Balancing the books: creating a model of responsible fashion business education

Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Rosemary Varley, Ana Roncha

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The fashion industry has well-documented challenges around sustainability; the predominance of the low-cost-high-turnover business model raises questions about fashion’s ethics (Shaw et al., 2004). Fashion’s engagement with sustainability is most visible in design and production areas and is much less well developed in the area of socially responsible management, although integrating ethical business and sustainability into graduates’ attributes is increasingly seen as a priority for educators (Sims, Brinkmann, Sims and Nelson, 2011). The 2007 United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education are an engagement framework for Higher Education Institutions to embed CSR in education, research, and campus practices ( This Global Compact initiative developed in response to the global economic crisis, as a framework against which business schools can audit progress towards a societally responsible curriculum and practices. Purpose, the first of the six Principles, challenges educators to develop their students’ capabilities ‘to be future generators of sustainable value for business and society and to work for an inclusive and sustainable global economy’ ( With our position as fashion business researchers and educators we have a responsibility to guide students as they develop their positions on the serious issues the fashion industry faces today. This paper explores a series of curriculum interventions at undergraduate and postgraduate level which introduce fashion business students to the complex practical and ethical challenges for 21st century fashion businesses, using the lens of sustainability to explore every aspect of the fashion industry: production, design and promotion. Through the authors’ research and teaching, case studies, lectures, seminars and assessment tasks have been designed to engage students with a 360 degree understanding of sustainability and to promote students’ development of creative solutions to our industry’s challenges. One such teaching initiative was a finalist in the 2015 Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) Green Gown Awards. It involved a series of guest lectures from sustainability champions after which students carried out sustainability audits on start-up fashion brands and proposed design and marketing strategies using sustainability as a key source of differentiation and added value (Aaker & McLoughlin, 2010). Learning about issues such as textile waste and opportunities e.g. co-creation and no-waste design, engagement was high and students responded positively: ‘The sustainability part of this project has changed the way in which I look at fashion due to my heightened awareness of the sustainable issues affecting fashion’ (student feedback). Another initiative based on the authors’ research into innovative business models, uses their case study on social enterprise as the basis for a Fashion Marketing Strategy unit which uses real fashion industry examples, including our own alumni, to encourage debate about fashion’s difficult questions- the balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability. In these and other innovative fashion business curriculum examples explored in this paper, our research and teaching aims to find and respond to an increased interest in concepts of shared value (Porter & Kramer, 2011) particularly evident in new generations of students (Jarvis, 2016).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-106
JournalArt Design and Communication in Higher Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • ethics
  • sustainability
  • responsible management education


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