MARCH 2013: Inspired by a Financial Times article on low-waste pattern cutting, Giles Jackson, co-founder of the Liberation Kilt Company, approached Juliana Sissons, lecturer and Designer-in-Residence at the V&A, with an unusual idea. “I had designed a collection of tartans for various social causes and asked if her students might be interested in doing something with them — an antidote of sorts to the usual industry project,” Giles recalls. “We met at the V&A tea rooms to explore how, using the tartans, students might be inspired to confront contemporary issues in creative ways. We needed a focus, and decided on human trafficking, which is even more pernicious and pervasive than most people think.”

Pilot projects at Brighton University and Nottingham Trent University engaged students in creating innovative designs confronting this critical issue. Bute Fabrics supplied the tartan swatches, and the Ethical Fashion Forum judged and awarded prizes to the winning teams.

BRIGHTON WINNING TEAM – GROUP STATEMENT

“Diamonds and palm oil are not typically associated with human trafficking. However, our research revealed that forced labour is widespread across various trades and goods. We focused on forced labour in the palm oil industry in Burma, Sierra Leone, and Malaysia, as well as in the diamond industry in Angola and Sierra Leone.

We aimed to shed light on these lesser-known associations with modern-day slavery. In the diamond industry, many women and young girls are trafficked from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Angola into diamond mining camps. Diamonds have also funded violent and protracted civil wars, inspiring the term ‘blood diamonds.’

The palm oil industry, often linked with veganism and healthy living, has ties to deforestation and slave labour. Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce the majority of the world’s palm oil, reportedly use forced, child, and trafficked labour.

Our group also explored the idea of branding. Research showed that many trafficked people are branded by their captors, often with a tattooed barcode, symbolizing their treatment as objects for sale. We incorporated barcodes into our designs, particularly in knit and weave, and created a QR code linking to the UN’s human trafficking leaflet.

After creating samples and designing collaborative outfits, we established a sub-brand, ‘Not a Commodity,’ to convey that people should not be viewed as commodities. We used the logo to create swing tags for our samples and garments, featuring a QR code that links to an online document about our project and human trafficking awareness. This could be expanded to include information about the Blueheart tartan and its campaign efforts.”

During the period 2017-2020 Norwich University, Manchester Metropolitan University, Wimbledon College of Arts, and LISAA School of Design in Paris joined the RTP community. We teamed up with UN House, Scotland, and the Human Trafficking Cross Party Group at the Scottish Parliament.

In 2021, coinciding with COP 26, we refocused on climate change, with students at UK and Chinese universities using the Keeling climate change tartan as inspiration. They explored a wide range of issues relating to climate denial, rising sea levels, ocean health, coral bleaching, water pollution, textile waste, nuclear waste, microplastics, packaging, climate adaptation, and the circular economy. Social issues came to the fore, raising questions of heritage, tradition, culture, gender, identity, ritual, community, and wellness. RTP work was showcased at a Scottish Leadership Institute event, and on the Arts Thread website.

India’s Pearl Academy joined RTP in 2022, followed by Japan’s Bunka Fashion College in 2023. The project scope broadened to include inequality (the Liberty Square tartan), the persecution of writers and artists of conscience (the Havel tartan), and nuclear proliferation (Yamaguchi tartan). Supported by a grant, RTP’s first global exhibition and symposium was held at Nottingham Trent University. And in 2024, for the first time, we began to see students exploring connections between issues (as examples, trafficking, censorship and nuclear proliferation).

Our contribution

Confronting contemporary global issues such as climate change, inequality, nuclear proliferation, and oppression in their work offers numerous benefits for art, textile, and fashion design students. Firstly, it fosters a deep sense of social responsibility and awareness, encouraging students to engage with the world around them meaningfully. This engagement can inspire more thoughtful and purpose-driven creations that go beyond aesthetics to make powerful statements.

Addressing these issues can also stimulate creativity and innovation. Students must think critically and inventively to represent complex and often abstract concepts through their designs. This process enhances problem-solving skills and can lead to groundbreaking approaches and techniques within their fields.

Moreover, incorporating global issues into their work, and collaborating closely with students at peer institutions around the world, helps them develop a global perspective. Students learn to appreciate the interconnectedness of societies and the impact of their work on various communities. This broadened viewpoint is invaluable in today’s globalized world and prepares students for international collaboration and careers.

From a practical standpoint, engaging with pressing issues can increase the relevance and marketability of students’ work. People are increasingly drawn to brands and artists who demonstrate a commitment to social and environmental causes. By aligning their work with these values, students can attract a more conscious audience and create more significant opportunities for their careers.

Additionally, this approach can foster empathy and emotional intelligence. As students explore and represent the experiences and struggles of others, they develop a deeper understanding and compassion for different perspectives. This emotional connection can enrich their personal and professional lives.

By integrating contemporary global issues into their work, students not only contribute to meaningful societal discourse but also enhance their own educational and professional development, making them more versatile, empathetic, and impactful creators. That is the goal!

Instructors