Shaping Sustainable Futures

Starting this semester, Academy of Art University is offering a graduate elective course, Sustainability & Society (FSH/GLA 648), to teach students the nuances of sustainability and the impact it carries for their future careers and lifestyles. 

Open to students from all disciplines, instructor Masha Birger explained that the online course covers all issues surrounding sustainability, from economic to environmental to social. 

Course content will be introduced through a view on the fashion industry, though Birger, who earned graduate degrees from Harvard and Columbia University and runs a sustainability consulting practice, emphasized sustainability is a “multi-dimensional topic.” She believes having a grasp on sustainability as a concept and solution can benefit students in the long-run. 

“Understanding sustainability will be key in solving many business and social problems in the future,” she said. “Many careers moving forward will have many elements of sustainability built into them, from climate change to labor rights to schools and corporate government.”


Sustainability & Society (FSH/GLA 648) instructor Masha Birger. Photo courtesy of Masha Birger.

That notion, according to Birger, holds especially true for artists and designers. 

“[Sustainability is] shaping our lifestyles, the way we live, the way we will be living and our future in society going forward,” she emphasized. “It’s very important, especially I think, for creative careers because they will be affecting that change.” 

Since 1998, the School of Fashion has offered a sustainability class that focused on responsible design. The curriculum offered students lectures from experts and visionaries in the field; tours of local farms and manufacturers that used sustainability practices; instruction on sourcing environmentally conscious materials and dyes and creative cutting to minimize waste.

The course encouraged students to find responsible solutions and think as innovative designers to raise awareness around a topic that has become a rising issue within the industry.

An M.F.A. fashion design graduate, Eden Slezin, premiered his sustainable menswear collection at New York Fashion Week last fall. “My designs should not bring further harm to the environment but instead improve the world we live in,” he stated.

“Our goal is to educate the next generation of fashion leaders in terms of the impact that the fashion industry has on the environment and upon society at a global level,” said Simon Ungless, executive director of the School of Fashion. “By placing educated and aware graduates into the industry, we can help drive and prepare the way for the transition to design and production with a conscience.” 

The Sustainability & Society course, however, tackles the topic from a big-picture perspective. Birger hopes students walk away with a foundation on how sustainability functions on a global scale, so that they may apply it on a micro level within their field, career or home.

Under Birger’s direction, this sustainability course follows the Academy’s belief that design fosters change. 

“This course helps develop a critical attitude … and I think it’s necessary for Academy graduates if it were to help them realize the social, environment, cultural changes that are urgently needed by industries that are just trying to reinvent itself,” she said. “I think it definitely adds value to the degree in that way.”