DCI, Fashion research, international

Challenging ‘fashion as usual’ – exploring supply chains, ethics and international development

This post is by Lauren Solomon, a Doctorate of Creative Industries (DCI) candidate. Lauren’s expertise in the fashion industry has led her to lead and work on a variety of local and international projects that focus on capacity development of marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and communities. Her research has taken her to communities in Malawi and Cambodia, where she has investigated the complex relationship between fashion supply chains, questions of ethics and international development. Lauren’s aim is to develop projects that create positive intervention in the supply chain.

I’m a fashion practitioner and emerging academic.

My experience has made me a bit of a jack of all trades, I’ve done everything from working on costumes for cruise ships (whilst sailing the Med…) to business support for fashion pattern companies and running a team of creative practitioners to put on events in London.

My focus shifted in 2010, when I started working on projects which challenged fashion as usual by questioning the unethical and unsustainable practices which had become inherent within the global industry. This interest was solidified in 2012 when I worked for a social enterprise working with a community in Malawi, Africa. Spending some time in Malawi, I witnessed the many challenges faced by social enterprises, while also experiencing the reward of being involved in something that could have a positive impact on people involved in fashion production. This led me to start the DCI – I could see the potential for using academic research as a tool to inform industry practices, build on my existing skills and define my own path as a practitioner.

My DCI research –  a training program for garment workers in  Cambodia

My research explores global fashion supply chains and the impact these have on local sites of production in developing countries. I have investigated the complex relationship between fashion supply chains, questions of ethics and international development.

After conducting fieldwork in Cambodia in 2015, I developed a training program for garment workers to build their capacity in problem solving and critical thinking. This was developed because many garment workers in Cambodia have a very limited education and are stuck in mundane jobs, unable to progress in the industry or move into less exploitative employment.

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I just returned from running this training program as a pilot project in Cambodia. We taught a 6 day course to 25 union representatives who work in the garment industry. It was the first training course any of our participants had been to that had been longer than 1 day in duration in the 20 years the union has been operating.

With limited training the union representatives generally have a very low capacity for negotiating with management or solving complex industry issues which they face in their factories daily. The program exceeded expectations for everyone involved (including me!) – our participants were eager to learn, quickly adapted to new material and the improvements we saw in the six days were outstanding. Participants increased their confidence and capacity to deal with industry issues and we were overwhelmed by their positivity and recognition for the importance of capacity training and education. I am now in write-up phase and hope to grow my project and develop new opportunities for industry / academic collaborations in ethics and sustainability initiatives in the creative industries.

Tips for HDR students

  • My DCI has involved international collaborations with multiple stakeholders, to make it successful relationship building and management has and continues to be really important.
  • Having an industry mentor is an amazing thing – this is something pretty unique to the DCI but I would say regardless of what path of HDR you are taking having a mentor is excellent, don’t be afraid to contact someone you look up to in your industry or think outside the box a bit – my mentor is from the Community Development sector so gave me a unique insight and perspective on my project.
  • My project has been expensive, it has involved multiple trips overseas and in order for me to get it off the ground I had to spend a lot of time grant writing and crowd funding to make it happen (see: https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/empowering-women-in-the-cambodian-garment-industry). Although frustrating at times, this has given me valuable skills for the future and I would recommend building networks who can support and assist you with these activities – through the DCI I met a great group of people who have been invaluable during this process. This leads me to my next tip…
  • Make friends with your cohort and faculty! We have since collaborated professionally and continue to catch up – having people going through the same thing as you makes such a difference. Whether you need a coffee break or a stiff drink – they will make life better while you are in writing hell and trust me, everyone gets there.
  • Take it one step at a time, I never thought I was capable of doing a Doctorate – it wasn’t a natural progression from honors, so at first it was a steep learning curve being back at uni. Set achievable deadlines and break it into small chunks – it will feel a whole lot more achievable – I also enjoy a good to do list, and get really excited by ticking things off (yes I need to get a life…), but it is amazing what a difference something as small as this can make when you feel like you are staring at a mountain.
  • Do as much as possible whilst doing HDR – conferences, presentations, papers etc. It makes you be more concise about your research ideas and each time you become more confident presenting. It also looks good in academic CVs.

My final word of advice: be ambitious, work on a project that inspires you and has impact. Trust me sometimes you will hate it, (even if you love the topic), so pick something that challenges you and that you enjoy – I think I would struggle if my project didn’t do both of these at once!

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