As an environmental-professional-turned-designer, sustainability is really at the heart of what I do. It’s not only my motivation and inspiration, but also an incredible source of creativity and innovation. Designers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the sustainability of what they create, with 80% of a product’s environmental impacts determined at the design stage. Whether it’s material choices, manufacturing processes or product durability, these decisions present exciting opportunities to develop products incorporating not only environmental, but also social and economic solutions. It is by addressing these three criteria; planet, people and profit, referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’, that designers can begin to create truly sustainable products and business models.
Personally, I really enjoy problem solving, so my creative practice is always inspired by either a challenge or opportunity relating to sustainability, the most recent of which was WRAP’s Extending the Life of Clothing award brief. WRAP’s research revealed that 350,000 tons of used clothing ends up in landfill each year in the UK, the manufacturing, laundering and disposal of which incurs significant financial and environmental costs. It was identified that the most immediate and effective way in which to reduce these impacts would be to increase the period of time that clothes are actively worn.
To begin developing a clothing range that would facilitate and encourage garment longevity, I looked into some of the most common failure modes for clothing. The need to follow fashion trends and to wear something new, coupled with the affordability and availability of fast fashion are common contributors to garment disposal. To combat this, my designs needed to be adaptable. Not wanting to simply add extra pieces of material here and there, I set about designing a garment from which the wearer could achieve two different looks. Another common barrier to clothing longevity is changes in body shape and size. As this issue also lent itself to the concept of adaptability, I considered how I could incorporate minor (size) and major (style) changes via the same mechanism. This led to the development of a 3D printed clip fastening that could be easily detached and reattached by the wearer to adjust the size and style of the garment. It was also hoped that this added interaction and creative control would help to strengthen the bond between the garment and the wearer, helping to extend the garments functional life.
When deciding on the materials with which to make my collection it was important to consider sourcing and ethics, durability and the environmental impacts of end of life disposal. For these reasons the main structural elements of the garments were made from strong, yet soft organic cotton twill. The more decorative panels were in delicate hand-printed silks and pina, but I was careful to make sure that these did not contain load-bearing seams. As all of the fibers used were natural, biodegradable and renewable. Industrial composting would be an environmentally friendly option at the end of the functional life of the garment, providing that all synthetic elements (clip fastenings) were removed.
For this reason, I needed to incorporate complete detachability into my clip fastening design, which would also allow for the clips to be easily reused and swapped between garments. The final collection was recently shown as part of Brighton Fashion Week’s Sustain show, where each garment was shown with the two different stylings.
By considering all aspects of a product’s life, from sourcing to production, use and end of life it’s possible to design for a sustainable future. Where sustainability is embraced at the initial concept stages, challenges and opportunities can be explored early on, leading to and informing new and innovative design aesthetics. This is certainly something that could be integrated successfully into the development of high-street products, but there needs to be a straightforward and effective process to facilitate cooperation and communication between different departments. Too often designers are designing in isolation and there needs to be a focus on collaboration with the common goal of sustainability.
The Life Story of your T-shirt
This blog was written as part of an online event run by The Institute for Social Marketing as part of the Festival of Social Science week (7th-14th November 2015).