Could you tell me about the sustainability chair? How does it work with students?
It’s been a year and a half since the chair has been launched. We started with the students to build the content. The first year it was mostly about giving the students sustainability classes. This year, it was the first year where we had an official mandatory unit, “Values and Concepts of Sustainability”. These are the foundations, but for each program we built different workshops, conferences, talks with designers etc. The foundation is the same for everyone, but how you act on it can be approached differently for everyone.
We wanted to go further, because we saw that some students had the potential to become CSR managers or to make sustainability their DNA. For them, we decided to launch the certificate and we enrolled students from all competencies. This was an additional cursus of almost 60 hours. We had classes every Tuesday night, and every session I wanted to look at the topic with a different point of view and invite a few guests. We had a lot of discussions, which was great. The classes were planned for two hours, often they would become three. It was a win-win for both speakers and students, as everyone was learning from each other.
“Sometimes you can have great ideas, but they aren’t necessarily applicable straight away. That happened to a few of the projects the students presented. They were very smart, but simply couldn’t be realized in our current system.” – Andrée-Anne Lemieux
In parallel to the classes, students had to do the contribution projects, because we didn’t want to wait until graduation to give them experience. There needs to be a double approach between the academic and the practical. That is important, because sometimes you can have great ideas, but they aren’t necessarily applicable straight away. That happened to a few of the projects the students presented. They were very smart, but simply couldn’t be realized in our current system.
Sustainability is an incredibly complex topic. Given that you have students from all different backgrounds and specialties, where do you begin?
That is why we started with the foundations. The value system was our starting point. I really take the time to make my students understand the different capitals of a business. If I ask you – how would you measure how well a company performs, what would you say?
“We have been substituting the nature capital with the financial one for decades, even centuries, without thinking about it. With the great acceleration, we substituted nature capital thinking it was infinite.” – Andrée-Anne Lemieux
Exactly, the financial capital. Those are our only referentials when we’re being taught business. To generate financial capital you need manufacturing capital. You need labour assets: technology, production, etc. To use those manufacturing assets however, you need individuals and their community. This is the human and social capital. I’m explaining it in a nutshell, but these individuals all need to breathe, eat, drink, and sustain their lives, which comes from the nature capital. So nature is intrinsically linked to the financial capital, if you take a step back. It’s much larger than the resources we use. We have been substituting the nature capital with the financial one for decades, even centuries, without thinking about it. With the great acceleration, we substituted nature capital thinking it was infinite.
Now that we have more scientific knowledge, we need to take into account this new value. I do always come back to this: if you want to work in the industry, you need to understand business. So how do we give value to these new capitals in business? This is the first step for me. What value do you put on social capital, the communities, the collective knowledge that is shared by our sector? This is a new value system.
After that, we enter into the definitions. If we want to transform, we need to understand. The students have incredible energy and motivation. You work in fashion too so you know, people who want to work in fashion are usually incredibly passionate. There is enormous energy, but it needs to be redirected.
“Yes, we have the theory, when you realize that even breathing is linked to business, you start to realise your impact.” – Andrée-Anne Lemieux
And how do you do that? How do you teach these values?
Right now, our sector is very focussed on diversity and I realized it is key to find a solution. That is also why we will mix the profiles from the classes. Since I am the first teacher to work across this many different disciples, we’re also discovering a new approach. It’ll be a challenge in terms of management. (laughs) If we do a workshop on circular economy, we need as many different backgrounds as possible.
I also try to create emotion, to make it real. I’m not trying to make the topic emotional in a catastrophic sense, saying, “this is the end.” There are some that do that. I say the facts, through the pillar of scientific research, which is very much lacking in fashion and sustainability, but I also address it through values, because I want to explain what it implies in both their careers and their personal lives. Emotions are an important topic there too. I’m tired of seeing sustainability as a granola topic, beige and bland. It is beautiful, fun, and creative ‒ energizing these ideas goes through the emotional experience.
Yes, we have the theory, when you realize that even breathing is linked to business, you start to realise your impact.
“Globality is key, you cannot just change one part of the chain.” – Andrée-Anne Lemieux
Your perspective is very much business oriented. In my research on sustainability, I’ve noticed that when research comes from a business perspective, greenwashing is very common. The singular parts of the value chain might be improved, but the final goal remains to sell more. How can we step out of this business model when it shapes so much of our understanding of fashion?
When I was talking about collaboration, this is the first lever to that. When you segment the value chain, you miss how interconnected everything is. I had an experience recently, I can’t mention the brand but they are known for their values in sustainability. The communication they do is great, but when I went to buy a garment, they offered a plastic bag. This is just a simple example of how often the topic gets misunderstood. In that case, it proved the retail and communication departments just weren’t talking. I’m not judging, you don’t need to be perfect, but if the different departments are not aligned, it is very difficult to implement any change. The importance of the global vision cannot be underestimated. Globality is key, you cannot just change one part of the chain.
CSR and sustainability are very prominent right now, but I would like to see them integrated. Let’s compare it to the digital transformation that happened 10 years ago, there was a range of new positions, heads of digital etc. Now, everyone is digital and it is entirely incorporated. It changed our lives and the way we work.Sustainability needs to be the same. We saw the birth of new positions and departments, CSR managers etc., but hopefully it will be everywhere in a few years.
The main difference between the two is that digital relies on tools, where sustainability is about values. It’s much deeper in terms of change. Values are what motivate us, so we need to transmit them to make it work. That is a huge, fundamental difference. Values are very personal too. In terms of a company, if I go back to the business side, it needs to be aligned with company values. I hear a lot of voices that proclaim our whole industry needs to be destroyed before it can be sustainable.
I’ll be honest, sometimes I think that as well. When the goal is to mass-produce, how can we ever create sustainably?
I see a lot of change. Every day, I’m confronted with new visions and new ways of acting. I think it’s possible. That is also why we wanted to do the chair. We have 1000 students, they all go into the industry afterwards. That’s a huge potential.
What is your goal for the students? Do you see them as sustainability experts, or as experts in another field who happen to also work sustainably?
My students will do very different things, from creative director to head of sales. We want them to have this understanding and potential to act in their own abilities, but we also need people that go into CSR and create specialized, innovative business models. We need a push on the entire value chain.
So my answer is both, we need to act in parallel. We won’t have 1000 graduates in CSR, but they might master the values and integrate them into their vision.
“You can understand that you need to act, but then you also need to know what to do.” – Andrée-Anne Lemieux
As you described, there is a lot of positive energy in the industry right now. Nobody denies the need for sustainable practices, to the contrary, we are desperately asking for it. Yet it feels like change comes so slowly. As somebody who has that insight into the corporate side, what is it that makes change so difficult?
Transformation is very slow because the story was written a long time ago: the structure and system have been in place for a while. For example, your goal might be to be carbon neutral, but where do you begin when you don’t have any assets yet? You cannot measure this type of change on a seasonal rhythm.
We were talking about the value chain. From the outside it can be very easy to think ‒ why haven’t they implemented organic cotton yet? But let’s not forget that this is all new knowledge, new expertise, and those changes require time to be accompanied and to change the system. Is that organic cotton readily available? Does the company have someone on board who can read and understand those certificates? This requires experts and leaders to empower the teams. If you’re a small company you can imply those things from the start, but changing big structures takes a lot of steps. Everyone has to go simultaneously. Everyone needs to be trained, to be made aware of the topic.
Since everything is interconnected, you pull a thread and all the other topics come rolling out. Yes, it’s super nice to imagine a circular production chain, but does the know-how exist, are the materials scalable, are the logistics in place to do it locally? There are super ideas that represent the future of design, but the whole team needs to be on board. It will take a few years. You can understand that you need to act, but then you also need to know what to do.
“Some of my students have seen the impact of climate change firsthand in their home country.” – Andrée-Anne Lemieux
Then there is another aspect: the cultural differences. When you have a global system working with a variety of cultures, each with a different relationship to the environment… I’m from Canada and people in Paris have a very different relationship to the forest than I do. Between different countries, the understanding of sustainability is not the same.
This is also great here at the MA, we have students from different cultures, and some of my students have seen the impact of climate change firsthand in their home country. Their backyards look like landfills, so that is a very different vision on sustainability.