Can Fashion Education Influence Sustainable Practices in Design?

Words by Elvis Kachi

The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest pollutants. From its use of non-biodegradable materials, such as polyester, to its knack for overproduction and underconsumption, fashion remains a danger to the environment. However, one of the most effective ways to curb this threat is through education.

“We’ve been having these conversations for many years now, and people continue to say that they do not understand because of how vast it is,” says Frederica Brooksworth, an academic and founder of the fast-rising fashion education platform, Council for International African Fashion Education (CIAFE). “I think it’s important for the fashion education system to teach people what sustainable fashion is because fashion is often seen as the gateway into the industry.”

Every other day, informal and formal fashion houses are established in Nigeria, each recording a decent number of interested students. South Africa has more than 20 recognized fashion schools, while countries such as Ghana, Senegal and Kenya record more than 10 registered schools, some offering interested applicants the chance to pursue a Masters or PhD degree in a fashion-related field. This means that interest in learning about fashion is blooming and there is an opportunity to influence students to make them more conscious of sustainability. Educators can review curriculums, organize school trips and provide practical experience to ensure that fashion education comprehensively covers the topic.   

“[All of this] starts from education. That’s the most important thing because without understanding what it truly means, how can we have these conversations?” Brooksworth tells The Folklore Edit. “If we have more people trained in this area, then many more people would be able to live with a good overall understanding and more productive conversations would be had.”

However, those in the education system must realize that this conversation goes beyond interest on their end and should include students. If students’ interests in sustainability and climate change are not piqued, overhauling curriculums will be in vain. “For our cohorts, beyond just the sustainability practices and classes that were taught, we ensured that there was a prize for the most sustainable brands,” says Rhoda Aguonigho

Aguonigho is the founder of Lhaude Fashion Network, a fashion organization that creates opportunities for creatives and fashion start-ups to grow and thrive. Through its incubator program, LEAP Project, Lhaude takes cohorts through an intensive three-month training on mentorship, business development and other skills. They’ve had more than 70 young people complete the program and have recorded over 1,500 applicants since launching in 2019.

Oratile Sukazi is a second-year Fashion Design student at the South Africa-based Stadio School of Fashion. She suggests to The Folklore Edit that one of the best ways to get her and her colleagues interested in learning about sustainability can be by exposing them to content that centers eco-friendly practices. “Whether it’s introducing us to designers pushing the sustainability agenda or teaching us sustainable production methods, I think that can make us more environmentally friendly,” she says. “But also, this can help designers think of creative and innovative ways of producing garments and designs,” she adds.

Moses Agosu, founder and creative director of Nigeria-based fashion label, MAK Africa, withstood competition from 1,000 applicants to take home a grant from Lhaude Fashion Network’s LEAP Project. He completed the project’s intensive incubator program and learned about sustainability across all areas, including production, consumption, and upscaling. Agosu suggests giving people access to in-depth knowledge about the industry will help them make well-informed decisions. “Schools can give the students something to see, learn, and self-reflect on. Even mini consultations for the students can help them build brands that have structures and apply the principles of sustainability,” he says.

Brooksworth also shares this view. “The curriculum helps to inform and change people’s mindset. Also, giving out resources and training. These are some of the fundamental things.” She adds that as much as fashion students need to learn and take up tasks regarding sustainability, educators also have a role to play. “We need to be able to train our educators to provide the students with fundamental knowledge. I’d say that educating the educators definitely helps.”

Although fashion schools offer courses such as photography, styling, product designing and art directing, experts argue that the push for conversations about sustainability falls largely on fashion design students and fashion journalists. “I think [fashion journalists] have the biggest role to play,” Brooksworth says. “We consume and get our information from the media since they push a narrative. Bear in mind that before the media got involved in sustainability, people have been doing it for a long time, but it became more mainstream when the media picked it up.”

For Aguonigho, conversations about sustainability involve designers, journalists and everyday consumers but she suggests that fashion journalists might have the most influence. “We need the fashion journalists and media to increase the ‘noise’ on the importance of sustainability, especially to the general mass. It needs to be in the media, our papers and social media.”

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