Denise Green has been taking fashion design and management majors to meet with and learn from textile and apparel workers in India since 2015, so they can see the human side of apparel production. On the next trip, she plans on getting them hands-on experience as well.
Green, a recipient of an Engaged Course Grant from the College — in partnership with the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement — has taught a textiles and apparel course every other year in the fall, for a total of three times since 2015. A major part of the course is an immersive experience, visiting apparel manufacturers in India during Cornell’s winter break to gain an understanding of the entire garment supply chain. The last trip was in January 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was brewing.
“The alumni who went on the trip continue to reach out and talk about how meaningful that experience was,” says Green, who also teaches graduate students in the field of fiber science and apparel design. “I really enjoyed teaching that class and leading the field trip, but it was really more of a tour than an engaged learning opportunity.”
I want to be able to provide my students with an understanding of companies that are doing it right or are working toward doing it better.
To create that engaged learning opportunity, Green is partnering with Brandix, a multinational apparel manufacturer based in Sri Lanka. Brandix has an apparel manufacturing park in India, which Green’s class visited in 2020. This semester, she is spending part of her sabbatical visiting Brandix facilities in Sri Lanka to observe its manufacturing processes and find engaging experiences for students for the next visit.
“Being able to observe and participate in the actual production lines is really important,” Green says. “It is engaged learning because you’re actually seeing it live and learning how to operate the different machines. You’re not watching it on a video or reading about it in a book. You’re witnessing it, and you’re engaging with the people and seeing the faces of the sewing operators who make the clothes.”
Students and industry sharing their knowledge
Brandix’s human resources transformation officer, Mariam Omar ’17, is one of Green’s former students. The two have been brainstorming about the knowledge exchange the partnership can bring to both the students and Brandix. For example, during the next trip, students would gain knowledge of the manufacturing process, including how problems are dealt with in real-time, while Brandix would gain insight into the students’ product development knowledge.
“The College is always encouraging professors and students to explore beyond traditional manufacturing and design practices. Professor Green’s natural dye studio is a really good example of this,” Omar says. “At Brandix, we are always thinking about scalability in production, and this can sometimes limit our thinking. So having a connection to the university to understand what students are learning and working on, can expand our thinking and innovative capability. This is a really great opportunity for Brandix.”
Green and Omar are also working on what Omar calls a “project-based exchange” where, for example, students would come up with an idea to repurpose a product with a distinct defect that’s been manufactured but, for some reason, can’t be sold. The “upcycled” product would hide any evidence of proprietary branding, while still being functional.
“Brandix could provide us with the product details, perhaps even ship some to us during the fall semester, and the students could work in teams to figure out a way to create a new product from the unsold product, and ultimately divert waste,” Green explained. “Then, when we travel to Sri Lanka, we could be part of putting it into production.”
Prioritizing sustainability and well-being
That upcycling project would dovetail with some of Brandix’s existing sustainable processes that Green has seen first-hand: LEED-certified facilities, net zero carbon certifications, proper wastewater treatment, and other upcycled products.
“I want to be able to provide my students with an understanding of companies that are doing it right or are working toward doing it better,” Green says, noting that ‘doing it right’ also applies to Brandix’s efforts around workplace environment, providing mental health support for workers when they need it.
Each shift has counselors available along with workers who take over on the production line for an employee who needs to see a counselor. Green says these are radical efforts in apparel manufacturing and help to destigmatize mental health access.
Students will definitely benefit from an interactive learning experience that gives them the opportunity to understand different work cultures and work environments.
“Whether a sewing operator, fabric cutter, or someone filling another role in the garment factory, this is dignified work and people should be treated with dignity,” Green says. “We don’t see that very often in the fashion industry.”
Green sees studying Brandix’s mental health efforts as a way to incorporate interdisciplinary concepts like human development, psychology, or anthropology, for those majoring in fashion design and management, which is one of the undergraduate programs in Human Centered Design.
With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, both Green and Omar hope this enhanced course will be offered in the 2023-24 academic year, when travel restrictions and course expectations may be different. With a lack of apparel manufacturing in the U.S., Green says, this course and the trip is extremely beneficial for students.
“Students will definitely benefit from an interactive learning experience that gives them the opportunity to understand different work cultures and work environments,” Omar says. “Additionally, getting to know people within the industry’s vast global supply chain and forming real relationships will be a stepping stone to more collaboration and innovation within the apparel industry.”