Academics recognise the widespread consensus, demonstrated through a global commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that universal action is needed to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.
But if in universities we continue to teach within a commodified model of education, how will we deliver education for sustainable development? England, for example, has the highest tuition fees in the developed world and the narrative of value for money has created a culture of students as consumers.
And where better to start than looking at how fashion students are taught to think about sustainability. The fashion industry has a well-documented history of unsustainable practices including intensive and excessive production, textile waste, lack of transparency and poor labour conditions. Attending an international conference on how to create a more sustainable fashion system I recall a delegate saying: “We need to talk to industry,” to which I responded: “Our students are the industry.”
Demanding a sustainable curriculum
Educating future leaders is critical to achieving sustainability targets – and those working in fashion are no different. Graduates increasingly want to work with purpose, but are we equipping them with sustainability literacies – the information, skills and aptitudes – to challenge existing systems and structures, including the universities in which they study?
A 2021 Deloitte survey confirms my own experience that younger people are increasingly concerned with issues such as income inequality and climate change. Many are looking for purpose over pay cheques when weighing up job opportunities. The survey reported that 44% of millennials and 49% of Gen Z base their choices on personal ethics when it comes to the type of work or the organisations they would consider joining.
But it’s not just employers that need to change attitudes towards creating workplaces that are more responsible when it comes to climate change. Another recent survey of prospective international students found that a university’s reputation and commitment to sustainability ranked higher than its location. According to Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS UK), 60% of students want to learn more about sustainability, and 80% of students want their institutions to do more about it. […]
Are we there yet?
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4.7 target states that by 2030:
All learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
The more we learn about sustainability, the clearer it is that many of our social and environmental challenges, including poverty, gender equality, climate change and quality education are interconnected – as exemplified by the UN’s framework of 17 SDGs. And despite the growth in commitment to sustainability from educational institutions, student bodies and individual academics, there is a widespread attitude-behaviour gap when it comes to the sector as a whole.
So as well as research and teaching for climate solutions we should ask universities how they are leading on measures of environmental and social sustainability.
In highlighting the lack of women’s representation at COP26, author and co-founder of the All We Can Save Project, Katharine Wilkinson, argues that the climate crisis should be considered a leadership crisis. This theme is developed by Caledonian student Luna Sanchez in her short film Manifesto for Women as Sustainability Leaders.
Coronavirus has led to the greatest disruption in higher education in a generation. As London Fashion Week resumes after the pandemic this week, now is a good time for reflection and planning. As we look forward to a new academic year, we should stop regarding students as consumers but as fellow citizens in pursuit of solutions to the world’s urgent climate crisis.
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