The Wake Up Call: Sustainability in Fashion Business Education

As part of the By the Fire cooperative inquiry project, Dr Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas (LCF), Rosemary Varley (LCF) and Lisa Trencher (MMU) formed a group to explore the impact of sustainability education in fashion business education.

Rosemary and Natascha focused on evaluating the extent of change in student’s understanding of and attitude towards sustainability as a result of curriculum interventions and carried out primary research at London College of Fashion. Rosemary and Natascha presented the analysis of this research at the IFFTI conference in March 2017 and a paper outlining their findings will be published shortly. You can read the abstract of their paper here and open the presentation delivered at the IFTTI conference here.

This post by Lisa Trencher reflects on the context of her research into the impact of sustainability education in fashion business research.

Fashion Industry Trends

Lisa Trencher

According to Business of Fashion (2016), the six fashion careers of the future identified include ‘Sustainability expert.’ ‘Many fashion companies are prioritising sustainability and putting sustainable business models at the heart of their organisations. This means taking how they produce their products more heavily into consideration and hiring sustainability consultants whose sole function is to ensure that the company is doing whatever they can to integrate sustainable sourcing and environmentally friendly practices.’ (Business of Fashion, 2016)

Retail analytics firm Edited report one of the top five retail and fashion trends of 2017 is ‘sustainable design’ (Geoghegan, 2016)

This trend is also reflected in the emergence of two new twelve month internships to start in June 2017. ‘Sustainability Fashion Internship’ and ‘Corporate Responsibility Internship’ (ASOS, 2016) at the time of writing recruitment for these roles is taking place.

The Green Economy

A Government paper; Skills for a Green Economy, (2011) discusses the skills required for this emerging economy. The green economy is defined as one in which value and growth are maximised across the whole economy, while natural assets are managed sustainably. Such an economy would be supported and enabled by a thriving low carbon and environmental goods and services sector. The transition to a green economy requires a workforce with the right skills.’ (H.M. Government, 2011:4) The paper was commissioned to assess the needs for transition to a green economy giving consideration to employer needs and current skills. The report notes all businesses regardless of size need to give consideration to the skills needed for their business to operate efficiently in terms of sustainability.

The report also identifies the role of education; ‘FE and HE both have a role in embedding skills for a green economy in their courses…’ (2011:7) It is also noted the skills identified ‘are at a high level and require professional qualifications.’ (2011:13) Therefore, there is a responsibility to ensure graduates develop the appropriate knowledge and skills through the curriculum and the wider HE environment in order to ensure they are equipped to undertake these roles.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

HEFCE (2009) states that The greatest contribution HE can make to sustainable development is by enabling students to acquire the skills and knowledge that allow them to make a lasting difference. What they learn and what they are taught are therefore critical.’ (HEFCE 2009:15) This is supported by Cade (2008) who recommended the need for ESD and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to be linked to teaching and learning within HE to provide the supply of graduates into these areas of employment.

Global Citizenship

Noddings, (2005) defines a global citizen as someone who can successfully ‘live and work anywhere in the world, supported by a global way of life.’ (cited in Rapoport, 2009) Oxfam describe it as ‘enabling young people to develop the core capabilities which allow them to actively engage with the world, and help to make it a more just and sustainable place...a way of thinking and behaving’ They go on to describe it as the belief that through our behaviour and outlook we can ‘make a difference. Therefore, global citizenship must be at the heart of education.’  (Oxfam, no date).

Sustainable Literacy, Social Responsibility

According to a survey of first year UK undergraduate students, 80% agreed sustainability skills are central to their future employment (Bone & Agombar, 2011). The survey also notes students see the development of these skills as being the role of universities and courses to ensure graduates are prepared for employer’s needs(Bone & Agombar, 2011) . This is supported by Sterling (2013)  ‘Research shows that increasingly, employers are seeking graduates with the skills to address sustainability issues and work in conditions of change and uncertainty.’ (Sterling, 2013:13) According to Bone and Agombar (2011) 65% of respondents believe the skills to operate sustainably should be embedded within the curriculum and not as a separate unit. Interestingly, 63% of respondents claimed they would sacrifice £1,000 of a salary in order to be employed by an organisation which operates responsibly. This highlights student attitudes in this area.

Embedding Sustainability within the Curriculum

For January 2017 the level 5 Employability unit ‘Synergy’ BA (Hons) Fashion Buying & Merchandising (Manchester Fashion Institute, formerly Hollings) will undertake an assessment entitled ‘An Exploration of Responsible Fashion.’ An element of this assessment will be a live brief, a collaboration with industry partners. The rationale is to link employability skills and sustainable awareness in the context of the fashion industry. In addition to exploring the literature, it is also important to raise student awareness of industry practices. This supports Trought (2012) who states that universities need to ‘ensure they are producing graduates who can ‘hit the ground running’. (Trought, 2012:125) The assessment impact will be reviewed in May 2017. It will be measured by qualitative data from students and interviews with industry partners.

Graduates of the future will shape the fashion industry and their knowledge and personal ethics will define the future. Therefore, as educators’ it is our responsibility to work with and inspire our students to ensure that throughout their studies they develop strong global citizenship in addition to being equipped with the knowledge and skills required to make a difference. With these attributes comes empowerment and the passion and ability to create a sustainable future for the fashion industry.     


ASOS (2017) ASOS careers. [ [online] [last accessed 15th January 2017]

Bone, E. and Agombar, J. (2011) First-year attitudes towards, and skills in, sustainable development. Pg.10 [online] [last accessed 7th January 2014]

Business of Fashion (2016) Six Fashion Careers of the Future [online] [last accessed 13th January 2017]

Cade, A. (2008) “Employable Graduates for Responsible Employers. Research on the Links Between Sustainability and Employability in the Graduate Job Market in Relation to Higher Education Teaching and Learning.”  [online] [last accessed 15th January 2014]

Geoghegan, J (2016) Drapers: Top five retail and fashion trends for 2017. 13 December 2016   [online] [last accessed 15th January 2014]

HEFCE Sustainable development in higher education 2008 update to strategic statement and action plan. Pg.15 [online] [last accessed 3rd January 2014]

HM. Government. (2011) Skills for a green economy: A report on the evidence. Pg 4,7, 13. [online] [last accessed 15th January 2017]

NUS/HEA (2012) “Student attitudes towards and skills for sustainable development” [online] [last accessed20th January 2014] 

Oxfam. (2013) Global Citizenship [online] [accessed 15th January 2017]

Sterling, S. (2012) Higher Education Academy. The Future Fit Framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE. Pg. 13.  [online] [accessed 31st December 2013]

Trought, F. (2012) Brilliant employability skills. Pearson Education. Harlow. Pg. 4, 125.