There are many reasons for the state of the global fashion industry, including the absence of meaningful regulation. Fashion-focused higher education is a commonly overlooked contributor to the issues of the fashion industry.
When I began working in fashion sustainability, it was clear I was in over my head. The skills and knowledge I had collected throughout my career as a designer and in my fashion design undergraduate program were important, but ultimately not the same set of skills needed to drive change along social and environmental metrics. I ultimately went back to school to get those missing sustainability and impact skills I didn’t get in fashion design undergrad years ago.
Grad school is great for some, but it shouldn’t be used as a backfill for what is missing in the most common form of education for fashion industry participants. It is unreasonable and unethical for undergraduate fashion education to skip sustainability. The fashion industry is facing immense existential global challenges, and the current model of education is not preparing future fashion leaders to manage it.
Many who work in the fashion industry receive a similar type of education: a 2-year associate or 4-year bachelor’s degree in fashion design or merchandising. Across programs, especially in the United States, curricula are mostly the same, with the bulk of required credit hours focused on skills like pattern-making, draping, and developing a unique creative vision.
Fashion education is focused on the creative genius of the designer, resulting in too many individuals trained in producing goods as a designer, contributing to the growth of the industry and overproduction. This focus leaves other skills on the table, particularly those focused on climate impacts, human rights, and sustainability. Between 2007-2017, fashion design undergraduate matriculation tripled at certain institutions in the US, and many did not get an adequate education in the skills necessary to make sure fashion can course correct on its climate impact
The UN report highlighted several essential focus areas for reducing the climate impacts of the fashion industry, which have little overlap with current fashion curricula. Fashion education does not prepare students to understand or address the most pressing needs and biggest opportunities for the fashion industry. A preliminary study conducted this year by my student Lindsay Cousins analyzed six of the most well-known and well-attended fashion design undergraduate programs in the US and found that sustainability and social justice represented an average of only 3.8% of core fashion undergraduate program curricula.
Roles focused on sustainability or social impact can represent more opportunities and income for fashion students. Right now, the average tuition (including private schools and in-state and out-of-state rates for public schools)) for a four-year fashion degree across the top 10 US fashion schools is $142,514, while the average salary for an entry-level design job is $53, 411 according to data reported by Glassdoor. Opportunities for fashion design jobs are expected to grow at only 3% over the next decade; meanwhile, fashion programs keep churning out thousands of candidates yearly for too few jobs. Roles across sectors that list even one sustainability-related skill grew at a rate of 15.2% between February 2022 and February 2023, according to a LinkedIn report, and sustainability-related work can earn more than double the median income when compared to all occupations”.
SOURCE: Teen Vogue