Oct. 15, 2007
Cornell helps launch first academic program in social responsibility in apparel industry
Social responsibility is never out of fashion. Yet, poor working conditions and disregard for the environment are endemic to clothing and shoe factories around the world. Cornell apparel design professors think it is high time to change that and have helped to develop a set of courses on social responsibility in the apparel industry.
Ten one-credit courses in Socially Responsible Apparel Business have been launched online this semester for graduate students, and with permission, undergraduates, at Cornell, University of Delaware and Colorado State University. The program, which addresses labor and environmental issues in global supply chains for the apparel, textile and footwear industries, will be available internationally after its first year.
"The program is a way we can multiply the effect of our efforts to transform the apparel industry to be more socially responsible," says Suzanne Loker, Cornell professor of fiber science and apparel design in the College of Human Ecology, who has been key in developing and coordinating the inter-campus program for the past four years. "Engaging students in the effort to promote socially responsible practices in the apparel industry is the most likely method to effect change."
In developing the courses, Loker and Charlotte Jirousek, Cornell associate professor of fiber science and apparel design, and their program colleagues visited manufacturing apparel sites in the United States and abroad, including Hong Kong, Turkey, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Eastern Europe.
The coursework is grounded on principles of the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary international effort to support human rights, labor and the environment among companies, labor and civil society groups and various U.N. agencies.
"The courses embrace all aspects of social responsibility in the industry, including sustainability, environmental stewardship, sourcing of materials and responsibility, green processes and materials, human rights and labor management relations, innovative practices, visionary leadership and social change, all within the various cultural contexts," says Jirousek.
Loker, who just completed co-teaching the program's first courses, for example, focused on supply chains in the industry and the challenges for socially responsible practices in such areas as ownership, globalization and outsourcing.
"Being from India, which is a sourcing hub for many production activities, I have seen laborers exploited to meet demands of owners just to be in the race of making products at cheap prices," says Pankaj Rathi, a Cornell graduate student in textiles who took the course. "I wanted to learn more about socially responsible practices that can be employed in the apparel industry so that I can employ them when I graduate this December and start working in the industry. …I am now more focused towards socially responsible practices and will try my best to make everyone aware of them and help in making a better world."
Other courses underway this semester address working conditions and labor standards in apparel factories around the world and culture, labor practices and social responsibility in the apparel industry.
"In the long run we see this being offered to a wide range of students, not only at colleges and universities around the world but also to professionals in the industry, both here and abroad," says Jirousek. "It will be very exciting working with students across cultures as well as with subject matter that is international."
The program is supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Higher Education Grant Program.