Using education to promote sustainability in the textile industry

While efforts are underway to promote social and environmental sustainability within the global textile industry, the role of education can act as a key enabler of change.

Promoting higher levels of social sustainability is a stated aspiration of many of the stakeholders operating in the textile and fashion industry. Yet moves to do so have been patchy and success has often stalled. Tragic events  such as the Rana Plaza Disaster remind us of the human cost of our clothing, and create additional pressures on retailers, producers and supplier actors to assess the sustainability practices at all levels of the value chain. Despite this, there appears to be resistance towards embracing a social sustainability perspective in mainstream textile production and consumption patterns, and incidences of bad practices are not solely limited to so-called ‘developing countries’. Recent reports emerging from the UK highlight the wasteful nature of clothing consumption and the growth of consumer trends such as ‘fast fashion’ are associated with high disposability of garments and a race to the bottom in terms of social and environmental protections in the production process.

Driving change through consumption and buying practices

The role of consumers in driving forward higher social standards within the textile industry is not thought to be significant, given that they (and buying firms) are often unwilling to pay increased prices to reflect the ethical costs of production   (e.g. Perry et al., 2015). In the Autumn of 2018, a UK cross-party Environmental Audit Committee acted by initiating an inquiry into the fast fashion industry, calling five retailers for evidence in order to evaluate sustainability practices in the industry. The Labour MP, Mary Creagh, stated:

“Low quality £5 dresses aimed at young people are said to be made by workers on illegally low wages and are discarded almost instantly, causing mountains of non-recycled waste to pile up”.               

While these actions are to be commended, there is a need to address the situation whereby items of clothing are produced on such low wages and to explore the institutional processes that are at play in the supplier market. Tackling these issues across the supply chain becomes critical, as it is often the regions facing the most severe social and environmental challenges who are burdened with additional governance challenges. As management across the textile supply chain remains focused on driving cost reductions and shifting production to low-wage economies, it is often the regions facing the most severe social and environmental challenges which are burdened with additional governance challenges where protecting the valuable textile manufacturing sector becomes a top priority. This builds up a trade-off between economic growth against the improvements to labour conditions, for example occupational health and safety, fair wages, and fair contracts.

Education as an enabler of change

Our project brings together research staff at theTechnische Universität Dresden, Germany  with two universities located in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology and the Notre Dame University Bangladesh) as part of a DAAD-funded project, “Introducing sustainability to the textile engineering curriculum in Bangladesh”, which aims to introduce the theme of sustainability into the curriculum of university-level textile courses in Bangladesh. It is seen as a way of fostering mobility for teaching staff in Bangladesh to collaborate with German academic partners and gain knowledge of sustainability concepts which can be applied into course components (in the form of module components and entirely new courses) which aim to influence the knowledge, understanding and capabilities regarding sustainability management in future managers in the Bangladesh textile industry.

In order to examine and identify the current state of engagement within the different levels of the textile value chain, a series of workshops have been held with project partners from Bangladesh and Germany, the most recent being a ten-day workshop held in Dresden with seven faculty staff-members from Bangladesh Universities. These Universities currently offer courses in textile engineering and business management, drawing on topics from general introduction to sustainability principles and resource management, practical tools for measuring, monitoring and assessing sustainability (drawing on techniques from the Chair of Sustainability Management and Environmental Accounting teaching portfolio), through to more theoretical approaches to sustainability such as corporate social responsibility and strategic management. Here, the Bangladesh partners were not only given the opportunity to participate in these lectures and practical sessions to test their own understanding of the content but were also asked to contribute by drawing links from the lecture content with their own teaching course offerings.

By taking a collaborative, and teaching focused perspective, we can do more to better understand the cultural and institutional operations of Bangladesh higher education systems and recognise the contributions that can be made by providing practical assistance to help enlighten issues of social sustainability to students who, as graduates, are expected to contribute to the future development of the Bangladesh economy, and will hopefully take this knowledge and understanding of social sustainability issues with them. Our team’s reflection on the hosting of such collaborative events were positive, and we intend to build on this spirit of cooperation and motivation to continue to work collaboratively to tackle global issues of sustainability challenges in global textile production networks. Whilst there are inevitably a number of challenges with international academic collaborations relating to distance, work environments, academic cultures, this event, and the subsequent planned events throughout the remaining project duration has the potential to bridge the gap between the perspective of textile industry sustainability as one of quality management and productive efficiency, with the theoretical perspectives of sustainability more common in German and wider Westernised settings.  A further winter school is scheduled to take place in March 2019 where it is hoped that a greater representation of practitioners from brand and buying companies in the textile and clothing industry will be present to offer expert insights from their industry. This will provide a fuller picture of the overall supply chain for the fashion industry which will have implications for how the industry organises and operates, not just in Asia but also in the UK and Europe.