important elements of teaching sustainability. To enable the next gen  eration of sustainable pioneers, however, educators emphasise the growing need for critical thinking and a new understanding of fashion’s role in the world.

UAL is aiming to giving students the critical-thinking skills necessary to tackle complex sustainability issues. As well as adding compulsory modules in sustainability, the London College of Fashion teamed up with French luxury group Kering to launch the world’s first open-access digital course dedicated to sustainability earlier this year.

We have to change mindsets, so students can think in new ways when they go out and work in the industry

Leslie Horden, head of postgraduate studies at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute

“It is about embedding sustainability throughout the curriculum, rather than just having it one place,” explains Nina Stevenson, education for sustainability leader at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a UAL research centre based at the London College of Fashion.

Leslie Horden is head of postgraduate studies at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI), which is making sustainability a key priority. AMFI rewrote its curriculum to include more teaching on sustainability and has also focused its postgraduate course around the topic, tasking MA students with creating sustainable and circular businesses. Teachers at the university have also been trained on circularity.


Collaborate for change at Drapers Sustainable Fashion 2020

Bringing together the most sustainable brands and retailers, trailblazers and unicorns, disruptors, progressive thinkers and pioneers, Drapers Sustainable Fashion 2020 is an unmissable opportunity for the industry to get together and discuss what we can do to tackle the issues facing the industry through innovation and creativity.

“We cannot justify teaching students an old business model,” he says. “We have to change mindsets, so students can think in new ways when they go out and work in the industry. Generation Z are demanding things should be sustainable. It’s a bottom-up approach from students.”

Angharad McLaren, a lecturer on Nottingham Trent University’s textile design course, adds: “We’ve added a learning outcome dedicated to design responsibility in all our design modules. Sustainability is deeply embedded in all student design activities through research that underpins their practice, rather than being taught through individual projects, which could be seen as an ‘add-on’.”

Work with meaning

Waste is a key issue within the fashion industry. The equivalent of one rubbish truck of textiles is taken to landfill or burned every second, according to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. To help tackle this, universities are asking students to explore the purpose of the products they design.

“We encourage students to think about the end goal of their creations and to be open and explorative to find [the product’s] true purpose,” says David Thomas, undergraduate course leader at the Kingston School of Art.

Many of our graduates’ collections last year were 100% recycled

Mal Burkinshaw, Edinburgh College of Art

Students at the Edinburgh College of Art are taught about circularity from their first year of study. As well as being encouraged to use recycled materials, they are asked to carefully define who their work is for and consider its impact on the end consumer in an approach the college has labelled “emotionally considerate design”.

Fashion programme director Mal Burkinshaw tells Drapers: “Many of our graduates’ collections last year were 100% recycled. Getting students to think about their responsibility as designers to effect positive change also leads to sustainable solutions, through creating products imbued with more meaning and purpose.”

He adds that the college also encourages students to design work that “doesn’t necessarily scream sustainability through aesthetics but demonstrates how sustainability can be desirable and high-end.”

Students are also challenged to think about how they can make sustainable garments in a commercial way that can be scaled up.

Positive solutions

The fashion industry faces some uphill challenges – such as developing more sustainable materials, cutting carbon emissions and recycling more products – when it comes to becoming greener.

Lecturers at Nottingham Trent help students navigate the doom and gloom of environmental disaster by adopting a solutions-based approach.

What we’re teaching about sustainability may seem negative, but there’s always a solution

Angharad McLaren, lecturer at Nottingham Trent University

“What we’re teaching about sustainability may seem negative, but there’s always a solution,” says McLaren. “We find this also helps our students when they transition into industry.”

She adds that taking a solutions-based approach to environmental issues has helped students when they take their place within the fashion industry.

Nottingham Trent students on industry placements, she argues, have found themselves able to engage with conversations taking place in workplaces about sustainability, such as how to make products last longer and ways to establish an emotional connection between consumers and clothing. In some cases, placement student have then been tasked with research projects on clothing longevity.

The skills today’s students are learning will help them find new ways for the industry to evolve into a more sustainable sector. In order for fashion to change its ways, the next generation must be equipped to serve a new wave of sustainability-aware consumers.

Case studies

Students from leading universities tell Drapers how they are embracing sustainability

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Edinburgh College of Art graduate Brian McLysaght (centre) won three awards at Graduate Fashion Week 2019

Edinburgh College of Art graduate Brian McLysaght won three awards at Graduate Fashion Week 2019 for a collection that used plant-based materials, including wood

Because of the ethos at Edinburgh College of Art, sustainable practices became second nature to us. When designing leather goods, we were encouraged to seek out alternatives to animal products and we discussed sustainable fashion with designers from Stella McCartney. We also undertook textile development projects using waste materials.

Through studying, I felt my responsibility to effect change and mitigate environmental damage increase. Sustainability became a touchpoint of many projects throughout the course.

It can be difficult to make meaningful decisions [on sustainability] as graduates in entry level positions, as control of production is very centralised within the industry. However, fashion is becoming rapidly aware of the appetite for change. There is a generation of educated and empowered adolescents who will soon be financially independent consumers. Fashion producers will ultimately need to cater to this emerging generation’s environmentalist values.

Mariah Esa, a graduate of De Montfort University, incorporated manufacturing waste into her final-year collection after a placement with a manufacturer in Leicester

Mariah Esa, De Montfort University graduate

Mariah Esa, De Montfort University graduate

I was drawn to the moment a batch of garment labels arrived with a spelling mistake, which would have to have been sent back with disposal paid for by the manufacturer.

So I looked at how to repurpose these to create fabric and garments, using 20,000 waste labels in four outfits. It creates something unique and personalised.

Fashion knitwear student Kate Warrington is working in her final year collection at Nottingham Trent University

Kate Warrington

Kate Warrington

I am actively more conscious when designing, taking steps like sharing or swapping yarn with other students instead of buying new.

When sampling on the knitting machine, I plan my samples to prevent wasting yarn and I am thinking of ways to re-use the yarn from my unsuccessful swatches – from unravelling it and creating shade cards in my sketchbook, to developing something new and seeing its potential instead.


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