Clean Clothes

Analysis of the curriculum of Austrian fashion design schools

Within the framework of the EU project Mein Design. Meine Verantwortung. (My design. My responsibility), the curricula of schools for engineering, arts and crafts, namely the 5-year Höhere Lehranstalt für Mode und Bekleidungstechnik (secondary school for fashion and clothing design) and the 3-year Fachschule für Mode und Bekleidungstechnik (vocational school for fashion and clothing design) were analysed to see whether and how they cover issues of social and ecological responsibility.

In the age of globalisation, there are more and more news reports on social, cultural and ecological damage caused by enterprises as well as on the external effects of business activities that threaten the future prospects of sustainable development. In recent years, a lively debate has developed on the social and ecological responsibility of enterprises, which is nowadays considered a prerequisite of sustainable economic development. “Corporate social responsibility” (CSR) has become a comprehensive keyword in this debate. At present, there is no generally accepted definition of this term yet. In its CSR green paper, the European Commission defines CSR as “a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations … on a voluntary basis”.

An ever-increasing share of our clothes has been produced in developing and threshold countries since the 1970s. International competition triggers a downward spiral of deteriorating working conditions. In parallel, a countermovement develops — a network of groups and organisations bringing this subject to the attention of the public and calling upon enterprises to eliminate grievances within the framework of the Clean Clothes Campaign.

In the dialogue with enterprises, a significant element is the development of codes of conducts in which enterprises undertake to meet specific social and ecological standards. The quality, compliance with, and verifiability of these codes of conduct is still a key issue in discussions today.

To prepare comprehensively students — the fashion design experts of the future — for the challenge of ethical and ecological clothing production, it is necessary to integrate these contents in their entirety into the training provided by fashion design schools. On the one hand, the entire production and consumption cycle of textiles should be discussed with a focus on its social, cultural and ecological aspects. On the other hand, the students are to learn about international actors, options for action and strategies for embedding CSR issues, to become familiar with them and, at best, also to try them in project-based training.

In a first step, the curriculum analysis summarises key topics of social and ecological responsibility that should be firmly established at Austrian fashion design schools:

  • Production of textile raw materials with regard to the social and ecological framework: Cotton: seed-related problems (patenting, genetic engineering); comparison between conventional and organic cotton; problem of water consumption; defoliants and pesticides; safety equipment, working conditions and health hazards for plantation workers; subsidisation of cotton farming and its impact on the world market; southern countries and their dependence on “cash crops”.
  • Processing of textile raw materials with regard to the social and ecological framework: Social and ecological factors of spinning, dyeing and weaving; cultural-historical background (Industrial Revolution, slavery, American Civil War); working and living conditions of sewing workers.
  • Positive examples of social and ecological production: illustrated by eco-fashion, fair trade and other “alternative” suppliers.
  • International regulations and agreements: For example, minimum standards of ILO (International Labour Organization), evaluation of their implementation and enforcement strategies.
  • Globalisation: History, outsourcing of production steps and international competition between locations, free trade zones, the role of the World Trade Organization, working conditions in globalisation; the role of international customs duties.
  • Work and labour rights: Labour rights in a historical perspective; characteristics of humane work; work and health; gender mainstreaming; workloads in the clothing industry (piecework, “fast fashion”); importance of trade unions and works councils.
  • Principles of sustainability: Definition, options for action, perspectives
  • Recycling: Issue of clothing recycling; alternative options in the field of used clothing (e.g. re-design of used clothing).
  • Critical analysis of the significance of fashion, ideas of beauty and advertising: historical, cultural and social importance of fashion, strategies of the advertising industry, dictates of fashion and brand cult.
  • Opportunities of CSR in companies: importance of codes of conduct, multi-stakeholder initiatives; importance of transparency and external control; “ethical fashion”: perspectives and marketing opportunities; positive examples.
  • Actors and partners for “ethical fashion”: Clean Clothes Campaign, consumer networks, initiatives of international organisations, trade unions, labelling initiatives.

In a further step of the analysis, these contents are grouped into thematic priorities for the individual forms of the two school types to permit their optimum, interdisciplinary integration into the existing curriculum. The following horizontal themes are proposed in this context: “Ecological production of natural fibres”, “Globalisation — consumption — advertising”, “Work and health”, “Social rights of workers”, “International organisations” as well as “Horizontal projects in the framework of the project workshop”.

Amendment of curricula

Based on the curriculum analyses, recommendations were developed for an amendment of existing curricula to integrate topics related to the social and ecological responsibility in the clothing industry and submitted to the competent Federal Ministry for Education and the Arts in 2008. To a satisfactory extent, the suggestions were positively taken into account in the amended curricula: From the academic year 2009/10 on, Austria’s fashion design schools have more opportunities to familiarise their students with relevant contents that pave the way towards a socially and ecologically sustainable and ethical clothing industry.

In summary, the curriculum of secondary schools for fashion and clothing design now includes the following topics on account of the project’s recommendations: human rights, globalisation, ecological and social responsibility, CSR, international provisions (labour rights), critical analysis of ideals of beauty, ecological production of natural fibres, gender mainstreaming, working conditions in the globalised textile industry.
Likewise, the curriculum of vocational schools of fashion and clothing design now covers key issues: critical media analysis, fair trade, clothing recycling, health hazards for workers, ecological production of natural fibres, gender mainstreaming.

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