Teaching Design for Better Lives for All

01/05/2014 13:38 BST | Updated 30/06/2014 10:59 BST

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to force a revolution. When the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed on 24 April 2013 with a devastating human toll of 1,129 dead and 2,151 injured, it focused attention like never before on the true cost of the clothes on our backs. High profile brands were implicated and many - though by no means all - quickly agreed an accord on safety in Bangladesh.

On the first anniversary of the collapse, fashion students from University of the Arts London marched along Oxford Street urging shoppers to think about the question "who made your clothes?". It was not just a protest but a statement of intent; the young people who will be tomorrow's fashion industry leaders plan to do things differently.

Sustainability is the buzzword of the moment. Every organisation, from McDonalds to the Houses of Parliament, is falling over itself to broadcast its green, ethical credentials. Universities are no different; if anything, we are under even greater pressure to get our act together in this critical area, because it is something our students are passionate about and increasingly take into account when they decide where to study.

So we have both a moral and a commercial imperative to improve our performance, and as sizeable institutions with an international reach we can have a lot of influence. We must have sustainability the front of our minds when we choose suppliers, develop partnerships, and plan capital projects. We can also do much to encourage and lead behavioural changes in our day to day working habits that, though in many cases small, can add up to a lot.

But universities are in a unique position to have a far longer term influence. It is our privilege and responsibility to guide, focus and, crucially, learn from the passion for sustainability that fires the next generation of thinkers, doers and leaders. Our students want to make a difference to the world. The most powerful way universities can help them do that is through our curriculum.

A transition to a genuinely sustainable and ethical system is going to require a fundamental re-think of how society functions - no small task. Managing and mitigating environmental degradation, developing greener technologies, analysing global supply systems - these are often seen as scientific and engineering challenges, but the knowledge and approaches of arts and design specialists are just as vital.

The essence of design is making things work better - not just objects but systems, processes and practices. All design disciplines, from product, environmental and industrial to fashion, cosmetic and graphic, have the power to provide practical solutions to society's fundamental concerns. A core focus in design education is on design's role to not simply add more stuff to the world, but to explore in a holistic way what we produce and how we produce it.

That encompasses everything from small actions, such as choosing non-toxic dyes and pigments, to big picture changes like shifting societal attitudes to the value and disposability of objects. Does a fashion house know that its suppliers are working in safe, well-regulated, low-waste environments? Does a manufacturer design in the ability to replace and reuse components in domestic machines to minimise waste and increase longevity? Current and future consumers will increasingly ask these questions, and vote with their wallets.

Dilys Williams, Director of London College of Fashion's Centre for Sustainable Fashion, boils ethical and sustainable design down to three fundamental, intertwined approaches - head (understanding context and theory), hands (solving problems through making), and heart (being passionate about what you're doing and why you're doing it).

By planting this understanding at the core of arts and design curricula, we will empower the students who march today to lead the sustainable industries of tomorrow.