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Exploring sustainable fashion in India

This summer, students visited India to unpick the threads that form the country’s $200bn textile industry in a trip supported by alumni donations.

Indian cotton industry

Students on a field trip to India
24 students from a range of subjects visited India to learn about the cotton industry.

The week-long trek saw 24 undergraduate students from a range of subject areas – including business, fashion and geography – follow the supply chain of cotton, from the villages of rural Maharashtra to the fashion houses of Mumbai.

Employing over 51 million people, the cotton industry is India’s second largest employer, and has a huge impact on the lives of people in the country. During the trip, the students considered the environmental, social and economic implications of India’s primary export.

Sustainability focus

The third-year students met key individuals on the cotton supply chain, beginning with the cotton pickers and growers.

They learned how the Better Cotton Initiative works with producers, such as Technocraft, towards more sustainable production methods and visited a factory to learn about the spinning and weaving process.

After meeting with artisans working at Grassroots - the sustainable fashion brand of high-end label House of Anita Dongre - and seeing how it is empowering women to gain new skills and develop independent careers, students visited the brand’s retail store to find out more about its expansion into the international market.

The digital editor of Vogue India also took time to discuss the industry’s impact on local and global fashion trends in a talk entitled ‘Can Fashion Sustain Sustainability’.

Tackling challenges

The trek was sponsored by the University’s Edinburgh Futures Institute, a new hub which brings students and researchers together to tackle real-world issues. So it was fitting that it culminated in a day-long interactive challenge where students from Edinburgh and from the Indian School of Design and Innovation met with people from industry to discuss solutions to the industry’s most pressing issues, such as working conditions and sustainability. This gave students the chance to think critically and solve problems in a live business context.

With this experience, Edinburgh students got a chance to get under the skin of one of the developing world’s largest industries and fastest growing economies. We wanted them to put themselves in the shoes of the farmers, manufacturers and exporters to ask whether fashion can ever be truly sustainable.

Trek leader, Dr Winston KwonUniversity of Edinburgh Business School

Video

Watch a student-made film of highlights from the trip.

Immersive interdisciplinary learning

Influenced by the issues of social inequality and environmental sustainability, which is the focus of his research and teaching, trek leader Dr Kwon said: “I realised that there is only so much we can do to help students to really understand these issues. We try to bring these issues to life with good lectures, storytelling and media, but that still intellectualises the issues. On the trek students could understand these issues first hand, experience them emotionally and engage with them viscerally."

Ellie, a Business Management student, thought the interdisciplinary nature of the trek allowed students to connect with each other and to share different ideas and perspectives.

I don’t think it would have worked if it wasn’t interdisciplinary because it benefitted from a range of people able to look at things from different angles. A lot of it was teaching and learning in a reciprocal manner.

EllieBusiness Management student

Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) student Rosie found it interesting to see how traditional crafts were being adapted to be more commercial.

 … to see how Anita Dongre had taught different artisans how to update their designs so that they became fashionable…I found that so interesting - how to keep traditional crafts alive but make them marketable.

RosieECA student

Lasting engagement

Dr Kwon revealed that multiple dissertation topics have been inspired by the trek, a start-up company has been set up by two student, and there seems to be a lasting engagement around the issues of sustainability and social inclusion.

Rosie said she felt that the trek helped her to realise what she values. Now she only wants to work for a company that is aiming to be sustainable. While Ellie explained that she now thinks more carefully about where her clothes come from and the impact that her decisions have on others, which translates into her plan to steer away from fast fashion.

There are plans to increase the trek to nine days next year so students can meet local farmers and hear about the challenges they face. Many farmers end up in debt trying to grow cotton plants and suicide is prevalent.

Alumni support

An alumni-funded grant of £2,000 - made possible by donations to the Edinburgh Fund - ensured that there were no financial barriers to students taking part in the trip.

We promoted the innovative trek through the Widening Participation team, and one third of the students who took part came from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in higher education, all of whom received financial support from the alumni-funded grant.

Rosalyn ClaaseHead of Student Experience, University of Edinburgh Business School

Learn more

A trek to find Sustainable Fashion in India - feature by Samantha Allan in Edinburgh Global

Edinburgh Fund

Student Experience Grants

Social Responsibility and Sustainability

Edinburgh Futures Institute