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The Future of SFI : A Sit-down With Dr. Gjoko Muratovski


Written By: Jade Wilson in collaboration with Meesh Strauss and Draven Peña



This past semester the Sustainable Fashion Initiative (SFI) has become an integrated part of my fashion design curriculum. Although it’s not a course, many of my peers have spent the semester utilizing textile scraps for sewing projects, curating the Black Market clothing swap, and practicing visible mending. Sustainable fashion practices have become a lifestyle choice for those involved in the club.


Although many fashion design students are concerned about the harmful effects of the fashion industry, without the guidance of Liz Ricketts, SFI Founder, and Dr. Gjoko Muratovski, Director of the Myron E. Ullman, Jr. School of Design, SFI wouldn’t even exist. Now that SFI is established within the Fashion Design program, the next step is to extend the sphere of influence across all design majors and the University as a whole.


Earlier this week Fellow SFI members Meesh Strauss, Draven Peña and I had the pleasure of meeting with Gjoko to further discuss the future of SFI and sustainable practices throughout the school of design.

Below is a snippet of our interview:


Q: Cincinnati is rapidly growing as a city centered around art and design, how do you think we can push the focus of sustainability as it continues to grow.


A: Community engagement is key. Most people assume that things such as climate change, global warming, or other issues related to sustainability and social innovation need to be addressed by politicians, on a national level or a global level. Actually, that's the least effective way to deal with these issues. The most effective way is by empowering people to act – no matter how small their actions may seem to them at first. That is why grassroots movements can be so effective. Once people feel encouraged to take things into their own hands and feel empowered to act, a social change will follow. Sometimes, a social action of this kind can start in a single street, and then can spread from one neighborhood to another, and then from a city to city. You should never underestimate the power of social engagement and your abilities to act as agents of change. As long as you continue doing things that are meaningful to people and to communities, initiatives such as this will flourish and grow.

Take yourself as an example. The most encouraging thing is that you already created such a change. What started as a small program-level initiative, in less than 3 months has outgrown its scope far beyond what we initially imagined. The SFI attracted the interest and the support of more than 10 different organizations from across the university, and even inspired the City of Cincinnati officials who are now interested in implementing this initiative across several public schools in the city. You made this happen.


"Once people feel encouraged to take things into their own hands and feel empowered to act, a social change will follow."

Q: A general concern among current fashion students is that the incoming students may not have the same connection to sustainability the way our class does, because of how closely we worked with Liz over this past year to launch SFI. How do you kind of see SFI helping facilitate the conversation between classes?


A: The reason why I encouraged Liz and you to start a blog is so you can document and share your experience with others beyond the scope of this class. I was really hoping for you to become advocates of sustainability and share your enthusiasm with others who were not part of the original SFI cohort.


Q: How will sustainability be enforced within the curriculum?


A: Essentially, the principles of sustainability and zero waste should be integrated into every single course. In the past when sustainability first emerged as a topic, new standalone programs like Sustainable Design were introduced. They faded away after less than a decade because these programs were too general, and despite the good intentions, they treated sustainability as something which is separate from the rest. In principle, all design should be sustainable. The reality is that you don't really need a course in order for you to act sustainably. You just need to have a desire to act in this way. That is why this initiative is not a part of a course and its purely an extracurricular activity. I didn’t want you to feel that you are doing this because of a grade or because you needed a course credit. I wanted you to do this because you have chosen to do this. I wanted to introduce a culture of sustainability; not a course on sustainability.


Q: I think for me, the hardest part about sitting in the ITP classes, was I had this grand image of the fashion industry. I thought it was going to be this very glamorous thing, and then to see the dark side of it all, tarnished that reputation I had of the industry. How do you think we can, revitalize the industry and make it something that is still glamorous, while keeping a sustainable mindset?


A: Some of the finest luxury goods are produced by skilled artisans and crafts people, in regional areas, with locally sourced materials and in small batches, often done by hand. These are products that you’re not going to throw away after several uses, or even after several years. These are things that you will treasure and use for a long time, and then pass them on to the next generation. Now think about that – isn’t this what sustainability is all about? Luxury and sustainability are not necessarily exclusive of each other. Glamour is not the problem here; fast fashion is. Well designed and sustainably crafted products are not only good for the environment. They also help small communities preserve their culture, tradition and heritage. And this can certainly be profitable. This is how companies like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Dior, Cartier, Montblanc, Rolex and others like them started.


Q: I think the hardest thing would be changing the consumer mindset, because everyone wants something new. They want something but they don't have the money to buy the luxury items. How do we change this?


A: Well, you need to think about your purchases as an investment. You actually end up spending more money over time by buying cheap things that you will throw away after one season or sooner than that – depending on the quality of the items. The reality is that people are actually prepared to pay more for good quality. They're just not prepared to pay more for rubbish. However, the industry in general reacts to the market forces by trying to sell more rubbish cheaper assuming that only sheer quantity will generate more profit. But this comes at even greater environmental and human costs. Therefore, that is why people should focus more on style than on fashion.


A sense of personal style can be far more enduring and timeless than seasonal fashion. The fashion industry is changing and evolving and I think that we will see a shift from fast fashion to more ethical and sustainable fashion. When that happens, the marketing messages will change as well, and so will the social norms and people’s consumption patterns. This can take some time, but it will happen if there is enough public pressure. That is why we need grassroots initiatives such as the SFI.


Q: How can students take these ideas that we're currently fostering here, right now, out on co-op with us?


A: Very easily. This happens already and it happens all the time. You are far more influential in your workplace than you realize. Your power is that when you take this knowledge and this experience with you to your industry placements, you start little by little to change the industry from within. You're teaching your employers how to be better corporate citizens and you are teaching your colleagues how to take responsibility for their actions as designers. I see this happening quite often, actually. Eventually this is going to start impacting and changing things on a larger scale. When you go to these companies as advocates of sustainability, you are already initiating a change of some kind. You are challenging the status quo. And companies, whether they like it or not, will have to start adopting your way of thinking. Many are already embracing sustainability because this is what your generation demands from them. In return, they will be increasingly looking to you for guidance on how to better engage with the new generation of consumers who demand sustainable fashion.


Q: How can DAAP better support students from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds when it comes to the Co-Op process as far as fees, since many fashion internships being really low pay or stipend?


A: The fashion industry, in general, has been the worst in accepting the fact that they actually need to pay people for work. In general, I have been very strong opponent of students doing free work for the sake of getting some kind of industry exposure. At the Ullman School of Design, we are actively working on changing this industry behavior with the companies we work with, and we are making some progress. Also, we keep trying to secure scholarships, stipends and other kind of support for students in financial distress. In any case, my advice is that you shouldn’t just give away your time for someone else to profit from your work. That’s not a work experience; that’s exploitation. If you do need to gain some unpaid work experience, at least donate your time and skills to a good cause, rather than you to do commercial work for free.


Q: I know everyone's really proud of the work that we've accomplished this year with SFI, and going forward with the alternating Co-Op schedules is going to be challenging. How do you see faculty across the board helping to keep this initiative going?


A: This is a work in progress. The SFI was a pilot project and we were fortunate to have Liz Ricketts, as an external advisor, driving this project forward. The whole project was funded by a donor, privately, which is what enabled us to do this in the first place. At the moment, I'm still having conversations with Liz about how we can continue with this initiative and we are already exploring some ideas. But this is a long-term initiative and I still need to try and find ways to move things forward, both with the faculty and financially. However, I strongly believe that the success of this initiative depends more on the students than on the faculty members. If there is a strong interest from the students in exploring this topic further, then we will certainly find ways to keep this initiative alive.


What you need to do is to remember that when you go to a class you don’t need anyone to tell you to design with sustainability in mind. That’s on you. You can always do your work in the most sustainable way possible. You don’t need a professor to tell you to do that. How you will approach your projects is entirely your call. And you will certainly not be told off for working sustainably. In fact, quite the opposite - you will be commended for that.


"When you go to a class you don’t need anyone to tell you to design with sustainability in mind. That’s on you. You can always do your work in the most sustainable way possible."

A final note:


While we can’t fix the fashion industry in a day, with the leadership of SFI and the desire of students to adhere to sustainable lifestyle choices we can start planting the seeds for a more ethically sound enterprise in the future.


Good luck to everyone on Co-Op next semester, please share the information you have acquired with others in the industry. Additionally, for all of those at DAAP this spring, continue to spread the word and create projects with sustainability in mind.

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