Aware of What We Wear: an Ethical Fashion Initiative
by Samantha Reichman,
Secretary of the Student Ethical Fashion Organization,
The College of William and Mary
How can fashion, a multibillion dollar flashy, frivolous, fickle industry, created to appeal to the whims of the consumer possibly be ETHICAL? Students of “Ethical Fashion” have discovered the answer to this question over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year.
The Sharpe Community Scholars Program at The College of William and Mary originated a service-learning, seminar-style course called “Ethical Fashion”, taught by Professor Regina Root. Designed for students interested in combining their concern about issues in the fashion industry with their desire for social justice, we signed up to engage the topic for an entire academic year. During the fall semester, we were challenged to discuss and research topics related to the global apparel industry: issues in production and distribution as well as workers’ rights and sweatshop labor. This semester, our focus has shifted to the creation and execution of a campus-wide project. We successfully hosted an ethical fashion show on April 10 to raise awareness on campus about this aspect of the worldwide fashion industry. On April 28, our classmates produced Josefina López’s “Real Women Have Curves” – a play about near-sweatshop-labor conditions in East Los Angeles to raise awareness of what is exactly going on in an industry that touches our lives every single day.
“Ethical Fashion” students are taking the next step in making this more than just a yearlong freshman seminar project. We are starting a movement. It began with an Ethical Fashion Report for the provost of the college, who understands the growing, changing nature of this issue around the world. Next, a constitution was written, resulting in the formation of an Ethical Fashion club. At our weekly meetings, we agreed the organization would be called SEFO: Student Ethical Fashion Organization. Blaise Springfield was elected the new president, along with an executive board on which I serve as secretary. This new student organization already seeks to partner with organizations as varied as Goodwill Industries, EDUN Live On Campus and Raíz Diseño, a transnational network of sustainable designers in Latin America.
At the first annual Ethical Fashion Show at William and Mary, we created a line of outfits from recyclable materials, utilizing one-of-a-kind pieces featured by our local Student Environmental Action Coalition for a fashion display on America Recycles Day. Students also worked with Goodwill, which donated clothing that was reused or upcycled for the fashion show. All in all, we showcased the possibilities of using recyclable materials to create functional, fun outfits. Yet other students designed and modeled their own creations made of plastic bottle caps, plastic bags, and corrugated cardboard.
In the theater of our Campus Center, the fashion show proved a great success and planted the seed for further community awareness and involvement in the burgeoning field of “Ethical Fashion”. With a little consciousness and some recycling, we can easily find ways to feel really good about what we wear!
“During the fall semester, we were challenged to discuss and research […] issues in production and distribution as well as workers’ rights and sweatshop labor.” (Samantha Reichman, Secretary of the Student Ethical Fashion Organization, The College of William and Mary)
“Real Women Have Curves” by Josefina López – a play about near-sweatshop-labor conditions in East Los Angeles
Samantha Reichman collected the plastic bottle caps that topped the various drinks consumed by her family. She used this dress as a kind of intervention -- to bring awareness of the waste produced through the consumption of bottled water.
Student modeling a dress recycled by Goodwill Industries, an organization with which the Student Ethical Fashion Organization partnered for the first annual ethical fashion show that featured a great deal of recycled apparel.
Group Photo: The first annual Ethical Fashion Show at College of William and Mary
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with Tamara Albu, Director of the A.A.S. Fashion Design Program at Parsons School of Fashion in New York to discuss Social Alterations, and the work we’ve been doing in developing free, open-source curricula for students and educators.
Tamara asked me to sit down with her more formally and explain the project so that students and faculty at Parsons might get to know who we are and the work that we are doing.
Speaking with Tamara in this virtual space was a complete honour, and I am so happy to share this edited video with you here, along with the interview transcript.
Tamara Albu (TA): Hello. My name is Tamara Albu, I direct the Fashion Design A.A.S. Program, at Parsons School of Fashion here in New York. We are here today, in a virtual space, creating a bridge between New York and Vancouver, so we can talk a bit about the Social Alterations online lab developed by Mary Hanlon, after completing her Graduate thesis.
Mary Hanlon is the Founder, Editor and Lead Contributor of Social Alterations, and the winner of this year’s Fashioning the Future Award for “Systems for a Sustainable Fashion Industry” through the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion.
Before beginning our conversation, I would like to thank David Goldsmith, one of our senior faculty, for introducing me to Mary.
It was fortunate that Mary Hanlon and David Goldsmith met recently at the Fashioning an Ethical Industry conference, in London. At the end of the event he talked about his strong belief that Mary’s website team and his research are a wonderful example of building the infrastructure for a “Fully-Fair” clothing and fashion industry. As he explained, Fully-Fair means being fair–not only in the limited sense of fair-trade,–but fair environmentally, economically, culturally, and socially.
Soon after this, I visited your website to learn more about your online lab, Mary. I was so taken by this project that I started thinking how can I make your ideas known to our students and faculty, here at Parsons, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
What came to my mind, was we already had a lot of conversations online via Skype, so
I simply wanted to record our Skype discussions as quickly as possible and have them published on the Parsons’ School of Fashion blogazine.
So, Mary, before we begin our main discussion—I would like you to perhaps say a few words about yourself.
Mary Hanlon (MH): Hi Tamara! Thank you for speaking with me. It’s wonderful to talk with you here. Yes, I’d like to thank David Goldsmith for introducing us, first and foremost. I met David in early March, back at the Fashioning an Ethical Industry Conference in London. We got to talking there, and, you know, we were speaking the same language. So, I just want to thank him for putting us in contact, and also thank you, both of you, for taking an interest in Social Alterations.
“It’s not enough to create great fashion, you have to understand why, what’s going to happen to that fashion later on, and what are the implications of what you’ve done” (Simon Collins, Dean of Parsons School of Fashion)
TA: I’m certainly very interested in Social Alterations, and that’s why we are here today.So, let me begin by asking you my first question: What exactly is Social Alterations?
MH: Social Alterations (SA) is an online lab built to educate fashion design instructors and students on the social, cultural, environmental and economic impact of their design choices.
It is an interactive website that, you know, hopes to create a space that will begin the conversation to bridge the gap between responsible design in theory and then responsible design in practice. So it’s a learning space, essentially, that wants to facilitate transformative design education.
I founded Social Alterations because my graduate research investigated the role of fashion design educators in teaching responsible fashion design. And, what I learned from that…you know, my research really showed that there was a knowledge gap within the industry, and I realized that there was an opportunity there to take the research I had done and put it outside of just the walls of my academia.
My passion for open-source learning guided me toward wanting to create an educational system that would be accessible to as many people as possible.
The Social Alterations Team is made up of myself, Nadira Lamrad, who is both a collaborator on this project as well as a contributing writer, and Katrine Karlsen, who is a contributor. It’s an international initiative. You know, while Nadira is based in Hong Kong, Katrine is writing from Norway, and I’m currently based in Vancouver, Canada.
TA: My goodness, this is a wonderful thing, they certainly are from all over the world; very interesting and exciting. Mary, let me ask you one other question,what do you mean by ‘transformative design education’ if you could develop a little bit more about that?
MH: Sure. I mean, we believe that interdisciplinary education is key to tackling these issues, because these are interdisciplinary issues. So our theme ‘Accessibility for Accountability,’ really shows that we want to help learners understand these issues by breaking down educational barriers: we want to provide them with the necessary tools to take on the challenge of responsible design, give them proper resources, create platforms for discussion, and build open-source curricula, within the interdisciplinary context. So when we talk about “responsible design,” we are talking about design that is educated on all of these issues.
TA: So, that leads me to a subject that is very close to me, but I’d like you to talk about it in relation to your project.Could you elaborate on what you mean by ‘open-source’ learning?
Mary: Sure. So, open-source learning for us is really about breaking down educational barriers. There is so much amazing research being done, that if we can harness this knowledge and aggregate the resources to deliver this through open-source systems. I mean, It’s exciting for us to imagine educators from across the globe coming together to discuss these issues. For example the open-source nature of Social Alterations allows educators and thought leaders from various disciplines (not just fashion design) to share their research in best practices for responsible design, but they can do so in real-time, online. You know, so it doesn’t matter if you’re in Hong Kong, or if you’re in Toronto, if you’re in Vancouver, or if you’re in South America, it’s not the point. Location isn’t the matter, it’s a matter of getting access to the information that you need as quickly as possible, because the consequences of not having that information are very large.
TA: You’re absolutely right, Mary. Can you tell us,what do you mean by ‘responsible design’?
MH: When we talk about “responsible design” on Social Alterations, we are talking about design that has considered, again, so environment, culture, society and economy to the absolute best of its abilities, at each stage of the design process.
Research has shown that so much of the consequences of design (you know, positive or negative) is actually known at the design stage. So while consumer education plays a huge role, of course, in shaping socially responsible fashion design, signals of deception, greenwashing for example, and unintelligent design, hidden ingredients….consumers basically are left to um, in many cases (of course not all cases), but in many cases, are left with no real choice—to pick from the best of the worst
But we believe the designer always has a choice at that design stage.
Material selection, for example is an obvious starting point. We have a “Fibre Analysis” that outlines the potential social and environmental consequences of commonly used fibres (that’s available online). And it’s this resource that we developed by aggregating resources that already exist, by pulling them together in one package so people have the answers they need right away.
Of course, the list of fibres in the analysis is no where near exhaustive, and so we’ll be working on further developing the content as we move forward. It’s an ongoing process.
TA: I’m so glad you mentioned all these, and I certainly hope that your project is going to continue and flourish and become, not only a source of inspiration but actually a source of information for so many designers interested in responsible design. Let’s go a little bit farther, and talk a little bit about the fact that you have argued that design educators have a responsibility to teach these issues. Could you explain?
MH: At the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the shoulder of the designer, primarily, because the designer is the creator of that product—of that garment
But if we go back and we think about the fashion design educator as having a responsibility—if we think of fashion design education as the point of intervention then the responsibility is lifted slightly off the shoulders of the designer and placed on the shoulders of the fashion/textile/apparel design educator.
So, to teach design practices that are culturally, socially, environmentally and economically supportive— that’s the responsibility of the design educator, is essentially what we’re arguing.
TA: Very well put. Okay, that leads me to my next question:what’s next?
Mary: Well,we’ll be looking to partner with various international stakeholders within the community (corporations, non-governmental organizations, environmental and Human Rights groups, social enterprises and educational institutions), and we’ll continue the process of developing the curricula, and pulling the resources together, and trying to deliver them in an edited capacity that makes sense—that people can use and absorb the knowledge that we’re presenting. I mean, it’s a really exciting time, because we have had such positive feedback coming from all sectors. There is a real opportunity for change here. I think that that’s pretty clear, so if we do the work, and we aggregate the resources, develop this content, and really pull it together for people so that they understand not just what’s at stake, but the choice that they can make moving forward to have control—take back control—is really powerful.
TA: Mary, I’d like to thank you very much for sharing this with all of us. I will certainly make sure that this information will be available online. Either our faculty and students will watch this video or they might prefer to read through the transcript, but the end result should be that we raise awareness for this project, and hopefully your website will be visited more and more, and that of course will mean that your projectwillbecome even more successful than it is now.
MH: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this project. I hope that your readers will find it interesting, and that they’ll come and support us. And I really look forward to continuing this conversation. Thank you again, very much for your time. Thank you. Thank you very much Tamara!
TA:Thank you so much for allowing me to enter your space and interview you, I just want to add that I have been talking today with Mary Hanlon who is the Founder, Editor and Lead Contributor of Social Alterations, and the winner of this year’s Fashioning the Future Award for “Systems for a Sustainable Fashion Industry” through the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion.
I hope that you’re going to get a lot of followers—and I’m certainly already one of them! So, great talking to you!
On Earth Day, SA stepped back into the classroom to introduce Grade 8 students to the social and environmental impacts of fashion.
We have collated our favorite activities from Teaching Sustainable Fashion: A Handbook for Educators as well as developed our own exercises to create two workshops for pre-16 learners.
These workshops hope to engage, educate, encourage and empower both educator and learner to get involved with the issues. Each workshop provides resources and tools to help lessen the impact of the fashion industry on both people and planet.
We’ve put together this video of the 1 Hour workshop in action, so that you may get a better picture on how this might work in your classroom.
This workshop was designed to introduce pre-16 students/participants the value of a responsible fashion industry, by understanding the impact our clothing has on both people and planet.
To engage students/participants on the impact their clothing has on garment workers working within the fashion industry.
To educate students/participants on the impact their clothing has on the planet, specifically in terms of best practices in laundry habits.
To encourage students/participants to ‘talk back’ to the industry, through a critical examination of fashion themes coming out of the industry, specifically surrounding beauty and wealth.
To empower learners to take back control of the impact their clothing on both people and planet.
For more information on these activities, please visit the ‘Works Cited’ page at the end of each workshop.
* If you are planning to use this lesson, please let us know so that we may keep track of our programming.*
** Please ask your students to complete the online feedback forms**
Worldwide, infectious diseases such as waterborne diseases are the number one killer of children under five years old. More people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence, including war. (WHO 2002)
Unsafe water causes 4 billion cases of diarrhoea each year, and results in 2.2 million deaths, mostly of children under five. This means that 15% of child deaths each year are attributable to diarrhoea – a child dying every 15 seconds. In India alone, the single largest cause of ill health and death among children is diarrhoea, which kills nearly half a million children each year. (WHO and UNICEF 2000)
Freshwater species have faced an estimated extinction rate five times greater than that of terrestrial species. (Ricciardi and Rasmussen 1999)
Point-of- use drinking water treatment through chlorine and safe storage of water could result in 122.2 million avoided DALYs (Disability Adjusted Life Years, a measure of morbidity), at a total cost of US$ 11.4 billion. (UN WWAP 2003)
70% of untreated industrial wastes in developing countries are disposed into water where they contaminate existing water supplies. (UN-Water 2009)
For more stats and facts, and to download the full report click here.
The issue of bottled water is yet another side of the story. The Story of Stuff has launched a new campaign, and added a new video to the popular Story of Stuff series “The Story of Bottled Water: How “manufactured demand” pushes what we don’t need and destroys what we need most”. Click here for more information.
UN Water has a TON of interactive campaign materials available online, so be sure to check them out and help spread the word and get involved.
To learn more about the potential social and environmental impacts of cotton in this context, check out the SA Fibre Analysis.
The David Suzuki Foundation has launched a FREE downloadable toolkit to help businesses and organizations tread a little more lightly on the planet.
“Work life isn’t just about punching a clock with a bunch of strangers. Smart employers know that their people are happiest and most productive when workplace culture matches their personal values. Companies who are in it for the long run know that reducing waste and increasing efficiency makes them more profitable and competitive.” (David Suzuki)
“I am encouraged by the many people I’ve met who tell me they want to find ways to reduce their impact where they spend most of their time – at work. This toolkit is for them. It’s good for employees. It’s good for business. And it’s good for the planet.” (David Suzuki)
Click here to download a copy for your organization today.
Nadira and I both promised to make the slides from our presentations at the FEI conference available online, and here they are, along with a slideshow of some of the images we captured from the event. I’ve reposted the videos of the presentations for convenience.
Thanks to everyone who offered feedback, we were so grateful for your considerations. Please, keep let’s keep the conversation going!
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) held the table next to ours during the Market Place on day two of the conference. We asked them what exactly responsible fashion meant to the EJF, and for their thoughts on why designers should care.
Trash of Your Society (T.O.Y.S.), an art project of theSYNdicate, is on tour investigating the after-life-cycle of products, or artefacts (a.k.a. trash). Do you know what happens to your products once you’ve tossed them?
The design resembles Project H’s Hippo Roller. Speaking of Project H… they are in the running to win an amazing prize that would help them to:
Start a high school design/build program in rural North Carolina….
To cultivate a culture of creative capital in a struggling economy.
To provide a hands-on learning path for low-performing students.
To teach design and vocational skills as creative problem solving.
To activate a poor and rural community through high school service.
To complete real-world, built projects with high school students.
Sounds pretty amazing to us! Education is the key point of intervention for responsible design. Click here to vote for their idea. As I type this they are ranked 15th and they must get to at least 10th place to qualify! You can vote everyday until the end of the month.