Authored by Marsha Dickson, PhD
How many young fashion designers graduate and take their first jobs having had the opportunity to visit an apparel factory? As a professor of fashion and apparel studies involved with several different design programs over the last two decades, my educated guess is that “virtually none” have had this experience. This number is even smaller when asked if the apparel factory is in one of the developing countries where over 95% of clothing sold in the United States is manufactured.
Yet despite very limited exposure to the factory environment and the life of garment workers in developing countries, the day-to-day decisions that will be made by these designers–and their counterparts in product development, buying, and merchandising– will have significant impacts on workers in factories around the world. And beyond the factory that is assembling garments, the choices they make will impact workers, their communities, and the environment throughout the supply chain.
Each step of the process of bringing apparel to market, from the growing or processing of fiber, through the manufacture of textiles and component parts, through completion of specialized finishing techniques, on to the point where the finished garments are shipped to a distribution center or retail store, and finally to the end consumer and how they use and care for their garments, carries risks to people and the environment. A designer who has never visited a factory, observed the context of production in a developing country, or been educated on the varied risks present throughout the product lifecycle, will almost certainly make decisions that negatively impact people and the environment.
The Ethical Fashion Project undertaken by students and faculty at the University of Delaware (UD) in collaboration with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), Gildan Activewear, and the Instituto Politecnico Centroamericano (IPC), allows students to understand the range of social and environmental considerations that must be made if a garment is to be truthfully described as “ethical,” “sustainable,” or “socially responsible.” An innovative proposal developed by UD’s Kelly Cobb was funded generously by Cotton, Inc. and allowed the UD and IPC students to interact in person both on the UD campus and in Honduras.
While in Honduras, UD students visited factories producing textiles and knitted and sewn garments. They also had the opportunity to observe an innovative waste water treatment facility and meet the inspiring female engineer who had designed it. UD and IPC students together carried out product development processes in the impressive labs of the IPC and design and promotional activities at UD.
How did these experiences impact the students? I listened to the UD students as they chattered on the bus after the factory visits and as they reflected on their experiences while in San Pedro Sula and later with the President of the FLA when he visited campus. They shared that they had never thought the factories would be so interesting. They discussed with each other the pressures the workers must feel as they work in teams to complete production targets. The students contemplated the intensity of production and the sheer volume of goods they observed being made to order for U.S. brands and retailers.
Students expressed some initial jealousy that the IPC had more industrial production equipment than UD, but in further consideration recognized the very different roles they were being prepared for and would have as designers compared with the manufacturing-oriented roles the IPC students would have in the supply chains that bring their designs to market.
More broadly, being in Honduras allowed students to reflect on the level of living they observed in Honduras and how so very different that was compared to the levels of living the UD students had experienced in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other locations they had resided. The students acknowledged gratitude for their own good fortunes. As the semester wound up, they described the experience as the best in their careers at UD. And the students began reconsidering the jobs they might pursue in the apparel industry and their own consumption habits.
Ultimately the students recommended that a similar experience should be required of all design students. I fully agree and concur with those who suggested that “we should do this before going to Paris” (on the very popular high-fashion oriented travel study program my department offers). As one student described in the final presentations of the semester, “this experience has humanized the supply chain.”
The brands and retailers these young UD designers will go to work for likely spend substantial sums improving working conditions and reducing environmental impacts in the factories assembling their garments. Companies that employ designers and other product-focused staff who have learned to integrate social and environmental considerations into their design decision-making can help to ensure that the garments carrying their logos are free of abuse, exploitation, and environmental degradation at all stages of production. My challenge here at UD is to find a way to ensure that each and every one of our apparel design students learns to approach design in this forward-thinking way.
Marsha Dickson, PhD
Professor and Chairperson, Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, University of Delaware
President, Educators for Socially Responsible and Sustainable Apparel Business
Member, Board of Directors, Fair Labor Association