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Corporate Social Responsibility: Educating Future Generations in the Fashion Industry

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) began in earnest in the 1950s with several highly acclaimed business authors discussing the merits and value of such practices. Some will trace its origins to an earlier time (’30s), but the main emphasis for a formal discussion can be traced to the 1953 publication of Howard R. Bowen’s landmark book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, and later texts like A Moral Philosophy of Management by Benjamin Morris Selekman and Management’s Responsibility to Society: The Growth of an Idea by Morrell Heald. Yet for those of us involved in the “fashion” industry (apparel, textiles and accessories) our interest and focus on CSR-related issues started to increase based on the surge of imports led by multinational companies such as Nike and Levis Strauss after the media spotlight set ablaze Kathie Lee Gifford’s “sweatshop” incident in 1996.

That is not to say that fashion-related companies did not have an interest in CSR, but from what I recall of my industry years, it was termed “vendor compliance.” Having worked for several menswear wholesalers in the past, we had several shelves with large three ring binders that formed the basis for our vendor compliance records as each retailer, brand and designer had their own set of standards that you had must — in theory — adhere to. We were required to read the entire manual, sign a sheet at the end and fax (yes fax) the signed copy verifying that we read the manual and understood the policies. The vendor compliance manuals were massive documents outlining all sorts of procedures and protocols for sourcing product but to my knowledge never did one of them speak about the key issues of CSR that we focus on today, which is how we treat the people who make the products that we sell.

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Never did the vendor compliance manuals of the 80s and 90s (to my memory) discuss freedom of association, fair wages, sanitary work conditions, health and safety, adequate breaks and paid overtime. They focused on processes not people.

In the past, the sourcing and production departments’ focus was finding the best (not always the least expensive) place to produce a given product without regard (in many instances) to the human capital actually working in those factories. In 1996, then president Bill Clinton called a meeting of multinational companies, colleges and universities, and NGOs to discuss the issue as a result of the hue and outcry of the Kathie Lee and other debacles. As an outgrowth of these meetings the Fair Labor Association was established in 1999, and in a sense, CSR in the fashion industry starts to take shape. The conversation develops from one of how to get the product to market, to how are we treating those that make the product for us, and more people get involved: shareholders, CEOs, consumers and yes, educators. That is where Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Business (ESRAB 1999) came under the guidance of several like-minded educators, principally Dr. Marsha Dickson, who now heads fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware.

ESRAB was created as a collaborative learning community whose members collectively:

  • Share knowledge, applications and experiences
  • Build awareness, and foster campus and community engagement that furthers social responsibility and sustainability in the apparel industry

The goals are to:

  • Encourage collaboration
  • Identify innovative and effective teaching methods
  • Create forums for effective communications on issues of social responsibility and sustainability

Nine founding members worked over the next several years to develop the organization using the International Textile and Apparel Association’s (ITAA) annual conference as a platform to meet and disseminate information surrounding critical issues affecting the fashion industry. ITAA provides opportunities to publish and present the findings of the group, and to invite educators from all campuses that had fashion related curriculum to participate and share ideas on how to educate the next generation of students to increases awareness of CSR practices. ESRAB is a loose-knit organization with no formal structure which has involved over 80 colleges and universities around the world since 1999, with additional growth anticipated with the change of the name of the organization.

Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Business is now Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Practices (ESRAP); a subtle change but one that we feel better reflects the changing industry we operate in. With the name change comes an additional formal goal (as it had always been there) to change curriculum on a global scale to better reflect the current state of CSR in the fashion industry and to empower students to become change agents with newly acquired knowledge from the programs that they are enrolled in. ESRAB has always been a part of the conversation, working with industry to learn their needs so that we as educators can teach tomorrow’s leaders and helping industry shape its response. By engaging industry executives through multiple channels, by listening to our students undertaking industry internships, carrying out research and by interacting with fellow educators, ESRAP is, and continues to be, in a unique position to help shape the fashion industry CSR dialogue.

Our hope is that by working with educators across the globe we can further impact the course of study that has transformed the industry and brought the topic to the forefront by engaging students at the course level, through internships and on the job. Essentially we are helping push the industry toward greater social responsibility from the “inside out.” To this end we invite fellow educators and interested industry practitioners to share their ideas and concepts and engage with us. We know that ESRAB/P has had an impact in a short period of time, better preparing graduates to undertake key roles in CSR related positions, but there is still more to do and together (educators and industry) we can continue to make strides by improving the lives of those that we so heavily rely on to produce the apparel, textiles and accessories that are such an integral part of our industry.

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Fashion industry veteran Michael Londrigan arrived at LIM College as the Chair of the Fashion Merchandising Department in 2008 with nearly 30 years of experience in the apparel industry focusing on retail, wholesale and textiles. He has a strong background in product development along with extensive executive sales, marketing and merchandising skills. In 2012 Professor Londrigan was promoted to Dean of Academic Affairs. He also teaches several courses on the undergraduate and graduate levels, including Product Development, Menswear, Textiles, and Applied Concepts in Fashion Merchandising.