Student communities as pioneers of responsibility – what we can all do

In the global clothing industry, everything is connected. The production chains of clothes are spread far and wide, and one single garment may have travelled around the globe multiple times. The production and dyeing of fibres, thread, and fabrics may have taken place in different parts of the world. The garment is sewn in yet another place, and finally it is packaged, shipped to the buyer and transported to the customer. Most of the time the consumer knows nothing about all these steps, and the country of origin that is printed on the label only tells you where the garment was sewn. Once the consumer has used the garment, the end-of-life textile is transported and recycled or destroyed. On top of all this, we also have the online shopping return circus and the transport and destruction of unsold merchandise. 

The consumer should be aware of the textile industry’s global network of and its ethical and ecological problems. These issues have been highlighted more and more in recent years. Through pressure from consumers and organisations, many things have already improved. More transparency is still needed in the textile industry, however, to put an end to issues like Uyghur forced labour and accidents in textile factories. More extensive change is also required in both people’s way of thinking and the production methods of companies in order slow down clothing consumption. The limited resources and carrying capacity of the Earth mean that things like cotton farming and the processing of textile waste cannot be increased endlessly.

The aim of the Sustainability holds us up, uphold sustainability project is to introduce university students to the sustainable development goals, and especially goal number 12, which focuses on sustainable consumption and production and on responsible consumption. The clothing industry is directly or indirectly linked to nearly all sustainable development goals. It’s the fourth most polluting industry, and human rights violations are rife. This means that the clothing industry is also closely connected to human rights. These connections will be discussed during workshops that the project is organising at universities throughout Finland.

Decision makers are in charge of the fulfilment of human rights and respecting the environment, but students also have power as active citizens and consumers. The global education provided at universities has a huge impact on all of society, as students will be active in different sectors in the future, and they will be putting the principles of sustainable development into practice. The advocacy work can start at university: students could encourage their universities and student unions to make more responsible procurement decisions. The aim of global education is to encourage students to think about the wider connections between things, which will also develop their critical thinking.

Even though the problems of the global textile industry sometimes feel huge, and one person’s ability to make a difference feels small, the solutions, or at least the steps we can take, are actually pretty simple: it’s worth upholding sustainability when buying clothes, too. In practice this means not treating clothes as consumer goods, but instead recognising their value and the huge amount of natural resources, energy, and human labour that went into manufacturing and transporting a piece of clothing. A garment is always handmade, and the production can’t be automated. Therefore it is worth using a garment for as long as possible and taking care of it correctly. Consumers also need information about which materials are sustainable and ecological. In addition to consumers’ personal responsibility, this also requires transparency and ecologically and ethically sustainable operating models from businesses, as well as extensive international cooperation.

Pipsa Niemi

Bachelor of Fashion and Clothing, Adult Education Teacher


You can take part in Pipsa Niemi’s workshops on the ecological and ethical issues in the clothing industry in different cities. Sign up for the workshops here (link opens a new window). 

This blog post has been published as part of the project Sustainability holds us up, uphold sustainability, run by SYL and eight student unions. The project will continue until the end of 2022.

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