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Walking the Talk
Building the Next Generation of Sustainable Fashion Leaders

There is a clear opportunity to transition to a more conscious approach to fashion, and up-and-coming designers have great potential to help influence this shift.

Increasingly, over the last several years, sustainability has become a major buzzword in the fashion industry. Entire organizations and related conferences have been created to discuss and work to find solutions to the industry’s challenging environmental issues. Yet even with all the innovative conversations surrounding this hot-button topic, as an industry, fashion still has a great deal of work ahead of it. In fact, for the second year in a row, the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group examined the “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” and rated fashion’s sustainable pulse at just 38 out of 100. The report also estimated that approximately one-third of the industry has yet to take any meaningful action towards improving environmental or social performance.

There is a clear opportunity to transition to a more environmentally and socially conscious approach to fashion, and up-and-coming designers have great potential to help influence this shift. So, the question becomes, how can the industry today help support and build the sustainable brands and pioneers of tomorrow?

Connect in the classroom

Moving towards a socially and eco-conscious fashion industry starts in the classroom — by advising and sharing real-world knowledge directly with students, as well as collaborating with schools and programs to build practical curricula, brands across the supply chain can and should play a critical role in shaping sustainable fashion education.

Utah State University already engages apparel brand leaders in an effective way. Through the School’s Outdoor Product Design and Development program, students learn various technical skills to prototype hard product, apparel, gear and other outdoor items. In 2016, Utah State formed an advisory board made up of industry leaders including Burton, W.L. Gore, the Outdoor Industry Association, Patagonia and DuPont™ Sorona®, to guide the program by developing curriculum, creating design challenges for students and connecting students with internship opportunities. By directly engaging industry leaders, the program ensures that it can prepare its students for success as product designers and developers in today’s outdoor industry.

New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology also offers a variety of practical courses that focus specifically on designing sustainably across the entire supply chain — including sourcing, manufacturing, design; and finally, marketing a product. The school’s Sustainable Design Entrepreneur Certificate Program gives young design entrepreneurs the tools and resources necessary to build agile businesses in today’s evolving industry. Similarly, the Parsons School of Design offers the option for students to specialize in sustainability. Both programs are ideal for brands and companies to engage with and directly influence students as they begin to venture out into the industry.

Offer grants, awards & scholarships

As many emerging designers today can attest to, starting a career in fashion is challenging and can be financially straining, especially when advanced schooling is necessary. By providing young designers with funding and internship opportunities, brands can enable them to drive their careers forward while placing an early emphasis on sustainability.

For the last five years, Kering has partnered with the London College of Fashion to offer The Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion — an award and scholarship program for students studying sustainable luxury fashion. To be considered for the award, BA and MA students must respond to a brief that focuses on real-life industry challenges faced by two of Kering’s luxury fashion brands, which include Gucci and Alexander McQueen, among others. By responding to the brief, students receive feedback and support from a variety of industry partners and have the opportunity to present their ideas to some of the most influential leaders in sustainable luxury. For their innovation and vision for sustainability, Kering selects two students to receive cash awards of €10,000 and two students to receive a three-month paid internship to build their resumes.

Levi Strauss & Co. is also paving the future for the next generation of apparel leaders through its LS&Co. Collaboratory and grant program. A fellowship program for entrepreneurs working towards a more sustainable fashion industry, the Collaboratory provides an opportunity to pursue “big and bold ideas” with support from sustainability experts and mentors. Every year, the Collaboratory selects a different social and environmental challenge facing the industry, with the inaugural program focusing on water-saving projects and the current focusing on climate change. The brand launched a grants program that awarded $350,000 to its inaugural program class to fund new approaches and innovations in the apparel supply chain.

These types of programs not only celebrate new designers for their commitment to sustainable fashion, but set them up for a bright future to help transform the industry.

Create accelerators

As they launch their careers, designers and other apparel entrepreneurs have much to offer, with ambition and optimism driving their creative ideas forward. But many lack the funding and direction to truly kick start their business operationally, leaving a huge void that brands can help fill. Accelerators, funded and guided by brands and other industry players, can offer excellent opportunities for sustainable fashion entrepreneurs to gain access to funding, mentoring and other services to start their careers on solid footing.

For example, Fashion for Good–Plug and Play is a 12-week, free startup accelerator focused on social and environmental impact in the fashion industry. With core brand partners including adidas, Kering, PVH and Target, Plug and Play’s objective is to identify, invest in and accelerate 10-15 startups over a three-month period, to drive transition to a sustainable and circular apparel industry. The selected startups benefit from a team of dedicated mentors and introductions to industry leaders and investors. Past startups launched by Plug and Play include RePack, a reusable packaging service with the potential to reduce a company’s carbon footprint by 80 percent; and Texloop, a recycling and yarn platform focused on creating closed-loop resource efficiency in synthetic and complex blended fabrics.

Similarly, the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator is “building a pipeline to the future of apparel in New York.” Its Sustainability Lab is an onsite resource center boasting an extensive physical resource library of sustainable textiles, offering consultative solutions to designers creating practical roadmaps to optimize the complete lifecycle of their designs. The Accelerator also developed the Sustainable Fashion Roadmap — an online, interactive tool allowing designers to explore research and life cycle analysis.

By providing funding and mentoring services via accelerators, brands can offer the necessary resources for emerging designers to build their business and support the next generation of fashion leaders.

Investing in a sustainable future

Emerging designers and entrepreneurs are the future of sustainable apparel, and between acquiring the knowledge and the funding necessary to get a new company off the ground, launching a sustainable fashion business is no small feat. Existing fashion leaders — from brands to manufacturers to non-profit organizations — have an amazing opportunity to make investments in the future and offer young designers and apparel entrepreneurs the resources they need to help drive a shift to a more circular, sustainable industry.