The fashion industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. While some brands had a boost from online sales, overall consumer demand plummeted: between January and March 2020, the average value of the global fashion market fell by 40%.
Meanwhile, COVID has thrown a spotlight on the industry’s more unseemly practices. In Bangladesh, for example, suppliers lost millions when big fashion players didn’t pay for the orders they cancelled when the pandemic began. Factories were forced to close, leaving millions of workers on the curb without wages for completed orders, or jobs.
At the end of March, one non-profit stepped in to help. Remake, whose mission is “to make fashion a force for good,” started an online campaign under the hashtag #PayUp to pressure fashion brands to pay for their fulfilled orders. Adidas, H&M, The Gap and Lululemon were among those that were pressured into honouring their contracts, but The Children’s Place, Urban Outfitters and TJX, which owns Marshalls, Winners and HomeSense in Canada, have not yet publicly committed to paying.
The fashion industry is at a crossroads: either slash costs by doubling down on unsustainable practices that hurt workers and the environment or ramp up sustainability pledges made before the pandemic.
“The question is now, how do we build back better?” says Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary of the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, in a story for the UN Environment Programme’s website. “We need to map the value chain and identify opportunities to limit the negative environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry while building in accountability and transparency.”
If one of the world’s dirtiest industries is going to clean up its act, then fashion schools must get in on the ground floor. Is the next generation of designers, merchandisers, buyers and managers being trained for the transition?
If the $2.4 trillion fashion industry were a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest economy. It’s also considered one of the world’s dirtiest industries, responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. The industry guzzles about 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water annually, making it the second-largest water polluter and consumer. Though apparel’s environmental and social impacts have long been criticized, COVID-19 unequivocally confirmed the need for the fashion industry to take action. Business as usual is no longer an option – and fashion’s supply chains, labour practices, water use and textile waste are all in need of makeovers.
Are fashion schools keeping up?
Currently, only a handful of sustainable fashion study programs exist, with just two offered in Canada. Marilyn McNeil-Morin, program director at George Brown College’s Fashion Exchange Program in Toronto, was at the centre of designing the program when it launched in 2016. She foresaw the “forces of change and recognized that the school needs to meet them ahead of time.”
McNeil-Morin explains that sustainability isn’t just about greener fabric choices. “The way the program is constructed is that it looks at the whole supply chain. Sustainability is not just fixing the environmental impacts of fashion, but also labour and social impacts,” she says. For example, classes focus on principles of accountability in the ethical sourcing of raw materials and sustainability challenges in apparel production by looking at labour logistics and production standards.
There’s a push-and-pull tension in this space. Though McNeil-Morin suggests the desire to clean up the fashion market is growing on both the production and consumption sides, Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 tells a different story. The report – by the Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition – found that progress on sustainability slowed by a third in 2018.
“Unless the current trend...improves,” the authors write, “fashion will continue to be a net contributor to climate change.”
Sabine Weber, a professor in Seneca College’s School of Fashion in Toronto, offers a course on fashion sustainability but says there’s a shortage of trained people to lead sustainable initiatives. It’s a problem she hopes that classes like hers can help solve. She says sustainability is still “an abstract concept” for most fashion students and industry professionals, and it has to be made relatable by breaking down the supply chain. How does textile waste affect the planet? How can we reduce, reuse, recycle and join the circular economy? How can we push for quality clothing that people will want to keep longer? These are all questions she addresses with her students.
“Designers determine the life cycle of a garment,” Weber says, “and they can see what the life of a garment will be at the end of its design and after the consumer is done with it.” Training students to design a garment so it can be easily recycled or upcycled helps ensure that tomorrow’s apparel companies are contributing to a circular economy.
Suad Ali is a third-year Fashion Business Management student at Seneca College’s Newnham Campus. She says she learned about the detrimental effects of fashion in school. “[It] changed the way I think … Now I want to work in recycling and upcycling materials,” she says.
Only a few students from her program are seriously incorporating elements of sustainability into their post-graduation business plans, Ali says, adding that most are resigned to the status quo. “That’s why we need more courses to keep reminding people of the importance of sustainability.”
Other schools putting sustainability at the core of their fashion design, production and business programs include Lethbridge College in Alberta and the London College of Fashion. But there are still far too few of them to flip the industry on its head, advocates say.
A lot of the work going into educating the public, students and brands about the importance of sustainability in fashion is coming from outside of school systems. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been working with a number of brands and universities to encourage a transition to a circular economy, recognizing the need to move away from a “take-make-waste” model of production and consumption. Through online resources and collaboration with universities around the world, such as the University of Montreal and the University of Chile, the foundation equips students with the knowledge and skills to build a society and economy with the concepts of sustainability and a circular economy at the core of their values.
Still, more schools and universities need to recognize the future of business and forces of change and train students accordingly.
“I attended the Copenhagen Fashion Summit [last May], and I was so surprised to see that education leaders were still only talking about introducing sustainability courses. At this point, we need interest at the program stage, not just the course stage,” McNeil-Morin says.
Regenerative fabrics, upcycling, recycling, as well as slow-fashion business models all must become central to fashion programs so that students can bring these practices to the industry when they graduate. With scientists suggesting that we have 10 years left to bend the climate crisis curve, we need all hands on deck – including the next generation of fashion industry leaders.
Shreya Kalra is a journalist based in Toronto writing on the environment, women, children and social issues.