An avid bicycler, Marsha Dickson was initially drawn to the field of education because she envisioned having summers free to pursue cycling races. Upon enrolling in graduate school, however, it quickly became apparent that the idea of having summers off is a myth: most university faculty work around the calendar. Quickly, her focus shifted from social racing to social responsibility.
"Luckily, once I got started in graduate school," Dickson recalls, "I realized that the opportunity to pursue answers to difficult questions and to share those with others in ways that are potentially career and/or life-changing was really exciting."
Fast forward to the present time and Dickson is recognized as a pioneer in the field of social responsibility. She is the founder of Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Business (ESRAB) and a member of the board of directors of the Fair Labor Association.
Since 2005, Dickson has served as professor and chair of the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware (UD). She teaches courses on consumer and activist roles in social responsibility, social responsibility in factories and the role organizational culture plays in supporting social responsibility.
Her goal is to provide students with an understanding of social issues that impact the apparel industry - and how they are being addressed - as well as give them skills to critically assess these practices and generate new ideas for tackling them in the future. Students have been appreciative of the efforts.
"I had a recent e-mail from a student who just finished a class of mine and she said, 'Thanks for a great class. You opened my eyes and my mind!' That exactly describes the take away I want students to have," says Dickson.
A passionate approach
Dickson began conducting research related to fair trade while in graduate school, after seeing the powerful effect of fair trade organizations on people with limited options, who are desperately poor. Eventually, aware of the broad impact of big brands and retailers on the global population, she switched her primary focus of work to the mainstream apparel industry.
When she began teaching in the early 1990s, brands and retailers didn't exactly appear socially responsible to the general public. Many would call it the sweatshop era. Nike and other brands were continually making headlines and the news was not good.
"There was a lot of denial of responsibility in the industry: 'We didn't know, we don't own the factory, etc,' " says Dickson. "Most brands and retailers now understand that working conditions in factories making their products are their responsibility and that it is terribly risky not to do something."
Dickson believes that educators need to provide students with an understanding of socially responsible business policies and practices and how the decisions each makes in his or her future job will influence the company's ability to reach its social responsibility goals. "In teaching about social responsibility problems," she explains, "it is important not to simply share what the issues are, but to share what work is being done to solve them, and to help students see how they can play a role in coming up with solutions."
Dickson describes her teaching approach as passionate. She wants students to understand the tremendous impact the industry has on people and how they can help ensure the impact is positive. And her passion for social responsibility extends past the classroom setting. She is involved with a number of professional organizations and her research is extensive, with peer reviewed articles appearing in numerous industry publications.
Dickson says her teaching, research and service are all closely linked and she routinely incorporates her research findings into course offerings. "The industry is evolving so quickly and really struggling in many ways," she relates. "As educators we have to stay on top of this turbulence not only to make sure our students are prepared to contribute from day one, but also so that we can focus our research on answering questions that really matter."
An evolving program
UD began offering a graduate certificate in Socially Responsible and Sustainable Apparel Business in 2007. Students selecting this path choose to focus on either labor or the environment, with the program comprised of nine short courses that are taught entirely through the Internet. The decision to offer the certificate at the graduate level and online was made because at the time, students were not getting in-depth knowledge in their undergraduate programs about social responsibility issues and how to address them. The program allows students to add to their knowledge, whether they are recent graduates or already in the industry.
Now the university is also embedding social responsibility and sustainability throughout the undergraduate program, thus augmenting the core programs in apparel design and fashion merchandising. "Our core programs are being enhanced in a lot of exciting ways," says Dickson. "We are integrating social responsibility/sustainability and international industry topics into the courses and our faculty and students are engaged with industry through the UD Sustainable Apparel Initiative and the FIBER (Fashion International Business Education Response) project that publishes the online FIBER Journal and FIBERcasts."
Because the department receives so many applicants it is able to bring in the best and brightest students. Applications have surged by more than 300 percent over the past decade and enrollment is capped at 90 to 100 new students every year. Currently, there are about 400 undergraduates in the fashion merchandising and apparel design majors. Alumni are all over the industry and in every type of company ranging from Kohl's to Under Armour to Escada.
"Some of our friends and recruiters in the industry talk about UD being the 'best kept secret' because of our high-quality merchandising and design programs, special initiatives and exceptional students," Dickson says. "I guess we've let the secret out now."
Chelan David is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.
Dickson has seen tremendous demand for both merchandisers working cross-functionally to deliver the right assortment of branded merchandise, and retail store managers. She believes both career paths will continue, but increasingly, brands and retailers will be asking all of their new hires to have a clear understanding of how to make contributions toward greater social and environmental responsibility.
"There will be new opportunities for students who can design and merchandise lines of sustainable apparel and source the products from socially and environmentally responsible manufacturers," says Dickson. "There will also be opportunities for entrepreneurial students who create new businesses that transform the industry toward more sustainable operations."
Some attribute the growth of merchandising programs across the country to popular reality television shows focused on fashion. However, Dickson believes the trend started earlier. "I suspect it's related to the 'consumer culture' here in the United States," she says. "Today's students grew up going to the mall and enjoying fashion - they're thrilled when they realize they can pursue a career in the industry."