Remarks by Dr. Joyce F. Brown
Several years ago, I attended one of President Clinton’s annual Global Initiative University gatherings. It was down in Austin, Texas and there were about 1000 students present from around the world---and several dozen college presidents. In order to participate, each institution had to make a commitment to create initiatives in fields such as global health, poverty, human rights and energy and climate change. FIT selected energy and climate change, but that isn’t why I am telling you this story. In fact, many institutions selected energy and climate change---and the projects they presented were creative and impressive. But what was truly impressive---and inspiring---was witnessing the passion of the students who attended. Now you may say---well, what else is new? Idealistic young people are often passionate and easily fired up. And as a long-time educator, I would say you are right. But this seemed different somehow. The commitment…the excitement…the energy…seemed a level up…particularly among the students whose projects revolved around the environment.
But that commitment to the environment was not unfamiliar to me. FIT students are also passionate about the environment. And that is unusual---because unlike traditional college students, FIT students are generally non-political. That, I believe, is because our students arrive with specific career goals in mind, and that is where their intellectual and emotional capital is invested. They save their passion for their professional ambitions which are played out with laser-sharp focus in their classrooms and studios---except when it comes to the environment. In that, they are surprisingly engaged.
I wanted to open with this happy thought as I discuss the role academia plays in educating our next generations to be responsible designers, responsible fashion industry leaders, responsible conservators of the earth. Even though today’s generation has signed on, the challenges are great---particularly for schools of design, and more particularly for career-driven schools like FIT. FIT is not a traditional college with a long menu of humanities or social sciences courses that more naturally probe issues of social responsibility---global issues like poverty, economic development, immigration, climate change. Our very mission is to help students enter the labor market and to develop the skills they will need to succeed in the world of commerce. In that context, it is our students, I believe, who are particularly vulnerable. Our students live in a trend-driven, hyperventilating culture that worships consumption---and they are being trained at FIT, just as students are at other fashion or business schools, to do their best to contribute to it. We want them to be honorable; we want them to “do good;” but we also want them to succeed in what we all call the “real world.”…the Gordon Gekko “greed is good” world. So…as you see, for FIT the challenge is doubly difficult.
It is a challenge we take seriously and in the area of sustainability, in particular, we have been consciously working at it in many ways for well over a decade. As Toni Morrison said at a conference at Princeton a while back on how and whether values can be taught in a university, “Like it or not, we are paradigms of our own values, advertisements of our own ethics…we teach values by having them.”
So forgetting curriculum and what goes on in the classroom for a moment, let me start with FIT itself---as an institution---and the values we impart through our own institutional practices and behaviors. Last spring, FIT was honored by Mayor Bloomberg as the first college to meet a challenge he created for New York City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2013. In fact, we reduced gases by over 40 percent over the past six years---and we are still working at it. We accomplished this in a long, conscious and strategic effort to be as responsible as possible---starting as far back as 2002 when we joined with the New York Power Authority in its peak load reduction program. All of our renovation and construction projects have been in full compliance with sustainable construction practices, including 14 new LEED certified studios and labs. We’ve installed energy-efficient windows and appliances in our dorms, including washer-dryers that save almost one million gallons of water each year; we installed a new chiller plant for the entire campus and have an on-going campus-wide lighting retrofit program, and of course recycling bins are everywhere. Three of our buildings now have green roofs---and that number will grow as we replace aging roofs on each of our ten buildings. We provide electric vehicles for our buildings and grounds staff. Even our food service provider is in on the act, with a variety of initiatives, including the planting of one tree for every meal plan that is purchased.
Since 2007, FIT has sponsored an annual and increasingly popular Sustainable Business and Design conference, and several years ago, I established a Sustainability Council which develops and fosters initiatives at the college, and grants up to $15,000 in funds each year for sustainability projects proposed by faculty, staff or students. That has already resulted in a number of creative initiatives, such as the installation of a digital BookScan station in the library that has saved hundreds of thousands of pages of paper, water-bottle filling stations throughout the campus as well as a jewelry department project that has significantly reduced the environmental footprint in its studio. And this is the short list. It should not be surprising to learn, after sitting through this recital, that promoting sustainability is part of a new mission statement for FIT that was approved by our board of trustees just yesterday. So as you see, our institutional commitment to sustainability is fundamental, and to be effective in an educational environment---where young people are so tuned in to hypocrisy---that kind of fundamental commitment is essential.
Now I know this session is focused on the fashion industry, and fashion design is certainly FIT’s signature program. However, the world of fashion today really has expanded into a cornucopia of lifestyle disciplines and takes in everything: jewelry and accessories, home products, fragrances and cosmetics, interior design, photography, textiles and toy design, exhibition design for store windows and interior displays…packaging design for those perfumes and shoes. We grant degrees in all of those specialties as well as in all of the business-related disciplines that support the industry such as merchandising, entrepreneurship, international trade, marketing, advertising, and production management. In fact, FIT offers over 45 fashion-related degree programs in areas such as these---including one called Sustainable Interior Environments, the first masters degree program of its kind in the nation. In almost all of them, our faculty, inspired by their own commitment---as well as their students’--- have embedded principles of sustainability into their coursework.
You can see from the wonderful garments (here on stage) for instance, how our students made use of old sweaters as part of a “Recycle and Repurpose” knitwear project. We have similar projects throughout the fashion design program---in leather sportswear, for instance, and children’s wear. But responsible design is part of the conversation in course work throughout the fashion design program and right now, we are in the process of developing a new fashion design curriculum that will incorporate a new and stronger emphasis on related issues. Indeed, expertise in sustainability is now a requirement of any new professor we hire in fashion design.
But it is not just our prospective fashion designers who must grapple with these issues. In our textile development program, graduating seniors have participated in a project to make and market blue jeans for the last ten years. They develop the yarn and fabric, the fit and finish---and then bring the jeans, made of denim, to full factory prototype. Over the years, as you can imagine, they have been fully exposed to the environmental challenges involved and have explored every step of the supply chain for the most responsible ways to create their jeans. Programs throughout our business school feature specific courses on sustainability---or they include projects requiring students to analyze a surfeit of environmental issues, everything from hangtags on garments to power usage in department stores.
FIT also offers professionals in the industry a variety of opportunities to explore these issues or pick up new skills through our School of Professional Studies and Continuing Education. Continuing education is a critically important tool for the high-velocity fashion industry ---especially in the context of the evolving sustainability issues it faces. As long ago as 2006, we began to offer courses and seminar series---sometimes in alliance with the Fashion Center BID--- on sustainability for the small business man and woman. Interest grew and in 2009, we created a sustainable design non-credit certificate program---which now enrolls over 100 people every year. These are professionals in the field---designers, web merchandisers, retail and marketing executives, graphic artists---who come back to gain the skills and information they need to deal with these issues. In addition to the certificate program, the School offers seminars as well as individual courses in product development, for instance, or corporate compliance---all in the context of sustainability.
This summer, we will be offering professionals---designers and business people--- another opportunity in a one-week interdisciplinary institute on sustainability, with panels, labs and workshops--- sponsored by both our Schools of Art and Design and Business and Technology. In fact, Sass Brown---who is a participant in the upcoming panel---is FIT’s assistant dean of the School of Art and Science and has been very instrumental in the creation of this institute.
This is an overview of what we are doing right now at FIT---and I suspect that other design schools, like Parsons or RISD or Pratt---are also actively incorporating sustainability into their curricula…into their missions. But, you know, we can expose our students all we want to the issues, the technology and the skills they will need once they enter the trade. In the end, as I said earlier, their professional success will depend on the bottom line. And remember: our students are also consumers….fashionistas who are easily overcome by amnesia once they walk into TopShop or H&M. Just like their non-FIT generational peers who also embrace green values, they want the latest, the least expensive and more of it. So it is also our job as educators to keep them alert to this ethical paradox and to help them navigate its contradictions…so we do not end up producing what one educator called “non-reflecting highly competent technicians.” Indeed, to me, this is perhaps the most important of our challenges as educators. It is imperative for us to help our students make sense of the world and to galvanize them into becoming caring citizens who can contribute to a productive society and effectively participate in democratic life.
That is why, at FIT, we place a strong emphasis on liberal arts learning---it is, in fact, integral to an FIT education. Our students are required to include coursework in literature, history, economics, world affairs…into their already demanding schedules. That is because it is largely through the liberal arts they become active, analytic critical thinkers. It is through the liberal arts they learn to hypothesize, to interpret, to synthesize information, to communicate. It is through the liberal arts that we broaden their intellectual awareness and prepare them to make informed judgments and choices as citizens…as consumers…and as professionals faced with profoundly important responsibilities, including those we are discussing today. And you will be pleased to know that it is not just FIT that demands these outcomes in our students. The industry leaders who visit our campus year after year---executives from companies like Macy’s and Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus and Kohls---demand it as well.
I don’t fool myself into thinking that ours is an easy job. We send our graduates out into industry hoping that what they have learned will help them both satisfy and transcend the bottom line…hoping too that what they have learned, particularly through their growing critical thinking skills, is an appreciation of all they do not yet know, and a lifetime love of learning. Because that is what they will need more than anything to confront the complexities of our deeply troubled global environment
I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but it is conceivable---given the growth of the green movement and this generation’s identification with it---that ten or 15 years from now the fashion industry will be populated by a critical mass of environmental enthusiasts who will make it their mission to incorporate green values into their companies practices. But for that to happen, FIT and our sister design and business schools must continue to teach green, practice green, and plant in our students the critical thinking skills they will need to support---with confidence and courage, if necessary---sustainable fashion and the conservation of our earth. That is our role as educators and FIT is committed to it.