Sustainability issues pose increasing challenges for the fashion industry. Encompassing many different areas, from raw materials and manufacturing to use and disposal, every single stage of a product’s lifecycle requires thorough research and development if we are to create more sustainable products and achieve a more sustainable industry overall. A lot of the power to achieve this falls into the hands of designers because, as an industry, our collective end goal is to produce profitable, beautifully-designed pieces that can be worn and adored by consumers – and that journey starts with creatives.
In this article, I want to shed some much-needed light on the importance of design not only to the identity of a brand, and the success of its products, but also the key role designers can play in helping address fashion’s sustainability issues.
As an aspiring product designer, I earned my bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design & Technology, where I was introduced to the concept of ‘Design for Sustainability’ by lecturer Vicky Lofthouse, co-author of Design for Sustainability, with Tracy Bhamra. In this book, the role of designers is paramount, with Lofthouse & Bhamra highlighting how the design stages of product development have a direct influence of 70% on the final product. The authors go on to explain that the design stages are where the most critical decisions are made regarding cost, appearance, material selection, innovation, performance, environmental impact and perceptions of quality such as longevity, durability and reparability. “As designers, we have a staggering sphere of influence – and each of the choices we make filters through to the people and places affected by this influence,” the authors add.
It is crucial, therefore, for designers to have an excellent understanding of the environmental and social impacts of the products they design, and the ways in which they can reduce those impacts. Plus, this will benefit the companies in many different ways such as reducing overall costs, improving their public image and enhancing their products’ marketability.
A relatively new but extremely helpful tool for assessing the environmental impact of a product is a carbon footprint calculator. Whilst it does not provide a comprehensive overview of a product’s environmental impact (carbon is only part of a much bigger picture), it is useful for calculating the immediate footprint of products and identifying areas where emissions associated with bringing that product to market can be reduced.
Allbirds, the B-corp-certified footwear and apparel company, has created a carbon footprint calculator in collaboration with SCS Global Services which is available to download from their website. By using this tool companies can model product carbon footprints through 5 lifecycle phases including materials, manufacturing, transportation, use and end of life. According to Allbirds, they use “a version of this tool, complete with proprietary data and third-party verified according to ISO 14067:2018, to share the carbon footprint of all products with customers”.
From a design perspective, this tool can be used to identify the areas where the design of the products can be changed to achieve a net reduction in carbon footprint. This may or may not have a noticeable effect on the aesthetic of the product, and that may therefore need to be counterbalanced: creative intent vs. carbon output. Additionally, this tool enables designers to take a more holistic approach to sustainable design and make more informed decisions about raw materials selection, design of the product, end of life etc. at the earliest possible stage in the product lifecycle.
To expand further on the role of designers in creating more sustainable products, I want to give a few examples of designers who make great use of the latest innovations and ‘design for sustainability’ principles to design more sustainable products.
First is Federico Badini C., fashion designer and founder of Badini C., who’s latest collection aims to address the microplastic pollution issue. Federico partnered with GuppyFriend®, the creators of washing bags which retain microplastics during the washing process. The designer incorporated these washing bags into his clothes to build reversible pockets which the clothes can fold into. This innovative construction enables the clothes to be self-sufficient and the microplastics to be caught by the washing bags, instead of polluting rivers, lakes, oceans, and soils.
Through his collection, he aims to encourage people to pay more attention to the environmental impact of their clothes during the ‘use’ stage, and inspire fashion designers to make greater use of their power to protect the environment through design.
In addition to creating packable garments, the designer has also created a puffer vest made with the filter fabric used in Guppyfriend washing bags and sealed seams, filled with recycled mixed fibres which can be washed without microplastics being released.
Next is Dr Laetitia Forst, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of the Arts London who explored design-driven solutions for incorporating ease of recyclability into textile blends through her PhD.
Forst explains that textile blends are extremely difficult to recycle, however, they are a great way to add to textiles’ technical properties, reduce costs, make them easier to manufacture, and become more resistant to the stress fibres go through when they are being processed. Additionally, textile design creativity comes through combining previously unrelated resources, materials, textures and colours, which contradicts with design for sustainability and recyclability where mono-materials are preferred.
Dedicated to bringing together creative textile design and the added technical benefits of textile blends within the “constraints” of designing for sustainability, she looked into designing for disassembly as a solution. Through her research, Forst found that design for disassembly not only has benefits in terms of circularity, but has corollary benefits where disassembly is not just an end-of-life approach, but also ties into emotional durability, customisability and modularity.
The core part of her PhD research included developing a repertoire of techniques for disassembly at the fibre yarn and fabric component scale which translated to several prototypes.
Forst adds “one of the things that was quite interesting to me when developing the prototypes were the new aesthetics that came through the circularity constraints. For example, if instead of adding elasticity inside the fibre, you add an elastic layer onto a mono-material-based cloth allowing the elastane to be removed, suddenly instead of having a standard double-direction stretchy material, you have something that has a smocked effect and a new aesthetic.”
The idea that circularity “constraints” can become creative triggers for innovation rather than limitations had been underpinned in Forst’s research from the very beginning. To highlight this key concept she adds “as Victor Papenak [the pioneer of sustainable design] says, by bringing in sustainability constraints and having designers actually guided by environmental considerations rather than “pure ego”, a new aesthetic can come through that is more about the balance between designers’ creativity and planetary boundaries”.
It is clear that companies must invest more resources into the design stages of their products, and that starts with educating their designers and providing them with the right tools to assess the environmental and social impact of the products they design.
Personally, I do not believe that simply producing the exact same products, but switching to more sustainable materials, is enough. For instance, creating a t-shirt that used to be made from polyester, from recycled polyester instead, is not a creative solution nor an effective approach to sustainability. Although it might slightly help to reduce environmental impact, we need products that are designed with sustainability at their core, instead of just the surface level. This will not only enable companies to reduce their negative environmental and social impact but could also benefit them in terms of profitability in the long run.