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Designing for Sustainability

Team Zady

As we rethink our relationship with fashion, a big part of the evolution involves considering the many features of a piece of clothing beyond how it looks. The future of fashion requires us to shift our thinking from wanting quantity, to valuing quality. From needing it fast, to slowing down. From buying into trends that fade, to buying garments that last. To achieve all of this, to rewire the way we think about fashion and to change the way we consume it, we must rethink design.

Before we can understand how design interacts with sustainability, let’s get clear on what we mean when we talk about design. We often think of design as narrowly concerned with form—how something looks. And yet, the definition of design accounts for more. As a noun, a design is defined as, “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a…garment…before it is built or made.” 1 As a verb, designing refers to, “the purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.” [2] So, while design is concerned with form, it’s also concerned with function, with purpose, and with intention. Ah ha! We’ve always known there’s more to great design than meets eye.

We come now to the role design plays in sustainability. The concept of sustainability is complex, and the term is frequently guilty of being overused, misunderstood, and of hiding nuances that sometimes matter a lot. Holding all of that aside for now, sustainable fashion involves a single guiding principle, no matter how it is ultimately sliced and diced: we must buy fewer, higher quality pieces that we can use for longer periods of time. And herein lies the power of good design to radically transform fashion. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Fast fashion: designed to toss

At its core, fast fashion is designed to be disposable. Its model of low-priced, constantly churning inventory promotes such a frenzied speed of consumption that clothing literally loses its value. [3] We buy more to throw away more and feel less and less satisfied with all that we have. Does this sound familiar? It should, because this cycle of seemingly endless consumption has been designed to make us feel exactly this way.

In 1950, B. Earl Puckett, one of the highest paid American executives of his time, made a prescient remark about the future of the fashion industry as he came to see it: “Basic utility cannot be the foundation of a prosperous apparel industry. We must accelerate obsolescence.” [4] What did he mean? Well, let’s start by defining obsolescence, which is a term used to describe that feeling we get when we no longer want something despite it being unbroken, usable, or even highly functional. Maybe we have experienced obsolescence as growing tired or bored, as our tastes changing, or as falling out of love with something. Whatever the case, fashion is guilty of threading obsolescence into the very fibers we are wearing. Season after season, we grow weary of clothes that we’ve hardly used. In an article about fast fashion, the authors write, “Fashion, more than any other industry in the world, embraces obsolescence as a primary goal; fast fashion simply raises the stakes.” [5] We couldn’t have said it better.

Puckett’s statement reverberates with astonishing relevance today, through the very core of fast fashion. Prosperity in fashion, more than ever, is predicated upon making us comfortable, very comfortable, with throwing away perfectly good clothes. Given all that goes into making a piece of clothing, from the environmental cost to the human toll, the notion that fast fashion is designed to be thrown away only to be replaced with what is new is problematic enough as it is. But in the process, fast fashion is dumbing down design. Design is richest when it reflects the multidimensionality of its potential: when form, function, intention, and purpose are woven together into a beautiful garment that looks lovely, makes us feel great, and can hang in our closet for a long time to come.

Design for the extra mile

While fast fashion’s effect on design may seem bleak, design isn’t doomed. Quite the contrary—design holds tremendous power for making fashion both a more sustainable industry and a more creative one. How can we design the future of fashion?

Fiber choice

Sustainable design starts with fiber choice. Fiber choice has sustainability implications for every stage of the product lifecycle- where a piece of clothing comes from, how we use it, and where it goes when we are done with it. Let’s examine a few of the fiber-based considerations that a designer can make to enhance the sustainability profile of a piece of clothing:

  • Select 100% fiber content: Each year we produce 150 billion garments. [6] When we think about where that clothing goes at the end of its life, it’s either disposed of or recycled. While a 100% cotton shirt can be recycled, as can a 100% polyester dress, mixing some amount of cotton and polyester fibers results in a blended fiber that cannot be recycled, given current technologies. Recycling fibers averts landfill waste and reduces our reliance on virgin resources, both of which are important in a world of growing resource constraints. This leads us to our next point…

  • Use recycled synthetic fibers over virgin fibers: In general, recycled fibers require fewer resources, specifically energy, than virgin fibers, which are defined as fibers that are being sourced from raw materials to be used in fabrics for the first time. Taking the case of polyester, recycled polyester uses roughly 30-50% less energy than virgin polyester. [7] Less energy means fewer carbon emissions; recycled polyester emits 50% less carbon dioxide than virgin polyester production. [8]

  • Choose organic natural fibers: By choosing organic natural fibers, designers can avert the environmental damage associated with the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. This is most relevant when it comes to cotton, which is a heavy user of agricultural chemicals. These agricultural chemicals affect the health and fertility of the soil, and make their way into water through agricultural runoff.

User-centered design

Another design frontier that holds promise to enhance the sustainability of our wardrobes is user-centered design. This design philosophy takes a highly structured approach to design that considers the question of how a product will be used. Taking the example of a t-shirt, user-centered design would account for every stage of the user’s experience with the shirt, from wearing it, to washing it, to drying it, to disposing of it. Along the way, designers test their assumptions and refine their design to account for how we use our t-shirt in reality.

The application of user-centered design to fashion can enable designers to:

  • Design clothing that we keep for longer periods of time: More than ever, we are both keeping our clothing for shorter periods of time, and wearing clothes a fewer number of times in the course of this shortened lifespan. Principles of user-centered design can be applied to lengthen the amount of time we keep our clothes, perhaps by making clothes more functional, more versatile, or by enabling the creation of more user-friendly materials.

  • Align consumer care instructions with our actual washing, drying, and dry cleaning behaviors: There is a lot of variability in the way we care for our clothes. Not only are we clean or messy to varying degrees, but we make varied decisions about how often and how intensely we care for our clothing. User-centered design principles can enable designers to closely study how to actually use and care for our clothes. This can translate into revised consumer care instructions around washing frequency, water temperature, dry clean instructions, and drying directions, each of which carries implications for water use, energy consumption, carbon emissions, and chemical use.

The future

Our fundamental belief is that designers want to build things that last. They design buildings that inspire awe for millennia. And they sew clothes that end up on display in museums decades, centuries, even thousands of years later. When history looks back at the fashion of our time—at the heaps of polyester designed to be worn 7 times and then thrown away—how will it judge us? [9]

References:

  1. Oxford English Dictionary definition
  2. Oxford English Dictionary definition
  3. Cline, E. L. (2012). Overdressed: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. Penguin. p. 117
  4. Miller, D. T., & Nowak, M. (1977). The fifties: The way we really were. VNR AG. p. 120
  5. Joy, A., Sherry Jr, J. F., Venkatesh, A., Wang, J., & Chan, R. (2012). Fast fashion, sustainability, and the ethical appeal of luxury brands. Fashion Theory,16(3), 273-295. Available at: https://www3.nd.edu/~jsherry/pdf/2012/FastFashionSustainability.pdf
  6. Material Patterns: Considering the Economic, Environmental, and Social Impacts of the Global Textiles Industry
  7. Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?
  8. Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?
  9. Once worn, thrice shy – British women’s wardrobe habits exposed!
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