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SFA: Introducing the world's first dedicated online course in Sustainable Apparel

London - Today it is virtually unthinkable to launch a fashion brand without taking sustainability into account. The increasing challenges faced by the global fashion industry range from natural resource depletion to environmental damage and degradation and increasing social inequality amongst workers. In addition, fair labour practices, water usage, chemical management and greenhouse emissions within the supply chain need to be taken into account.

With so many different aspects to take into account, understanding and implementing sustainable strategies within any company can seem daunting. But it is also exactly why Michael Schragger created the Sustainable Fashion Academy (SFA) in 2008 - to help the industry overcome the environmental and social issues at hand. As the first educational institute to offer a dedicated online course on sustainable apparel, namely ‘The Sustainability Fundamentals‘, in addition to classical training, it should come as no surprise that the SFA has taught thousands of fashion professionals around the globe. The SFA counts leading companies such as H&M, Inditex and Filippa K among its clients and encourages all apparel professionals interested in learning more about sustainability to take its online course.​

FashionUnited took a moment to speak with Schragger, the CEO and founder of SFA to learn more about its course offering and the role they play in transforming the fashion industry's landscape.

SFA: Introducing the world's first dedicated online course in Sustainable Apparel

FashionUnited: How did you develop the online course ‘The Sustainability Fundamentals’? What does the course look like?

Michael Schragger: “The Sustainability Fundamentals course was designed to provide apparel professionals with the base knowledge and tools needed to understand key sustainability challenges, what their own company is doing to address them and what they can do to contribute to the change. It’s divided into six different modules and each course runs for 11 weeks. If participants complete the core curriculum of the course, which is 10 hours, then they get a certificate. The course begins with materials and moving onto textile dyeing, finishing, manufacturing to educating consumers and designing sustainably.​"​

"It took some time to figure out what was the best way to organise the course. But we quickly discovered that when you are working with brands and retailers in the fashion industry, you need to break up the material based on how they work with it. So it was easier to break down the modules following the product development lifecycle. In addition, we also have fantastic relationships with a number of sustainability experts who are very eager to share their knowledge. We reached out to these people in our network, who we have either consulted for before, or trained their employees in live classroom settings, to advise us on the modules content. A big part of building the courses involved working with these experts, and in certain cases the experts became the individuals sharing their own cases within the courses modules. 98 percent of the time people we contacted were more than willing to step up and be a part of the course development because they want to get their message out as part of their sustainability mission.”

In addition to offering the ‘The Sustainability Fundamentals’,the SFA also offers classroom training and has developed tailored-made courses for companies such as H&M. Which do you think is the most effective way of learning?

“Research shows that it a combination of the two, blended learning, that offers the best impact. On one hand, classroom training offers a networking component which we have yet to build into our online courses. But this is very valuable as people get to meet individuals from other companies and experts live, and that kind of relationship building does not happen as easily online. In terms of content, individuals who take a one or two day course in a classic classroom setting receive handouts and materials to take home and review afterwards. But that also has its limits, as there is no way to follow up or redo the learning experience you have had, which makes it it's pretty clear how essential the digital compound is to learning.”

SFA: Introducing the world's first dedicated online course in Sustainable Apparel

"Online learning provides a level of nuance which let’s students go back and review things again and again, while providing access to tools and links that are easy to revisit. It provides so much more flexibility that is not available in classical learning. In this case online learning also lets you train hundreds and hundreds of people at the same time versus 20 or 30 at a time. You get a different scale from taking the online course as well and learn at your own pace. However that doesn’t mean that not adding a live, classroom component is not valuable. It is very valuable, but the nature of people's work lives, especially in the fashion industry, means they need such information in small bits to balance with their daily work.”

What is one of the main advantages online teaching offers over offline learning?

“The reason we like the option of online teaching is because we want to reach so many more people, which is why we are moving in that direction. It is a tool that lets us reach everyone from Asia and Africa to Europe and the Americas which is our goal.”

“Right now one of our biggest advantages is that we can scale up this knowledge and implement it into our courses and spread it to the globe industry. Many of my colleagues work with different companies on their strategies, but I think that one of our unique contributions as an educational institute is being able to scale knowledge that we work with every day and package it in a way that can be absorbed by everyone around the world at their own pace.”

SFA: Introducing the world's first dedicated online course in Sustainable Apparel

How do you assess students progress during the ‘The Sustainability Fundamentals’ online course?

“You do want to be tested as an adult learner, but the online course’s assessments are designed to force people to really reflect on the knowledge they gained and how they could use it in their own work. The assignments are designed to encourage participants to collaborate with their colleagues, because learning is social, and they do not have that live classroom component. The assignments were also devised to ensure what they were learning could then be applied to their own business or situation. Based on our own evaluation, these types of assignments and assessments are equally important because they ensure the individual is able to figure out what it means to them and to their company.”

What type of feedback have you received from companies who have followed your courses over the years?

“We get anything from how inspirational the courses are, to how it has impacted their personal lives, to helping people understand the various aspects of product sustainability and how it relates to their own product development. People also say the course helped them build a language between the team members that wasn’t there before, and that its been crucial to pushing their sustainability agenda forward in the company.”

“In some cases even, actual concrete projects come out of them, such as redesigning a certain product so it’s more sustainable, and people say how great it is to move from ideas to action. The feedback is constantly excellent and that makes us pretty confident we are doing the right thing.”

How often do you update the course’s individual module content?

“As with any educational offering you need to constantly monitor the modules to make sure they are always up to date. Of course we can improve some of the video quality, which we do regularly, so like any product we are constantly improving it. In addition, we’ve received some wishes to create a ‘Deep Dive’ (an optional module on the Fundamentals course) just on materials, so we are looking into that. Of course we can also offer more in-depth knowledge on other modules for those interested.”

“The forum is an area we’d also like to develop further. We would like to boost the interaction between students and graduates, so we can begin to build a community of practitioners who are connected to each other and share ideas. The current online forum in the Fundamentals course is rather limited at the moment, but students are asked to share ideas via the forum on how they would improve Filippa K second-hand store in Module 4. It’s also a place where they can see each other students ideas - it’s really incredible how much knowledge comes out of there. But in the future we would like to have a more active forum which links people beyond the course in sharing ideas and best practices and questions.”

SFA: Introducing the world's first dedicated online course in Sustainable Apparel

Who should take the ‘The Sustainability Fundamentals’? online course in your opinion?

“We are crossing our fingers that there are a lot more people out there who would like to take the course as a base for their work. Although we mainly work with medium to large size apparel companies, we hope to appeal to smaller companies, micro-businesses, freelancers, graduates and students as well as NGOs and those working in marketing and communications, who wish to learn more about sustainability as the course has a much broader appeal than we first thought.”

“The next ‘The Sustainability Fundamentals’ course is set to start on April 3rd and we are set to launch one more online course later in the year in fall, maybe two depending on the demand. If we can fit two courses in the fall then we will do that, as it makes it easier for people with more options, but as long as we can offer a number of open courses during the year we can give people more flexibility.”​

Photos: Courtesy of the Sustainable Fashion Academy