In my last article on human sustainability I outlined my interest in the subject – how people work and learn, and how they can do so more sustainably. I also gave a succinct definition of my use of human sustainability: a framework for fashion education which focuses on the complexity of human experience to improve how our industry works.
But why is this idea particularly relevant now? Sustainability is already part of fashion education, often used in design or material projects, and as a society we’re becoming more aware of environmental sustainability. We’re also acutely aware of the relationship between work and fulfillment; LinkedIn is stuffed with articles on how to be more productive or happier in your job.
So why is human sustainability important to fashion education and the fashion industry at this moment? In my conference talk I briefly mentioned four different factors which make this subject important now, including the industry reaching breaking point with many of its resources, and the omission of humans from discussions about sustainability in fashion (despite human sustainability being one of the “four main types” ).
However, in this article I’d like to go into more detail about the two most important factors making human sustainability a useful concept right now: a new generation of students and significant economic shifts.
A new generation
This new generation of students are ‘Millennials’ (people born from 1981 to 2000) , and their personality traits have been praised, criticised and manipulated for some seriously targeted marketing. I think transposing a single set of characteristics onto a diverse generation is risky, and can result in cultural myths which then lead to poor intergenerational relations.
However, there are general observations about the world in which ‘Millennials’ have grown up and been educated (or will be) which ring true. They have all matured in a world of neo-liberalism, extremism and shifts in global power; they’ve seen the Millennium itself, the rise of the Internet, the end of apartheid and the collapse of the Soviet Union (or their effects). In England, Millennials were the first generation subject to tuition fees at university, which have increased year on year . All of them were fundamentally affected, either as adults or children, by the 2008 financial crisis.
It’s not that any other demographic hasn’t experienced these things, but Millennials have experienced them at a crucial time in their psychological and social development. Meg Jaye, TED speaker and psychologist, argues that 20-something brains are “poised for transformation and change” , with the second and last neural growth spurt occurring from your teenage years to your twenties, preparing you for adulthood. If this process occurs in a global climate of economic downturn, acceptance/fear of multiculturalism, political upheaval, plus more communication networks and transparency than ever, it will have a resounding effect on shape of their ‘generational personality’.
Some of these effects include Millennials reporting greater stress levels and being more likely to seek help at work for depression than other generations . They’ve also been described as narcissistic, ignorant of workplace hierarchy and ‘too’ ambitious .
These traits are widely reported, but they hide a bigger issue: this generation has grown up with a greater awareness of and transparency about conditions like stress, depression, fatigue and burnout, and are therefore more likely to self-report than a generation who was unused to this idea.
They’re also more acutely aware of the need for individualisation versus the requirement to be ‘part of the gang’; social connectivity online means there’s more people to compete with (as a successful individual) and share with (as an equal peer). I’ve also written about the ‘digital status quo’ which many Millennials have grown up under and are unlikely to challenge while at the same time being encouraged to be unique and creative in their self-marketing.
Alongside historic events and changes to communication, the effect of neo-liberalism as an established economic and cultural weight upon this generation cannot be underestimated. David Harvey argues:
“This is a world [the mid 70s onwards] in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism and financial opportunism has become the template for human personality socialisation…The impact is increasingly individualistic isolation, anxiety, short-termism and neurosis in the midst of one of the greatest material urban achievements ever constructed in human history.” 
This succinct explanation demonstrates just how difficult the job of learning and working is for the new generation of students. Surrounded by material excess and opportunity, the economic pattern of neo-liberalism and its cultural influence has burrowed a hole in their generational psyche; despite opportunities to have everything they could ever want, there is an emptiness.
Every generation has rebellions against the norm, and within the Millennial generation there are many people who are strongly politically- or environmentally-minded, or those who ‘opt out’ of the system. But there doesn’t appear to be any one, great, youth movement (unlike those of previous decades which may be out of focus due to my rose-tinted glasses). There is, however, a strange phenomenon of the ‘gentle rebellion’ against neo-liberalism’s materialist ethic which seems to argue with it but actually affirms it, and comes from a very white, Western and well-off place.
Reacting against consumerist excess and economic obsession with the urban, Millennials create trends like ‘clean’ eating, quote motivational Pinterest images  and mantras like “do what you love, love what you do”, read homespun lifestyle bloggers and share photographs documenting a life in tune with the great outdoors and inner spirituality.
These reactions are unerringly affirmative. Every Millennial is described as having a unique contribution (“intense possessive individualism”), as an entrepreneur in the making who can simply live off their beautifully-shot lifestyle (“financial opportunism”), who should live in the now and always strive to be a better person tomorrow than they are today (“short-termism and neurosis”). Harvey’s list of psychological effects aren’t addressed in this rebellion, but papered over.
So not only are this generation of students suffering from acute psychological stresses brought on by global and historic events, the connectivity/isolation conundrum of social media, the cultural weight of neo-liberalism, and a lack of one, uniting youth movement, but their rebellions aren’t about change – only opting-out entirely or affirming what’s already there with slightly better photos.
To me, this suggests we need to radically rethink how we’re teaching students. We need to consider how we’re teaching them to interact with each other in meaningful ways, how to combat isolation and neurosis, how to understand what “the greatest material urban achievements” means for our society and our surroundings. We need to give them tools to shape a new way of living that’s more psychologically supportive – and challenge their rebellions by analysing what they’re really doing.
For fashion specifically, this generational fearfulness and affirmative process mean creativity is going to run dry because new workers don’t want to challenge the status quo. And fashion really needs people to challenge the status quo to create interesting products, sell them and survive.
Significant economic shifts
The second key factor in why human sustainability is an important concept now is the change in our economic environment.
Fashion education is a capitalist industry: it produces commodities – our students – and a profit (where possible). Education itself hasn’t always been a capitalist industry, as it hasn’t always produced profit, but it has always produced valuable commodities.
These commodities are, on the one hand, more valuable than ever as repositories of knowledge in an information economy. On the other, they’re less valuable as they become a more common commodity – more people with university degrees mean a degree is (apparently) worth less. Institutions have also increased their capital intake and profit generation by working with businesses who fund innovative research into products and processes (which that business may later benefit from). In England, another income stream is tuition fees, of which international students play an important role.
Whether you agree with education being a capitalist enterprise or not is less important than what you think these educational institutions will now become as capitalism itself changes. The banking crisis of 2008 was a crisis of capitalism, as those who sought to profit from the system made increasingly risky choices on unstable economic ‘bets’. Slowly, since then, the consensus on capitalism as an effective system has changed .
In large part, this is due to the political response to the crisis; the bailing out of banks while populations were forced under austerity measures. In the UK, all parts of the political spectrum are questioning whether our economic system works. In a system where government subsidises private workers’ pay, people are forced to use food banks, welfare payments seem unfair or not enough, public banks are sold at huge losses and the cost of living and education continues to rise, people are beginning to find fault with how our economy operates. Anti-austerity politics and parties are coming to the fore in the US, UK and EU, some of which are proposing activities which are positively pre-neo-liberal.
On a global governmental level, no-one has figured out (or wants to admit to) a way to effectively deal with the 2008 crisis or its aftershocks. But on a community scale, new economic forms of ‘purchasing’ and ‘consuming’ are growing: Wikipedia, Bitcoin, Uber and clothing rental companies are just some high-profile examples. People are discovering new ways to interrupt the traditional patterns of consumption inherent to capitalism.
Paul Mason argues this is due to our new information economy having fundamental “dynamics [which] are profoundly non-capitalist” ; one of our most profitable commodities (information) is also the hardest to control as the Internet and digital communication networks become cheaper and extend to territories even where the traditional infrastructure required doesn’t exist. On the other hand, the pre-crisis ‘betting’ in the banking sector continues with capital investment in high-risk ventures, in this phase focusing on the Internet itself; many high-value tech ‘unicorns’ have no profitable business model in place and have been mooted as the precursor to another dot com bubble.
For those still profiting from capitalism, the 3% figure of continuous growth required to not appear in ‘recession’ is becoming harder to maintain as the realisation dawns there is little material resource left on the planet to invest in . With a lack of regulation, the worst parts of financial trading (shadow banking, energy futures betting, etc.) are continuing even as those suffering from the worst effects of capitalism’s economic disparity are interrupting its machinations by dreaming up new ways of living and working together.
For educational institutions, a new(ish) wave of educational forms are now competing against them for profit and students. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), private institutions, online learning, apprenticeships and a host of other work-learn arrangements have made the traditional institution just one of the many options available to new students – and, potentially, one of the more expensive. Alongside new competition, institutions need to realise that these shifts in capitalism and how we like to ‘purchase’ things means their current business model may no longer be financially viable.
This is especially true for fashion education, which is so closely married to the fashion industry: a hub of the traditional capitalist mechanics of commodity production and profit generation through exploitation. Society’s transition to a new form of economy (whether capitalist or not) requires a new business model for institutions; a way to ‘future proof’ funding. Design and fashion institutions, whose students will be emerging as workers in this new economy, must also be aware of and teach these market developments. Historically institutions are slow creatures, reactive not proactive, yet the principles we teach now will be the scaffolding on which economies of the future (both in the fashion industry and further afield) will be built. When it comes to industry and economy, we need to be a hammer, not a mirror.
This is where I believe human sustainability as an educational framework could be very useful, as it can address changing economic forms on an organisational and educational level by very simply asking ‘what’s the alternative?’. The new economic forms we’re seeing are in part a reaction to capitalism’s destructive effect on human beings; lots of people don’t want to be exploited or take part in exploiting others any more. We need to be looking at ways of funding education and running fashion businesses which don’t do that, and looking at alternatives to ‘classic capitalism’ is one option.
In my next article I’ll look more closely at what human sustainability is: the current understanding of the term, what it does and doesn’t include, and how it could be expanded.