In a recent interview, Turner Prize nominee Gary Hume shared this self-effacing appraisal: “I can’t claim to be an environmental activist,” he said. “I’m more like 10 percent activist. But I think there are lots of us who are 10 percent activists, and if you put a lot of 10 percent together it begins to add up.”
Hume’s humble assessment recounted his 2019 experiment—conducted ahead of his imminent exhibition in New York—to ship 31 artworks from the U.K. to the U.S. not by air, but by sea. A 13-day passage versus an eight-hour flight. A decision apt to make gallerists wince, if not paper over the windows. Hume, though, was committed. He commissioned a scientist to chronicle the voyage and discovered two remarkable outcomes: significant cost reductions and a 96 percent decrease of carbon energy emissions.
Hume dared to confront what some term the pièce de résistance of modern society—convenience—with conscience, and his counterintuitive example assails the conventional assumption that faster is better. Truly, the tenets of circular leadership—a singular mindset that ignites interdisciplinary innovation—are preeminent at SCAD, as we hone individual initiative into prescient people power. In the same sense, circular leadership holds the key to fashion’s sustainable future. Collective action, unconventional wisdom, empathetic introspection—these are patterns for all seasons. Here’s how we style them together, and light up tomorrow’s runways today.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart,” noted Carl Jung, whose wisdom invites fashion houses and the industry at large to not only reflect, but to dream. The best leaders—circular leaders—model empathy, purpose, and possibility to foster imagination. They create spaces for constructive conversations. Welcome introspection. Listen. And develop solutions through receptive hearts, despite dire circumstances.
We’ve all heard the dismal statistics: fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions account for around 10 percent of global totals; 80 to 150 billion garments are produced annually, and most languish in landfills. Stark figures, truly—and yet indicators that seem somewhat squishy. In January—after an analysis that questioned widely cited data—Vox challenged the industry to foment further studies to decipher the depth of fashion’s footprint with greater precision and transparency. While some might consider such a notion critical, I glimpse an opportunity—especially during the pandemic, a tipping-point moment for change, if ever there was one.
As the president of the world’s largest art and design university—where research ascends to more elevated and pragmatic forms—I continually shepherd in-depth studies on everything from the latest fashion production technology (we’ll come back to that) to the evolution of the runway show (check out Fashion in Frame, our brilliant Bees’ exhibition of vibrant collections and virtual connection). Throughout the pandemic, SCAD leaders and I have called more than 20,000 students and alumni to touch base, offer encouragement, and foster a feedback-and-idea portal. I coined this our “Peace of Mind” initiative and, at SCAD, this is how we make “best” even better. Through the initiative, we’ve developed and improved SCADnow hybrid instructional environments and created interdisciplinary SCADextra workshops—more than 475 to date—that not only bolster our Bees’ business acumen and technical savvy but provide hubs for ideas and socialization. This is how SCAD has ensured educational sustainability during COVID-19. And the lessons are transcendent.
Consider GM, that weeks ago shocked the automotive industry by announcing the company would be emission-free by 2035. We’re talking king-cab pick-up trucks and supersized SUVs—what amounts to a complete rebrand, one surely born from a read of Tesla’s tea leaves and myriad client surveys. Significant, nonetheless. For an example closer to home, look at Levi Strauss’ 2025 Water Action Strategy—the famous fashioner of our favorite 501s aims to cut water usage by 50 percent in high-stress areas and, ultimately, “use only as much water as replenishes naturally.” And just last fall, Stella McCartney—whose most eco-friendly collection to date recently graced WWD’s pages—shared her A-to-Z Manifesto, a lexicon that lauds more conscientious consumerism.
Regardless of industry or instance, my point remains: when we ask the right (sometimes frank) questions, we can imagine possibilities and realize outcomes. Circular leadership is our North Star.
When SCAD Bees venture inside Number Nine—the SCAD School of Fashion’s newest building, a sustainably rehabilitated property—they are greeted by resplendent natural light. Iconic, large-scale photographs by the great Karl Lagerfeld. Mannequins garbed in creations of classmates. And when they perfect zero-waste pattern cutting in Number Nine’s leading-edge digital textile printing lab—perhaps after a discussion of fast fashion’s foibles—they quickly grasp two realities: SCAD’s core value of preservation and upcycling. Waste not, want not. The greenest building is the one that’s already built.
In the words of our Bees, the Number Nine experience is, “Wow—meta!” In meaningful ways, Number Nine vividly projects and propels SCAD’s priorities. With its forthcoming Maroquinerie De Louviers in Normandy—scheduled to open in 2022—Hermès strikes a similar chord. The building, future home to the leather and saddlery division, will consist of natural materials—wood and brick—and maximize natural light. Trees removed during construction will be replanted in nearby gardens. And the artisans destined to work within will further Hermès’ emphasis on exceptional and durable products, readily restored and repaired. In this way, Hermès’ luxury goods mirror its facilities: wallets that wear the warmth and patina of time like buildings that weather the elements of life and evolve over generations—in the tradition of architecture designed to age in place. Still, beyond the bounds of buildings, brands can do even more to project their visions.
At SCAD, we educate the fashion industry’s leaders in the classroom and studio, of course, yet we also equip our own Green Eileens with the capacity to create mega-change. Look no further than alumna Danielle Elsener’s award-winning A020 system that eliminates 15 percent of fabric waste from typical garment production. And consider SCAD alumna Eleanor Turner—more on her later—and her sustainably focused company, The Big Favorite. From its name to its mission (recycle those undergarments!), Eleanor’s brand is all about adaptive reuse—”The Big Favorite” was her grandfather’s overalls label long ago.
And through SCADpro Fund, our university’s venture that invests in vanguard alumni companies, SCAD is proud to help Eleanor realize her vision. I know well the value of dimensional infrastructure—the physical, intellectual, and ideological hallmarks we align to achieve, enhance, and exhibit our values. Circular leaders embody their brands, just as they galvanize uniquely talented individuals into communities of change and coach consumers to become collaborators.
The greenest businesses are those that are the most sustainable, that continue to thrive for generations—which is why The Big Favorite and Eleanor’s model are so apt. Of course, her materials are natural, and can be recycled and upcycled. Yes, she has delightfully catchy marketing hooks—“Understuff is underrated, and The Big Favorite has some pretty [big] plans for these [small] clothes.” Truly, though, what she exemplifies is the ability to transform customers into stakeholders—teammates! And, as SCAD Associate Chair, Business of Beauty and Fragrance Meloney Moore and I discussed recently, part of the responsibility for sustainability lies with every consumer.
So, Eleanor has made it noble to mail your old-but-clean undergarments for reincarnation, and she has launched a brand that conjures community and conviviality. There is no finger-wagging lecture on the virtues of sustainability; rather, proponents of The Big Favorite tap into a bit of irreverent fun in their quest to save the planet.
Eleanor has done what the very best circular leaders do: expand the Jupe dining table, pull up a few more chairs, and invite even more friends to join the revelry. At SCAD, we call this collective genius, and it’s baked into everything we do—from SCADpro teams of multiple majors and diverse disciplines to SCAD SERVE public service opportunities that address community needs of food, shelter, and clothing. To echo Gary Hume, we find our fellow “ten-percenters”—and help them realize even greater callings.
Which brings me to my last and most important light-bulb moment: in our current students at SCAD, in our new entrants into fashion’s ranks, in our population of socially conscious consumers, we have greater (read: unprecedented) potential to weave sustainability into our values. According to a recent McKinsey study, more than half of consumers consider themselves “activists.” Meanwhile, 62 percent of Gen Z-ers prefer to buy from sustainable brands.
As SCAD Fibers Professor Liz Sargent says, “We can use this moment as a catalyst for thinking about our relationship with materials—and it’s really important not to waste it.” To my friends in fashion: we don’t have to find our people—they’ve found us. And they’re calling for conscientious and collaborative leadership. Let’s hold hands together all around and each do our 10 percent—and more.
Paula Wallace is the President and Founder of SCAD.