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Sustainability And Fashion Education: The Next Generation

28/09/2016 17:19 | Updated 29 September 2016
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During the last decade I spent six years working for mainstream fashion labels, my frustration growing as my awareness of the industry's lack of ethics increased.

One black Monday in particular sticks out, a sales review meeting that focused on organic cotton denim jeans. They were selling well but the question was whether this was due to their organic status or because of their design.

The subtext was made clear. If they were popular because of their design, we could switch to manufacturing the jeans with cheaper conventional cotton, while continuing to charge the same price.

Profit before ethics. I faced this dilemma every day, at every level. A subsequent petty battle over the provision of fair trade tea in the staff canteen was farcical but the message was obvious. If anybody wanted to change things at a high street fashion company they would be banging their heads against a brick wall.

In 2008 I left my job to start an ethical label called Outsider, with the tag line "Ethical fashion should look just like fashion".

At this time, most ethical fashion consisted of the popular conception of a hippy's uniform; tie-dyed, baggy clothes made from itchy materials which were about as fashionable as verruca socks. There were some some beautiful ethical clothes being produced but they were prohibitively expensive and not widely available.

My goal is to design versatile, beautiful and affordable clothes that appeal to a wide range of women. As recently as 2009 not many people were doing this and it was difficult to manufacture ethically through the whole supply chain.

But the industry has gradually changed. Now there are more like-minded independent designers, suppliers and manufacturers and larger companies are investing in sustainable fashion for the long-term.

There is also more greenwashing, but the fact that brands feel the need to address their customers in this way is a positive sign.

When I started Outsider I also used the tag line "It just takes one Outsider to make a difference". I thought change among consumers would come in small steps, one person at a time. Events like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse and the resulting Fashion Revolution Day have raised awareness and led to a faster pace of change.

However, it is our education system which will be an important force for change in the coming years.

Since founding Outsider I have been asked more and more to talk to students about my work. One-off guest lectures in the early years developed into student workshops, which in turn led to the creation this year of a new course at the London College of Fashion called Garment Technology and Ethics.

The fact that this course was commissioned is a sign that responsive, forward looking academic institutions realise the growth in ethical fashion, and the environmental movement it grew from, needs to be explained to students in order to prepare them for a different future in the fashion industry.

However, progress is not universal. I have worked at several universities in the UK where there are entrenched attitudes and resistance to change.

At one, during a job interview, I was asked if I felt sustainability had been "overdone"? After a shocked silence, I explained how, on the contrary, it's generally "underdone". I did get the job but soon discovered that the skepticism demonstrated during the interview was the overall tone for the faculty as a whole. I teach somewhere else now. Brick walls exist in some liberal universities too.

The current generation of students will be the next generation of fashion professionals, the ones that will face the challenges of how to source fabrics, and then manufacture and transport the finished items, in a more environmentally conscious and resource constrained age.

We are in the early stages of educating them fully about these changes. So this is a call to all universities with fashion courses. You have a responsibility to inform, inspire, prepare and empower the next generation of decision makers. It is crucial we don't fail them by taking decisions based on knee-jerk political opinions or sticking our heads in the sand. Be prepared.

In summary, there is still a lot to be depressed about. People buy £5 jeans by the lorry load and at many fashion businesses the rapacious, profit above everything, mentality still reigns.

Overall though, I feel positive about the future. More people are better informed about the impact of how things, including our clothes, are made. The movement I am a part of is growing and the ranks of the ethically minded increase daily. Progress is being made and a momentum is building. In the coming years those brick walls will finally, gradually, start to crumble.

This September The Huffington Post UK Style is focusing on all things sustainable, for the second year running. Our thirst for fast fashion is dramatically impacting the environment and the lives of thousands of workers in a negative way. Our aim is to raise awareness of this zeitgeist issue and champion brands and people working to make the fashion industry a more ethical place.

We'll be sharing stories and blogs with the hashtag #SustainableFashion and we'd like you to do the same. If you'd like to use our blogging platform to share your story, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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