The term ‘sustainability’ refers to the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance, in other words, using Earth’s available resources in an efficient and responsible manner. So, when it comes to designing for sustainability, what are the challenges for the fashion industry and how can we change?
We’re not here to demonize the fashion industry, there are many wonderful individuals working to design, produce and market the beautiful clothing that we see lining the high-street windows. However, the truth is, we need to change. After all, no planet means no business and the fashion industry is one of the worlds leading polluters. In this post we will look at some of the main challenges in designing for sustainability and share a few brands trying to overcome them.
The fashion industry, in particular designers, have started to embrace the concept of sustainability. As a result, numerous start-ups, and even well-known brand names, seek and aim to integrate the principles of sustainability into their ideas and processes. For example, Gucci launched their ‘Equilibrium’, an innovative sustainability plan to propel the House into the next century, to reduce their total environmental footprint by 40% by 2025, from a 2015 baseline relative to growth.
Despite sustainable fashion gaining momentum, there is an array of challenges that remain. To start with, it may be prudent to divide the challenges into internal and external to the industry itself.
Starting off with the internal challenges, it may be noted that while designers may strive to adopt designing for sustainability, the primary hurdle they face is lack of educational content and curriculum available. At the academic level, while the fashion industry gives some importance to sustainability; young and aspiring designers and existing business owners alike are having to discover and innovate for themselves, due to lack of educational materials on topics and areas such as the circular economy and its implementation. Consequently, the concept, and its by-products appear as new to many. This challenge is slowly being tackled with various individuals and institutions like EcoAge and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation vehemently promoting the concept of a circular economy nowadays.
The greatest challenge when designing more sustainability is the cost. Clothing brands that sell at a lower price point are up against the greatest stumbling block, due to their ‘cheap and deep’ or ‘stack them high and sell them low’ business model. Sustainably made, organic fabrics are more expensive. Choosing to produce clothes closer-to-home for example, here in the UK is more expensive, in comparison with the Far East or areas where the wages are much lower. Conducting regular factory audits to uphold working standards is also a costly affair.
To solve big problems like climate change, waste, and pollution, we need a big idea. It’s time to rethink how we design, make, and use the things we need, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear.– Ellen MacArthur
Business Model: From Throwaway To Circular
Considering the harsh truth outlined above, many existing retailers will be forced to relook at their business model to thrive in a climate-conscious future. A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the all too common ‘take-make-waste’ linear model. The circular economy is based on three main principles:
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
Although a fully circular fashion industry might be far into the distant future, let’s look at a few brands demonstrating a number of ways that companies can start to make the shift. Fashion startup ‘Queens of Archive’ use a pre-order business model, they create a sample, it’s shot on a model and advertised for pre-order sales. This pre-order model allows the brand to only make enough garments for the actual demand, thus eliminating over-production and waste. Girlfriend Collective produce activewear made with recycled water bottles, a great example of how a clothing brand can eliminate existing waste from the planet and avoid producing further pollution.
Which leads me onto keeping products and materials in use. There are several incredible clothing rental companies popping up, like MY WARDROBE HQ, a buy-share-rent concept catering to the growing movement of consumers concerned about the environmental impact of fast fashion, a community of eco-warriors who wear Gucci and Prada! Fashion rental companies are disrupting the industry by encouraging fashion-conscious consumers to rent rather than buy designer garments.
Another way brands are encouraging products to stay in circulation is by selling secondhand clothing in-store. Supermarket giant George at Asda has announced it will be launching a new second-hand vintage fashion range. Following a successful trial in Asda’s sustainability store in Leeds, the concept will be rolled out across the UK, with customers able to buy vintage and second-hand branded pieces, preventing thousands of tonnes of garments going to landfill each year. Imagine of all fashion giants offered the option to sell back clothes and keep them in circulation for longer.
Similarly, leading Netherlands denim brand MUD Jeans is leaning towards a more circular business model to produce its popular items. It creates high quality, long lasting pieces designed from eco-friendly materials including GOTS certified organic and recycled cotton and encourages customers to keep their clothing for as long as possible, by providing a free repair services within the first year.
Brands that actively regenerate natural systems are still few and far between, a fabulous example of one label going against the grain would be clothing brand Oshadi Collective, who are creating a circular supply chain using regenerative agriculture, transforming acres of bare, chemical-stripped land into lush fields, promoting biodiversity to nourish the soil, providing a healthier livelihood for farmers helping them to yield better crops, that also happen to sequester carbon.
So, let’s just stop for a moment to consider if a brand worked on a pre-order model, only producing for the actual demand, created clothing using organic fabrics farmed using regenerative agriculture, offered free repairs and once customers had finished with the clothes- they could be sold secondhand in-store or rented out, wouldn’t that be something?
While the above challenge sets its root in the business model, another internal challenge emerges at the manufacturing stage. This stage calls for wise and tough decisions to be made by the designers and their respective teams. Such decisions range from selecting the correct and appropriate resource materials to assessing the best factory to use and the multiple costs involved. Designers face a recurring dilemma throughout the manufacturing stage- whether their one call will negatively and adversely affect their larger goal of sustainability and allow a product to be commercially viable. A good example of designing for sustainability with manufacturing as a driver is Community Clothing. The Community Clothing manufacturing philosophy is simple: they work with one UK factory for each product and material building long-term mutually beneficial partnerships, including spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers, finishers, embroiderers, textile printers and garment makers, mostly in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands, Scotland and South Wales. Relying on few partners in the local area, helps to avoid a myriad of issues during the manufacturing stage from quality control to conducting regular factor audits.
Shipping and Carbon Emissions:
Tackling production-based emissions is critical to the success of the Paris Agreement, however we need to consider consumption-based emissions, too. These so-called indirect emissions are proving to be the blind spot of current mitigation efforts. Each item produced and shipped comes with a carbon footprint, including clothing. Brands can offset their carbon footprint by planting trees with companies such as Ecologi or The Future Forest Company. However, offsetting carbon emissions is not the solution, we must also reduce the emissions being produced. A few ways fashion brands can reduce carbon emissions:
- Avoid over-production
- Run factories and offices on renewable energy
- Switch from using fossil fuel powered vehicles electric
- Switch to biodegradable packaging
External factors also pose a threat to designers achieving sustainability, such as consumer behaviour. Fashion brands must advocate and advertise the concept of sustainability to successfully promote the sale of their produced products.
“More than 92 million metric tons of textile waste is produced globally every year and most of this ends up in landfills or incinerators.”– fibre2fashion
When it comes to designing and manufacturing, sustainable design will take into consideration the “lifecycle” or “what happens after it’s been worn” a leading example of sustainable design is Patagonia. Patagonia guarantee everything they make, meaning that if you are not satisfied with one of their products at the time you receive it, or if one of our products does not perform to your satisfaction, you can return it to the store you bought it from or to Patagonia for a repair, replacement, or refund. Offering a repair service helps to reduce waste and continue the life of a garment. Patagonia also encourage customers to use WornWear to trade in their used clothing, thus keeping the items in circulation for longer.
“Waste is a design flaw”– Kate Krebs
Of course, these are just a few of the challenges designers face when designing for sustainability. The fact is, we are producing too much and every single day tonnes of garments go to landfill, plus the methods of production are polluting the fragile ecosystems that we rely on for survival. Although the vision of designing for sustainability is presently treading on a somewhat thorny pathway; the responsibility to do better is still in our hands. Accurately pinpointing the problems plaguing the industry, means that designers and entrepreneurs can push forward towards a much-needed and meaningful change. Hopefully this post has highlighted just a few of the amazing initiatives that brands are introducing to change the fashion industry, one step at a time. Now is the time for brands and each of us as individuals to see the climate crisis not as a drag, but as a catalyst to innovate and switch things up, to get creative in the way we shop, design, think and make.
This post was written by Christine in collaboration with Sustainable Narrative. Sustainable Narrative aim to create awareness by providing design-based solutions to various incubators/startups, design hubs & think tanks in Dubai, UAE. Photography by Olivia J Lennon.