Rachel Dixon is a social designer pursuing an MFA in Design for Social Innovation at the School for Visual Arts in New York. She is part of Pave’s fully funded Social Entrepreneur Group, which will enable Rachel to pursue her chosen career promoting corporate social responsibility within the fashion industry.

If you were to Google image search terms such as “eco fashion” or “sustainable fashion”, you may find yourself inundated by an overwhelming amount of green and brown garments dominating your screen. Upon closer inspection, you will notice campaigns sporting an array of nymph-like models peering out at you from a rather broad representation of ecosystems: meadows, jungles, savannas, bamboo forests, etc. (as long as they are green, of course). You may find that many of the logos incorporated in these campaigns also take on a “green” theme, sporting iconography such as leaves, trees, recycle symbols, etc. Upon completion of your search, you could reasonably surmise that eco fashion is a niche market targeted at hippies and woodland sprites, and thus write it off as a trend that will flicker and fade before dying off completely.

What the Google image search fails to display, however, are the underlying issues that sustainable fashion attempts to combat. If you were to deepen your research, the topics of human rights and environmental impact would surface. Every price point category of the fashion industry affects these issues, but perhaps none more than the relatively new phenomenon of fast fashion. Fast fashion is characterized by the nearly instantaneous turn around of fresh off the runway looks into mass produced versions offered at a fraction of the price. These looks are constantly modified and updated in between seasons; meaning new products are shipped to stores daily. Fast fashion heavy weights such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 capitalize on this constant change and evolution of product by asking their consumers to constantly change and evolve along with them.

This trend driven business model encourages large-scale mass consumption and waste. According to USAgain, a textile-recycling firm, the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothes each year. Beyond the issue of waste, human rights are largely at stake when discussing the manufacturing process involved in mass production. With the need to keep retail prices low and new shipments frequent, manufacturing costs must be cheap and highly efficient. This translates into garment workers receiving unlivable wages while working backbreaking hours in often-unsafe conditions. The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,127 people brought to light the inhumane treatment of workers last year.

With each new story of a sweatshop scandal that surfaces in the news comes a wave of public outrage and demands for change. Sometimes these demands are successfully met, as in the case of Nike’s positive turnaround after their labor controversy in the 1990s. However, with so many other companies continuing to violate human rights, is this really enough? Efforts for reform should not come only after reports of violations hit the front pages. Complex problems need creative solutions. Looking at these issues through the lens of design and systems thinking can bring new insights and solutions that may have yet been tried. As a MFA in Design for Social Innovation candidate, I am exploring these issues through this lens, and I am being given the tools needed to create scalable and sustainable changes that are so dramatically needed within this industry.


See more of Rachel’s achievements here.