GW Students Explore Innovations in Sustainable Fashion in LA

GW-CIBER students examined ethical practices in the apparel industry during a West Coast trip where they pitched ideas to tackle real-world sustainability problems.

June 11, 2024

GW-CIBER students on a trip to the West Coast

Director of GW-CIBER Anna Helm (right) with GW students at the 2024 International Business Ethics and Sustainability Case Competition.

Ten George Washington University students spent a semester diving into the world of sustainable fashion by participating in an experiential program through the GW Center for International Business Education & Research (GW-CIBER). 

This unique experience included a four-day trip to Los Angeles to visit companies leading the way in ethical practices in the apparel industry and taking part in the 2024 International Business Ethics and Sustainability Case Competition (IBESCC) that was hosted at the Loyola Marymount University in April. 

GW-CIBER is one of 16 centers in the United States funded by the Department of Education that aims to prepare future leaders in international business. 

Anna Helm, the director of GW-CIBER, explained that the program focuses on developing students' problem-solving skills by providing opportunities to tackle real-world scenarios. Participating in IBESCC challenged students to answer the same difficult questions many companies are asking as they try to develop more sustainable business practices. 

Helm said the trip to LA exposed students to the innovative and enterprising fashion industry in the city and underscored the importance of integrating ethical practices in business while offering opportunities for networking and learning from diverse perspectives. 

“This experience was not just about winning or losing,” Helm said. “It was about developing and learning, finding connections, getting inspiration, being motivated by what others are doing and getting a sense of the very rich, dynamic, fashion industry in LA. That’s a lot of what we took away from the trip.” 

Sarah Bodewes, B.S.’23, M.S.’24, said the experience was the highlight of her semester. She was one of 10 students who participated in the program beginning with classroom instruction in January and ending with the trip to L.A. in April. 

“I didn’t know much about the fashion industry beforehand, but CIBER gave us a lot of resources to prepare for the competition,” Bodewes said. “We worked with professors and had guest speakers doing workshops.  In our meetings, we did extensive readings and devoted a lot of time to research.” 

There were two GW teams, one made up of graduate students and another with undergraduates. The teams focused on sustainable fashion, and each picked a company to do an analysis on and determine opportunities for it to incorporate more sustainable practices into its operations. 

“Ethics is really a critical pillar of this competition,” Helm said. She explained the goal was to push students to explore the social responsibilities businesses have and find innovative answers to difficult problems. 

Members of the graduate team included Bodewes, Paige Garczynski, Letiyo Mawadri, Bradley Whittaker and Lara Zeitoun. On the undergraduate team were Aevyn Koczera, Natalia Parientes, Jaime Perez-Bedmar Merello, Brenda Santiago-Ramos and Christine Yoo. 

The teams had to do a total of three presentations for the judges that included providing an analysis of the ethical, sustainable, legal and financial aspects of a problem, and a viable solution. 

Bodewes and her team members chose to do their project on Ralph Lauren and used what they learned over the course of the semester to highlight areas where the company could incorporate more eco-friendly practices, including using AI to improve demand forecasting and reduce waste. They also pitched using digital product IDs for garment tracking to enhance product lifecycle and promote circular fashion.

Bodewes and her team came in first place for their 25-minute presentation that gave an overview of their main ideas. 

The undergraduate team chose Zara and highlighted problems in the fast fashion industry. They looked at solutions aiming to improve factory safety conditions, reduce waste and make transportation through the supply chain more environmentally responsible.  

“I think that they both did a fabulous job with their final product,” Helm said, adding that the students showed a real understanding of the challenges facing companies today and found creative solutions. 

Leading up to the contest, the students engaged in mock presentations in front of guest judges, including alumni like Erik Haug, B.A.’11, to gain feedback they used to improve their proposals. 

Helm said Haug played a pivotal role in shaping the experience to be more enriching for the students. 

Haug, who now works as the director of New Business Models, Strategy and Innovation at Earth Finance, was a former student of Helm during his time at GW. He has a background working in apparel and textiles as an innovation consultant and conducted a workshop on reimagining fashion for the students leading up to the competition. 

Haug also helped facilitate site visits at companies leading the apparel industry, including Patagonia. Haug said students were able to see firsthand how Patagonia engages with local communities and executes sustainability initiatives at the retail level. 

“Patagonia is a true market leader in sustainability, especially in consumer education, at the retail level and through grassroots programs,” Haug said. “It’s going beyond theory and into practice, and Patagonia has set the bar for those types of programs.”

He also helped organize a visit to Lefty Production Co., located in Los Angeles’ Fashion District. 

“Lefty has great sourcing and supplier relationships for environmentally friendly textiles,” Haug explained. “It was an opportunity for the students to see what cutting-edge bespoke fashion design and production looks like and how to make the process more sustainable and intentional.”

Haug said he was impressed by the students' work throughout the competition and enjoys opportunities to stay connected with GW. 

“I think Professor Helm is an incredible teacher and leader, and GW is truly a remarkable institution and professional network to be a part of,” Haug said. “From an alumni perspective, I continue to learn a lot from the students. Every time I participate in a program like this, I really do believe that GW can continue to shape international business and policy in a meaningful way. So, it’s an honor to be able to contribute and participate,” Haug said.