Are Fashion Schools Encouraging Sustainability? How NYC’s FIT Measures Up

The fashion industry is rapidly evolving. With the increasing pressure due to consumer expectations concerning ethical and sustainable production, the next generation of fashion designers have their work cut out for them. Now more than ever, new and emerging designers are putting green practices at the foundation of their companies and various long-established brands have changed their business models to incorporate sustainability. This is no longer a trend; it is a new playing field, and the next wave of fashion designers have to be problem solvers as well as artists. 

So, are fashion schools catching up to the new standard? 

Students at The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City are currently undergoing a “greening” of the curriculum, and FIT is not alone. Fashion schools around the country are putting an increasing amount of funding into faculty and student-run sustainability initiatives. The problem is many students feel universities’ efforts to push sustainability aren’t reaching expectations.  

As a graduate of FIT myself, I can contend that sustainability was a hot topic of the collective student body and resided at the forefront of many individual collections. Sustainable practices were taken into consideration during the production process in countless student works, including my own, but the general response from professors was often the same. The incorporation of sustainability was nice, but not necessary. 

This might be surprising to hear considering FIT has recently been the host of numerous sustainability conferences, clothing swaps, and environmental activist groups. The university was also the first in the city to reach Bloomberg’s 2010 New York City Carbon Challenge goal, reducing its carbon emissions by over 50 percent. 

During the last eight years they have installed green roofs (which host a natural dye garden), solar panels, and additional energy efficient equipment to further reduce their footprint. Sustainable practices have become a prerogative of fashion schools all over the world, but when it comes to the curriculum, sustainability is still mostly juiced in each school’s extracurriculars.

“Sustainability has to be at the forefront of everything you do. Too many brands still look upon sustainability as trend analysis. But it is not a trend anymore, it’s a necessity,” says Jayanti Tiwari, a senior in FIT’s Fashion Design program and finalist for the prestigious Liz Claiborne Award, an award given to students that showcases innovation and implement sustainable practices in their process.

“I’m surprised to see this same attitude is still in a lot of our professors—the university and the industry need a mentality change. The ones who are the readiest for that change are the students. We shouldn’t be seen just as designers; we are also innovators,” she retorts. 

It’s true that FIT students have really powered through the changing times. They have founded their own Sustainable Design Club along with other projects. One being the Muslin Composting Program, which provides organic materials for their rooftop dye garden. Something, Tiwari notes, unbelievably, most students don’t even know about. 

“You have all been trained as designers first,” notes one FIT professor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Change has to come from the students and partly from a new faculty. The students are pushing for change. One major that really needs sustainability in the curriculum is the Textile Design major, but as of right now, I don’t believe there is any.”

When asked if she felt FIT’s curriculum has prepared her for the demands of a changing industry, Tiwari’s instant reply was, “No.” The “greening” of the curriculum so far has mostly been adding courses to their new sustainability focused minor. “We have the Ethics and Sustainability Minor and that’s great, but it’s not the same as a full curriculum change. Not everyone who is interested can fit it into their schedule while studying here full time,” she says.

“I come from India,” Tiwari continues, “and I have seen firsthand the effects of hazardous dyes on the children who play around open drains. We have many international students who can say the same, and it is really a privilege to have seen this because it becomes a self-motivator. Most people in the U.S. will never see these things personally, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. There are some students who go beyond their comfort level to actively seek out more information because they are interested, and the topic of sustainability isn’t as integrated into the curriculum as it should be. The first place we should be getting that information from is our school.” 

Understandably, change takes time. While FIT has encouraged sustainability and has even enforced mandatory student design projects with a focus on circular fashion, full curriculum integration hasn’t arrived yet. 

Universities don’t want students to feel they are on their own when navigating the new expectations of the industry, but not all emerging designers have been given the chance to really experiment with this new playing field. Every new designer has the potential to change the industry. So hopefully, the demands of the students will push fashion universities to become “green” all over and encourage every step to be a step forward. 

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