Education matters

Redwood comment
Published:  23 September, 2021
Credit: Tamara Bellis

A recent article in the online magazine The Conversation makes an important point about the teaching of sustainability in our fashion schools; that it must begin with universities if the fashion industry is to change.

Around the world, fashion education varies enormously with regional and national views often intermingled with powerfully presented views of influential staff. Responding to what I consider misguided articles about leather and alternates both off and online, I have often found that the counter comments have come from staff employed in teaching design and fashion.

Some colleges work harder than others to offer a balanced view with the idea that, if the students are given the facts objectively, they will be better able to decide about the integrity of the materials they want to work with. 

Over the last 15 years, I have had a limited opportunity to watch this as a visitor at the University of Northampton where the integration of leather and fashion is naturally greater than normal with both subjects being studied in the same institution. All fashion students are given a week of leather studies but are not expected to use leather if they do not wish to, and the leather staff teach the subject with passion but without forcing any indoctrination. 

Time given to learning about leather

Increasingly, I have seen other fashion schools making visits to Northampton to spend some time learning a little about leather and, given their wonderful new facilities, they are well placed to do this.

It would be good if ways could be found to encourage wider industry support for this – from fashion and retail brands as much as tanneries. It is exceptionally beneficial for the industry and quite a few of the visitors, from education and industry, become interested in attending the short courses or distance leather courses now being provided. A more complete understanding of the subject of sustainability comes from escaping the pressure of oversimplified soundbites.

Given that Stella McCartney is a frequently used as an example of a designer who is faithful to sustainable goals, the importance of this work is obvious. When we objected to the PETA video she did nearly a decade ago, attacking leather for using arsenic and other long forgotten chemicals, a lot of the design industry people told us she was viewed as marginal and fanatic, but she has stuck to her task and gained respect. 

She still refers to the long-discredited Livestock’s Long Shadow report from 2006 as evidence of livestock causing climate change, so we still need to fight to rebalance the evidence.


The author of the Conversation article is Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Professor of Marketing and Sustainable Business at the British School of Fashion (GCU London), Glasgow Caledonian University, and is also editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Fashion Business Cases. She notes that by entering a fashion department the students are already part of the industry, not just being taught about it.