Can VR Be A Tool In Teaching Sustainability Practices In Fashion Education?

Contributor Molshree looks at how we can bridge the disconnect and distance between ugly industry practices and a beautiful piece of garment through VR.

Fashion Revolution Week recently drew to a close. It is a movement that has inspired an army of consumers to ask brands for greater transparency and better lives for those who toil in the fashion supply chain.

Photo Credit: Fashion Revolution Week

Lately, I’ve been thinking of another stakeholder; the fashion student, armed with a passion for fashion and aspiration to strike it big in the industry. Does that passion thrive in an eco-conscious brain?

Putting on The Lens of Sustainability While Designing

One thing I noticed while doing my MA in sustainability at a London Fashion College, was the slow but steady signs of change. After working for few years, inadvertently contributing to fashion industry’s adverse impacts, I had returned to campus for course-correction. And there I saw enthusiastic twenty-somethings across fashion programmes, be it design, communication or business, put on the lens of sustainability while designing a new collection, a campaign or business model simulation.

“I believe that a visit to a clothes landfill site through VR headset is bound to evoke strong emotions.”

The cohort of sustainability-driven fashion students is still small, though growing. The key takeaway from my own journey of reformation is that the change comes not so much from lectures on complexities of supply chain or zero-waste design(they are critical too), but through empathy; it has to be felt first and then understood. This is why I believe that a visit to a clothes landfill site through VR headset, is bound to evoke strong emotions just as much as a virtual walk by the river stream bleeding, due to effluents released during clothes manufacturing.

VR Sustainability Practices in Fashion Education

The adding of virtual reality (VR) to the existing set of tools for fashion education for sustainability should be a must. So far, I have come across some examples of the use of VR in school education like a virtual visit to museums and monuments but none in fashion education. VR in fashion has primarily been deployed by brands like Burberry and more recently Balmain to tell the story behind the collection’s inspiration.

Let’s zoom out from fashion for a bit. VR filmmaker, Chris Milk, called virtual reality, ‘the ultimate empathy machine’ in a TED talk in 2015. Unlike a regular movie, he said that VR films are high on viewer participation. I’m fascinated by this aspect as the journey through VR is personal. From a sideways glance to a walk towards the right side of the frame, a viewer charts her or his own course in the medium and discovers the content. Milk created a Samsung and United Nations Virtual Reality(UNVR) project sponsored documentary in 2015. Titled, Clouds Over Sidra, the film focused on the life of Syrian kids at Za’atari refugee camp, and it reportedly drove the viewers to pledge donations, twice the normal rate. More nonprofits like Greenpeace are using VR’s storytelling prowess. Through the Greenpeace Virtual Explorer app, one can go on a virtual expedition to the Amazon and the Arctic.

VR Sustainability Practices

In the context of fashion education for sustainability, VR-based modules can allow for immersive experiences across the fashion value chain. It can potentially help the brain to bridge the disconnect and distance between ugly industry practices and a beautiful piece of garment. A nuanced experience with a physical or sensory element(haptic) can create a long-lasting impact.

‘Empathy is the process; not the outcome’ was a line spoken by my media technologist and researcher Ainsley Sutherland. He taught me the power of VR which can define the mindset shift of a viewer through experience. It is reasonable to hope that the student will go back to their assignments with a new perspective. The content should not be restricted to gloom and doom, given that promising sustainability-driven initiatives in fashion are on the rise.

VR Sustainability Practices

Imagine students being able to go on VR field trips to a cotton field in India deploying sustainable practices to the facilities of a company like Orange Fibre that creates textiles from by-products of citrus juice. Not only will this be something that would be advantageous to student’s purse, but also they will get to see the process up, close and personal because the VR framework allows for a two-way live chat between the farmers or raw material innovators and students. The technology, often shunned for fear of isolation, can offer an opportunity to understand people across geographic, economic and cultural backgrounds better.

The Promise of VR to NextGen Fashion Designers

On a practical note, VR headsets are expensive and don’t make for a ubiquitous device. Only 4% of UK’s population owns VR hardware (source: YouGuv, 2017). Also, production of good quality VR content is high in cost and time. Currently, one of the more straightforward ways to bootstrap content creation involves shooting a 360-degree immersive video or making a 3D animation, to be viewed on Google cardboard, the cheapest (5-7quid) VR headset in the market.

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However, as a Washington Post article suggests, non-profits like Amnesty International UK and Pencils of Promise, are investing in this technology as it boosted their member sign-ups and donations. Another noteworthy initiative is VR for Good, backed by Oculus(a division of Facebook). The annual programme teams up filmmakers with non-profits and provides them with equipment and knowhow to create compelling VR content. Participants from 2017 were involved in campaigns like male cancer awareness and international justice. Fashion should inevitably make its way to that lineup.

I will be thrilled to see fashion schools apply this tool to their curriculum, especially my alma mater, London College of Fashion that places sustainability and digital learning at the heart of its agenda. I look forward to the next generation of fashion leaders mainstreaming sustainability with style.

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Molshree Vaid

Molshree is a fashion consultant and researcher based in London. With a background in fashion retail, she is currently focussing on projects that propel the sustainability agenda into the mainstream.