Faculty Spotlight: Amy Williams, On Sustainability as a Strategic Design Principle and the Future of the Fashion Industry

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The additional layer of sustainability for the design process has actually expanded the importance of critical thinking.

Amy Williams

Photo: Amy Williams

For Professor Amelia “Amy” Williams, sustainability is not a trend; it’s an unwavering strategic design principle and it is the responsibility of each creator, entrepreneur, innovator and leader. Graduating with a BFA in fashion design from Parsons School of Design at The New School, Williams embarked on a career as a fashion designer, guiding products through every stage of the development cycle. While her designs became a reality in factories all over the world, they also gave form to ethical and environmental concerns about the conditions experienced by the toiling workforce and the waste streams created by an industry fixated on volume sales. With growing apprehension for the future, Williams transitioned into academia and earned her EdD in organizational change and leadership from USC’s Rossier School of Education, focusing her research on sustainability leadership.

As a professor, Williams encourages her students to embrace “do-no-harm” as a design tenet and to engage in thinking critically about the broader implications of their designs. This mindful approach extends to her work as a consultant for MAPxGuild, where she guides leaders to embrace creativity and fearlessness in pursuit of fostering positive and sustainable outcomes.

Below, Professor Williams discusses the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts (or lack thereof), the importance of mindfulness in decision-making, and why the online MS in Sustainability Management can validate future sustainability leaders.

How has your background in fashion design influenced your approach to teaching sustainable innovation?

I began my career(s) as a NYC-schooled fashion designer. I conceptualized, ideated, and manufactured clothing worldwide. Translated, that means, I was involved across an intricate value chain, arguably a key decision-making impact link in a complex industry supply chain. I made the fiber, materials, and process choices for the development of the products that I designed for the consuming public (B2B2C market – wholesale to retail to consumer market). As the designer and design director for numerous labels, I worked with artisans, craftspeople, and trades people in their studios and factories across the globe. I witnessed product manufacturing reality in real time. Factories worldwide have a brutal sameness experienced by the workforce toiling in the efforts of apparel generation to be consumed by peoples the workers can only imagine. The firsthand factory knowledge became foundational for my teaching – whether guiding design practice or leadership strategy.

What inspired your transition from the fashion industry to academia, and how has this shift enriched your perspective on design education?

I love the art of design. Conceptualization of design is at odds with the growth demand generated by volume sales and distribution leading to eventual waste streams. I had been trained to generate “more”, and I did build hundreds of thousands of items. When I became a mother, I looked forward with growing concern for a thriving planet. I began my academic career with the idea of sharing what I had seen so that my students could work forward from the idea of doing-no-harm being a design tenet – a strategic design absolute. Early on, this specifically meant that the designers themselves would not tolerate the abuses that existed in studio and factories settings alike. As time marched forward, I pushed the students to consider their engagement impact. Where, how and who they engaged with their efforts as well as what they left behind became as important as the artifacts they built. Designing for more-stuff is not engaging fully in the process of design – designing is defined as a deceitful practice whereas to design is to create, construct according to plan (Merriam online May 11, 2024). The additional layer of sustainability for the design process has actually expanded the importance of critical thinking. Designers and those involved with sustainability at large tend to be inventive problem solvers. Working with students who want to evolve processes, who seek to do their best without negative impacts is exciting.

As a design ideation professor, what key principles do you instill in your students to foster responsible and ethical innovation?

Responsibility requires understanding of the required resources and the obligation to do one’s very best work, mindfully. Basing the decision making on values, purpose, and intention helps to foster ethical decision making during the innovation process. Building beautiful requires responsible engagement.

The key principles are as follows:

  • curiosity
  • flexibility
  • humility
  • informed decision-making
  • impact (outcomes) understanding

What have been some of your most rewarding accomplishments in your career so far?

My former students’ successes – following their career paths as they make positive change has been fantastic. My sustainability leadership engagement in support of women’s success is giving me hope for the future.

Students in the MSM program are taught to discover approaches to integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria into various aspects of an organization. In your opinion, what role do organizations play in promoting environmental stewardship?

Organizations are the gate keepers. If there is to be environmental and social/cultural stewardship, it is the corporations, institutions, and governments that will have the final say. The people, who are a part of these organizations, must raise awareness, understanding, and engagement. The stakeholders and the shareholders alike must be aligned in intention to enable the acceptance of and ultimate implementation of any stewardship actions. Revisioning of business structures, including assessment metrics and reporting will be part of the next steps forward for stewardship at all levels. The bold actions in 2023 announced by the Chouinard family for the future of Patagonia and the planet can serve as a hopeful organizational model.

What are some key findings from your research on sustainability leadership that have informed your professional practice?

As I peeled back the layers of who and what, I was surprised and then not surprised to find that many of the founders/advocates/instigators of change action were women. As my research expanded, the reality of who-and-how unfolded to match my experiences. Traditional industry practice built on status quo practice behaviors supported the career success of designing men (Stokes, 2015 & 2017). Women found their way to sustainability practices because of the degradation they saw (heard and smelled), and not surprisingly, banded together with others who had similar experiences, giving rise to many of the most impactful sustainability organizations across the globe. What I found is that many of these same women used their belief structures to light their way forward. These women did the hard work because of what they had witnessed and because of the humans they engaged with daily – be they their own children, or the teams (and their communities) they worked with all over the world. The actions employed for profits have long driven the industries we support. The outcomes we have been trained to desire have given us the reality we see today. I found that sustainability leaders have blended leadership traits aligning with adaptive, transactional and servant leadership based upon authentic, mindful, and values-based understandings. Sustainability minded leaders at all stages in their career practice are needed to speak up, share out and inspire action across workforces, society, and cultures.

In what ways have you seen sustainability management change over your tenure in the industry? And how do you predict the industry will change in the future?

The United States fashion industry was in denial up until 2013. The trade organizations that directed the overall engagement of the industry stated that sustainability was a trend in the industry, not a reality for practice. In 2013, the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza Factory collapsed and over 1100 Bangladesh apparel workers were crushed inside their workplace. The labels found in the ruble of the destroyed building were from huge brands from the United States and Europe. There was no denying the truth of the impact of the industry’s denial. After the disaster, the public decried the industry’s lack of awareness and response to sustainability measures. Workers marched for safe workplaces, for social justice (end to slavery, gender and race abuse, etc.), in addition raising the call for reduction of environmental resource incursion. Today, not enough has been done and many brands still believe that “sustainability” is too expensive for their implementation. I think that the newest SNL skit has it very right!  I wish I had a crystal ball so I could make a brilliant decree for the future of fashion. (Of course, I would want it to be a positive statement!) I predict that the fashion industry will face more shame before it comes to the realization that it is far less important than it thinks it is. I am concerned that the industry’s “ahha” is going to be another too little and too late response. While I love designing as a creative practice, I believe the path forward is for the industry to slow the manufacturing cycles to a pace built on consumer need not the false desire crafted by advertising and marketing volume demands.

How is pursuing a master’s degree in sustainability management beneficial for a prospective student’s career?

The MS degree in Sustainability Management will help validate the emergent sustainability leader. Most of the people working in the field today are coming to practice with experiential and practical knowledge – few people working in the sustainability field hold graduate degrees that address the implementing necessary change. The world’s organizations need educated, science grounded teams to help move sustainability understanding forward. I believe that holding the MS in SMGT from our institution will enable our graduates to land the change leadership roles to impact results. They will be the ones hired to develop the new structures, systems, and actions because of the rich curriculum that is focused on critical thinking for the futures.

Learn more about the Online Master of Sustainability Management program.

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