Fashion Sustainability & Ethics in Teaching

As a researcher, my work has been rooted in a desire to pursue more sustainable ways of making, test creative boundaries, and uncover methods to achieve greater inclusivity in fashion. My undergraduate senior project explored the potential to expand the use and reduce the waste in one of the most wasteful garments in the fashion industry: the white wedding gown. My Masters research continued this investigation, this time adding an exploration of creative pattern cutting techniques to challenge what it was to design an iconic garment with specific aesthetic, functional, and environmental goals. My doctoral work explores how digital technology can enter this conversation and be used in conjunction with other tools and methods to reshape the fashion industry.


The biggest hurdle when it comes to finding a solution to the ethical and sustainability issues in the fashion industry is the system at large. Kate Fletcher, leading sustainable fashion expert and Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts London has recently put forth a call to action for interdisciplinary collaboration to devise unique, innovative solutions to truly address the ethical and sustainable issues that plague the fashion industry. She argues that we must have an “inclusive, cross-sector-and-beyond conversation about the rules and goals of the fashion sector” (Fletcher, 2017) in order to make technology and other innovative advancements work to transform, rather than sustain the current, flawed, fashion system. In my role as a teacher to our fashion students, I am in an incredible position to help encourage the people who will become our future designers, producers, and developers to explore new paths and consider alternate solutions in order to begin to dig deeper on this important topic.


Just as Fletcher notes, I too believe that the solutions to our current challenges must be collaborative and interdisciplinary; this involves breaking down barriers of exclusivity within the fashion industry, as well as embracing innovation in digital technology as a way to carve new paths rather than simply make the old ones more efficient. I strongly feel that encouraging and inspiring our students to make their future fashion industry more inclusive will create opportunities for marginalized groups and underrepresented populations to bring ideas from their own lived experiences into a global conversation actively working toward a solution. Inclusivity and sustainability are equal partners in an ethical future; this involves opening up the fashion conversation to other neighbouring as well as seemingly unrelated industries in order to begin conversations about what the future could be.


My research interests and practice have always been connected to a larger sustainable agenda. As a design researcher, I approach sustainability as a negotiation that must be made throughout the design process, identifying (both to myself in my researcher role and to students in classes I teach) that all decisions are relative to the situation and there is not a single objective resolution to every sustainability-related problem. When bamboo fabric first came into use, it was praised for being quick to grow and providing garments with wicking and antibacterial properties and was quickly put to use in apparel design. Soon after, we learned that despite the water-saving, fast-growing abilities of the crop, the process that transformed the plant to fabric was highly polluting and reduced the efficacy of the fibre’s natural benefits. We are still living in the Wild West of a new sustainable era of design; we are dealing with communication speeds that impede the spread of factual knowledge in favour of a quick and dirty catchy heading, and we are dealing with an industry that does not exist in a bubble – it has deep roots that connect to other industries at many levels, increasing the complexity of the search for a sustainable solution to fashion as we know it. Our students are caught in the midst of this current; I believe it is part of our duty as teachers to help teach them to question the status quo in order to discover new ways of seeing, making, and doing.


Enforcing rules and regulations on manufacturing facilities in developing countries is not enough if accountability and worker health and safety cannot be guaranteed. Powell (2014) asserts that it was not labour laws that changed the garment industry in the developed world, but progress through economic development and profit. His research suggested that enforcing labour laws will not change the situation because the countries have not progressed enough to accommodate/meet the demands. Demanding a transparent production process is not possible if the current process is so diluted with sub-contractors, illegal workers, and industry lies to preserve public image in the wake of factory collapses and deaths of crop farmers that the truth becomes impossible to trace. Researching eco-friendly fabrics or using a fabric-saving design method is not enough if it results in a product that is as much or more damaging than the original alternative. One of my current third year students recently wanted to explore zero waste design for their final collection. We had a long discussion about how good design is still the goal; garments must be wearable in order to be used, and they must be made of quality, durable fabrics in order to last for the duration of their life. We talked about how employing a zero waste approach is not beneficial if the design uses more fabric than a regularly designed garment might have. The good intent in choosing even the most highly regarded sustainable fabric or minimal waste-creating technique is negated if the other processes and factors (such as dyeing and finishing, crop farming conditions, or excessive fabric use in order to avoid making scraps) do not reach the same high standard.


Sustainability today means taking a look a the entire system, all its roots, connections, and influences, and re-conceiving what fashion could be. Innovations in technology can contribute to what this new fashion future might look like, but they cannot exist in a vacuum; technology must be created to change the face of the industry rather than to sustain it in its current flawed state. In the fashion industry, most technological change has come in the form of increasing speed and efficiency, however emerging technologies have the power to potentially turn the fashion industry as we know it on its head. They offer new ways of conceptualizing what it means to design and produce a garment. My PhD research is focused on addressing how these new digital technologies are influencing the fashion design process, and how to prepare our students for the future. The rate at which technology changes is currently considered an impediment to this preparation process; I ask how we can plan in order to successfully hit a constantly moving target. 



Fletcher, K. (November 21, 2017). Towards a future framework for fashion. Retrieved from

Powell, B. (2014). Meet the old sweatshops: Same as the new. The Independent Review, 19(1), 109–122.


Kirsten Schaefer / T 647.678.5528 / / © 2019 by Kirsten Schaefer