This month I’m presenting at the Fashion Colloquia conference in Milan, which is held twice a year in different cities. The theme is Feeding Fashion Energy – new pathways for fashion education; a suitably topical conference, with the Business of Fashion launching their new educational platform and results from a global survey of fashion students.
My talk is on a concept I’m still developing, which has grown from my interests in fashion, economics and sustainable life and business. The subject is human sustainability and its use in creative education. Here’s my most succinct definition so far:
A framework for fashion education which focuses on the complexity of human experience to improve how our industry works.
I’ll be regularly publishing my ideas online as I develop this concept, alongside continuing to write on other things that interest me. This first article explains my background and interest in this subject.
First, I have always been interested in people. Of all elements of fashion, the personal experience of clothing and its use as a facilitator for communication between people has always been the most fascinating.
In 2011, after months of research and a week of not leaving the house, I complete my MA thesis which looked at how a relatively new demographic of fashion people – bloggers – experience the ‘work’ of their blog. I interviewed different bloggers about how they perceived their ‘work’, whether it was enjoyable and to what extent they were ‘paid’. My research included theories of emotional labour (practising emotions as part of your job, like having to be nice when you’re an air steward) and the inherently precarious and cross-contaminating quality of creative work (the creative worker is never ‘off’ and always thinking about their ideas).
This thesis cemented my passion for how people work: what they see as work, what their work struggles are, how we think about other people doing (dis)similar jobs and, importantly, in what ways we react to perceived exploitation.
After this, I spent several years working in creative agencies on external and internal communications for clients like Marks & Spencer, Lloyds Banking Group, New Look and Unilever. Through this I developed my understanding of how creative and non-creative work effects people and their perceptions of acceptable work and remuneration, whether financial or otherwise. I also continued to produce research outside of work, which focused on the problems in fashion work and our relationship to fashion objects, all using Marxist-ish ways of seeing the world.
Through my work and studies, I became more interested in ‘sustainability’. Reading on the subject often brought up the same issue: sustainability in business was more about assets and the environment than people and their work. For example, CSR initiatives would reduce the unnecessary printing of emails, but not consider the sheer volume of emails a worker receives and the impact that has on their ability to work. Sustainability became a more important issue in my personal life, from what I ate to how I worked.
Establishing myself as a lecturer meant I considered work – and now learning – from a new perspective: how sustainable are the working methods we use, and are we teaching poor methods to new workers? Although I have a strong interest in fashion’s environmental sustainability, I’m more drawn to the problems of people (like forced labour, cultural homogenisation or the invisibility of work) in the industry.
Now, as a Teaching Fellow and freelance marketer, I’ve had more opportunities to consider all these elements – fashion, work, sustainability, human experience, education – and how they fit into a system of research. The concept of human sustainability is the nucleus of that system.