Controversy over school uniforms has been back in the headlines recently, over one school’s decision to make gender-neutral clothing compulsory. Protests were even held outside the school as a number of pupils and parents were displeased that those who wanted to wear skirts were now unable to without facing punishment, and others disliked the fact that having to dispose of all the obsolete skirts was wasteful and harmful to the environment. This incident is indicative of two leading issues pertaining to school uniforms – gender neutrality and sustainability.
Of course, these two themes are becoming increasingly prevalent in society in general, so it’s no surprise that it is becoming so important in schools; young people are leading the charge when it comes to climate activism and fighting inequality and discrimination. Schools are evidently taking those issues that are important to the children, and indeed the wider population, on board, and taking steps to ensure they are moving with the times, and the clothes pupils are wearing day in, day out is a considerable part of that.
Environmental impact of uniform
We just need to look to the likes of Greta Thunberg and the school strikes, all in the name of engendering systemic change in how we tackle environmental issues, to see that school-age young people are passionate about the cause. ‘Fast fashion’ and the huge amount of clothing that finishes up in landfill is a problem that extends to uniforms, too. In fact, there are a number of unique challenges when it comes to uniforms, as children often grow out of them quickly and in independent schools particular, they are unique to the institution, and therefore not useful to anyone that is not a pupil.
One concerned parent set about doing something about the issue when the secondary school which their daughter attended changed the uniform midway through her time there. Andrea Grant founded the Old School Uniform website, which allows parents to give away, or sell, uniform items that are no longer needed. Grant says of the initiative: “Not only does making use of unused and second-hand clothing have a fantastic impact on your pocket, it also strengthens the community and plays an essential role in sustaining our precious environment and protecting our natural resources. A win-win situation for everyone!”
We want to take forward the agenda, and get people to shift their thinking away from just throwing an old uniform that the kids are grown out of in the bin
One uniform provider that is getting behind the scheme is Stevensons, which is providing financial support to the scheme and helping to raise awareness.
Ian Blazeby, head of marketing at Stevensons, says: “We want to take forward the agenda, and get people to shift their thinking away from just throwing an old uniform that the kids are grown out of in the bin – 300,000 tonnes of clothing goes into landfill in the UK every year.
“We think Old School Uniform is a fabulous initiative that promotes that message of sustainability and reuse and applies it directly to school uniform. Children grow up very quickly and grow out of the uniform, and a child could be out of a uniform in weeks. It’s about trying to get people to take a bit more of a view on the life that is left in those garments, even if it’s for other children. Stevensons is committed to promoting this cause not just to our schools and our customers, but to all schools countrywide.”
Caroline Bunting, managing director at Perry Uniform, also acknowledges the issues with school uniforms and sustainability, and recognises there is a conflict between being cost-effective and environmentally-friendly for some: “People are increasingly interested from a number of different angles; one person might have a view on the finish on a coat being a material that is not good for the environment, and that might override their concern for how much it costs to get that coat into a school. This takes into account everything from weaving the fabric and the chemical processes involved, to the impact of transporting the garments to be manufactured and delivered.
“Sustainability in the environment has become a lot more widely spoken about, and the offerings in this industry are also increasing, so it’s only a matter of time until more environmentally-friendly materials become more readily available at more reasonable prices, and that’s a key point. While this is in the early stages, it is something which Perry Uniform are very much at the forefront of.”
Much like the climate issue and the wider conversations it sparks, the matter of gender neutrality through inclusivity and the larger issue of gender equality is something that, as it becomes more broadly discussed in society, can inspire incremental change.
Bunting from Perry Uniform believes the message is getting through: “I think everyone can understand and agree that this is a mainstream issue now, and much more widely spoken about and acknowledged. The school market is certainly starting to reflect this, although it is still in the early stages.
“I would say the majority of schools are making those switches, but naturally, it’s something that takes time. Across the schools that Perry works with, we have a number of gender-neutral uniform options.
“In the independent sector, I would say that what they’re doing is taking away the idea that it’s exceptional for you to choose to wear a pair of trousers when the rest of the girls wearing skirts, and vice versa.”
She also observes that it goes beyond the ‘gender’ issue as we know it, and also comes down to the children’s comfort: “Some pupils simply find it more comfortable running around in the playground at lunchtime, particularly in junior schools but even earlier senior schools, so it’s great to have the option to wear what they are most at ease in.”
One way that Stevensons is ensuring a move away from the risk of gender stereotyping is by making all of its school uniform packaging gender neutral. Blazeby explains: “Packaging in general is moving away from the ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ model, and we decided to make the change towards completely gender-neutral packaging this year for all of our shirts and blouses – the products speak for themselves.”
Packaging in general is moving away from the ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ model, and we decided to make the change towards completely gender-neutral packaging this year
He also recognises there are challenges involved; there is the side to gender-neutral which simply means anyone can wear trousers or skirts if they wish, but he sees increasing pressure for a ‘one-garment-fits-all’, unisex approach which doesn’t take into account inherent differences in male and female body types.
“There can be huge issues with the practicality of trying to deliver gender neutrality on the fly,” Blazeby explains. “We do provide some schools with uniforms which would be described as gender-neutral in the truest sense of the word; traditionally, in this country, a blazer would only be different as it buttons on the left or right depending on whether it is made for boys or girls, so that is easy to make universal. The problematic part is items designed for boys and girls that need to take the fit into account.”
Certainly, in the school uniform sphere as elsewhere, changes towards a smaller environmental impact and clothing that is inclusive of all pupils’ needs are incremental, but growing. Schools and parents need to be aware of the challenges but must continue to do their part by listening to children’s needs and keeping up to date on ways to implement solutions for a fairer and greener future.