Member Spotlight: University of Delaware

Learn how the University of Delaware is using the Higg Index to teach the next generation of apparel and textile industry leaders

The University of Delaware is a founding member of the SAC, bringing over 20 years of sustainability experience to the Coalition through its Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies. UD is one of the key academic institutions arming the next generation of apparel and textile industry leaders with the knowledge required to address pivotal environmental and social challenges.

What environmental and/or social challenges are your primary focus?

Our sustainability education initiatives engage students as change agents and global citizens. We have embedded sustainability objectives and Higg Index training into our core courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, allowing our students to graduate with a solid understanding of the issues the industry is facing and a working knowledge of tools to assess and improve the industry. “On the ground” experiences prepare students to communicate and apply solutions to social and labor and environmental issues grounded in a global and cultural understanding of the industry. For example, students have traced the cotton supply chain from the fields in Texas to a factory in Guatemala and have worked side-by-side with students in Honduras to create design collections with sustainability at their core.


Faculty and students pursue research aimed at making an impact on social and labor and environmental issues from fiber to production to retail to end-of-life. We are pursuing solutions to environmental challenges that toxic chemicals used in textile production, water pollution from textile production, energy use and carbon emissions from production and transportation, and resource depletion in fiber production. Collaborative approaches to sustainable design innovation include examining methods of virtual prototyping to reduce waste in the sampling process. We are identifying new business and industry models for “world class” sustainable manufacturing and innovative sustainable supply chains from the cotton fields through retail. Research also includes examination of how buyer purchasing practices impact suppliers’ business and social and environmental sustainability performance. Studies related to public reporting have led to insights into the evolution and implications of transparency. Research with end consumers provides deep understanding of the potential as well as the limitations of the market in supporting sustainability.


Our engagement with stakeholders raises the bar in fashion and apparel education and research as we step out of the “Ivory Tower” as it currently exists in the global industry rather than sustainability as it exists in books and theory. We have engaged with a uniform manufacturer and an automaker to develop sustainable uniforms that could be delivered on time and meet the functional needs related to auto assembly. We are currently engaged with a nonprofit to develop solutions to a large textile waste stream while creating jobs for the disadvantaged individuals at the heart of their mission.

How does SAC Membership help you successfully participate in meeting the industry’s sustainability challenges?

UD’s Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies signed on as a founding member of SAC so that we could lend our 20 plus years of experience with sustainability to the organization’s goal of transforming the industry. The global meetings provide an excellent opportunity for networking that contributes to teaching examples, opportunities for collaborative and relevant research, and keeping abreast of the fast-paced changes in environmental and social compliance. Being part of SAC working groups allows us to collaborate with industry professionals in focused ways, contributing to how the industry tackles sustainability while also ensuring that our research and education efforts are relevant and focused on important problems.   Research involving the Higg Index has helped us identify sustainability challenges in small and large businesses as well as across supply chains.


In teaching, we are able to excite students with the exponential growth of the SAC membership and use of the Higg Index, and give them “real world” examples of how problems are being solved globally. We are currently leading an initiative where global academic experts in sustainability are collaborating in the development of foundational learning objectives that can be adopted by fashion education programs around the world. Supporting development of student learning in sustainability helps to change the industry from the inside out and will have important consequences in the industry’s path to sustainability.

As an SAC member, how has your organization contributed to the development of the Higg Index or any of the Coalition’s other ongoing projects?

As a founding member of the SAC, the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies has participated in all of the global meetings and has been actively involved in working groups that developed the social and labor modules for factories, brands, and retail: the Higg Index Web tool 2.0 and the Design Development tool. We also helped to develop early training tools that member companies can use to help their designers and developers understand the Higg Index. We were invited to participate in the organization’s futuring and systems innovation work that paved the way for SAC’s strategic plan and 2020 goals. We have also been part of the Adoption Council that is spearheading initiatives to broaden and deepen use of the Higg Index among SAC members and across the industry as a whole.

What environmental, social and/or labor practices used within the industry today (or currently being developed) were created with UD’s participation?

The Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies was an academic pioneer in research and education on sustainability in the apparel and textile industry. Our faculty led the way in research on environmentally and socially responsible consumer behavior. We introduced cradle to cradle design and green engineering principles into college curricula for apparel design and merchandising majors and have applied that approach and other environmental strategies such as design for disassembly, modular design, and localized production in apparel product development.


In 1999, we led the founding of Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Businesses (ESRAB) that emphasized increasing awareness and impact of the research and teaching of faculty engaged with social responsibility topics. Connections made through ESRAB have led to faculty collaborations on publications, grants, curriculum development, and initiatives that have broadened and deepened knowledge in the textile and apparel field about sustainability challenges and how they can be addressed.


In 2007 we launched our graduate certificate in socially responsible and sustainable apparel business that is taught online to students and industry professionals around the world. The first of its kind anywhere in the world, the program remains unique in developing skills to identify and manage design, product development, marketing, sourcing, and production for improved social and environmental performance.


With faculty on the board of directors of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and part of SAC’s social/labor working group, we have had an influential role in the inclusion of purchasing practices in the Higg Index social/labor brand module and the FLA’s Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing. As more and more brands and retailers address the impact of their purchasing practices, this will be a game-changer in social and environmental sustainability in the apparel industry.

How does SAC membership help academic institutions contribute to change at a broader, systemic level?

Academic scholars bring an important perspective for increased sustainability in the apparel and textile industry. We are highly informed by research and theory that can be used to provide context and guide the industry in tackling challenges. Through our academic endeavors we are able to research, design, create, and demonstrate practices, programs, and solutions that will shape the character of the apparel and textile industries in their evolution toward sustainability. Our voices, along with the diverse groups from the industry that the SAC brings together, have the collective power to lead the sustainability revolution and become a model for other industries in the future.

Marsha Dickson, Huantian Cao, Kelly Cobb, and Martha Carper

Professors at the University of Delaware

Learn more about the University of Delaware Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies at

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