Given that it was London Fashion Week, we decided to theme our September Discovery Day around the wicked problem of ‘fast fashion’.
Let’s start with the facts. ‘Fashion’ is the third largest industry in the world, producing around 5% of global CO2 emissions – more than international flights and shipping combined. But not only is CO2 a problem, H2O is too. Cotton is one of the most resource-intensive crops out there, responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s insecticide use and requiring a huge amount of water. In 2015, the global fashion industry used eighty-billion cubic tonnes of H2O. That’s enough to fill around 32,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The fashion industry commands enormous resources and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, has an enormous impact on the planet. This impact runs the whole length of a garment’s life cycle – the entire supply chain, as well as its maintenance and disposal (washing, recycling, landfill etc.).
To explore the problem, students were split into small groups. Each of these groups adopted the perspective of a specific stakeholder such a bank, sustainable start-up, government department, or charity. Each group was given a different objective – e.g. ‘To produce a new fashionable type of shoe which increases profits whilst promoting more sustainable choices’ – and a set of strategies to achieve it. Their job was to decide, as a group, which strategies they should prioritise and why.
Thoughts and ideas fell broadly into two categories: (1) what does it mean to do business well? and (2) what does it mean to do good business? This was immensely interesting. Students began to raise questions about the role of stakeholders, fashion and politics, workers’ rights, the nature of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and much more.
Whilst the scholarly literature on CSR is dominated by social science, the problem of fast fashion (to which CSR is highly relevant) is in actual fact deeply interdisciplinary. Students quickly recognised this and, when asked which subjects they would need to solve such a problem, they came up with the following:
- Maths & statistics
- Data science
- International relations
- Materials science
This long list of subjects is by no means exhaustive and indicates how the ethical dimensions of the fashion industry touch upon many areas and disciplines. We’ve crystalised and mapped out some of the key concepts and disciplines which arose during the afternoon:
Fashion operates across societal, including national, boundaries. The problem itself is both international and interdisciplinary, with no particular country nor particular discipline best-set to tackle the issue.
No person is left untouched by the fashion industry. Even naturalists are affected by its impacts, whether they like it or not. Questions of business ethics – especially ones where the environment is concerned – are important for everyone around the world.
The consensus seemed to be that someone needs to do something. This seems obvious to many of us. But what should be done? And who should do it?
If you’re interested in answering these sorts of questions – interested in tackling important, complex problems – then come to one of our next Discovery Days where you can get a sense of our interdisciplinary approach to learning, meet the LIS team, and ask any questions you might have. You can see available dates here.