28 June 2022

Sustainable fashion for a regenerative future

Andrew Smith

The fashion industry is responsible for overconsumption and polluting the environment, causing irreparable damage to our fragile ecosystems, according to Belinda Watt, Head of School, Fashion and Sustainability at Whitecliffe.

Hence, there is an urgent need to address the negative environmental, cultural and social impacts of the fashion industry through redesigning the value of fashion and fashion education.

Belinda has been working at the forefront of sustainable fashion design education for many years. She is passionate about education that embeds planetary, cultural and social responsibility, within the philosophy, values and teaching of the programme at Whitecliffe.

“The past few decades have seen a huge growth in ‘fast fashion’ - mass-produced and cheap clothes, but the industry is currently going through a positive shift, rethinking and repositioning business models.

There is a focus on sustainability and planetary responsibility, from how the raw materials for our clothes are grown, produced and sourced; to how the workers in the supply chain are treated. The industry is also exploring how new and innovative design solutions can be incorporated to design clothes for longevity and circularity.

“And it’s about time,” Belinda says.

“The industry is evolving and our students are at the forefront of this change. Whitecliffe has launched New Zealand’s first and only Bachelor of Sustainable Fashion Design. We are equipping our students with knowledge, skills and critical thinking to challenge their perspectives, by reconnecting with nature to focus on earth-centred design, rather than people-centred design, and fostering innovative and regenerative design solutions.

There are a growing number of businesses developing sustainability strategies. With increasing demand from consumers for sustainable design and ethical production, graduates with knowledge in sustainability are going to be more and more employable. An integral part of the Bachelor of Sustainable Fashion Design degree has been the introduction of Earth-Centred Design courses, providing students with experiential learning in ecological design principles and practices. This helps them gain an understanding of the relationship that exists between design and nature.

“We have a dye garden on campus, where we grow a range of ancient natural dyes including madder, weld, woad, and dyer’s chamomile. These dyes have been used for thousands of years, and it’s been a great way to get students thinking about the origins of the materials, their history, and cultural significance while having a positive impact on the environment.”

Whitecliffe understands the importance of industry relationships and experiences. The Bachelor of Sustainable Fashion Design, Creative Enterprise course, introduces students to business models and brand philosophies that address sustainability. Students undertake industry internships and industry-linked projects, and one recent example has been the collaborative work students have undertaken with Education New Zealand, designing and making a sustainable kākahu for graduation ceremonies.

Study fashion and design

A kākahu is a traditional Māori cloak, worn on ceremonial occasions, and the design brief explored a fusion of this local tradition with that of the ceremonial gowns worn at university graduations, challenging the design team to create something completely unique. “We have a lot of students who come from overseas to study in New Zealand,” says Belinda, “and those involved in the project brought together their own cultural backgrounds, their experience studying and living in New Zealand, and the skills and knowledge they have gained during the degree.”

It was a collaborative process, where students collaborated with New Zealand designers to explore and design a new graduation gown. Other students studying at Whitecliffe then constructed gowns for students from the United States of America, India, Vietnam, Columbia, Japan, Thailand, Germany and China.

“It was incredible to see what they produced through this collaboration. Not only are the kākahu beautiful designs and garments but they also symbolise the ethos behind New Zealand education, bringing together indigenous practices with global attitudes to look at the world through fresh eyes.”

“The students and faculty at the school are embracing these values, caring for the land that we rely on and are putting under increasing pressure, and caring for the people in the fashion value chain; the farmers, the spinners, the weavers, the dyers, and the makers, who are often exploited by the fashion industry. We are looking to a better, regenerative future and it’s wonderful to be part of this change.”

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About the contributors
Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is a freelance writer based in Wellington, New Zealand. He spent several years studying English Literature at graduate and postgraduate level in the UK and Australia, before returning home to New Zealand to pursue a career in communications.