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Sustainable fashion: The disempowered designer

Updated Friday, 1st November 2013

Are designers the ideal people to take ownership over the sustainability of the clothing they design?

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Fashion designer is drawing a fashion model Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: © Slavenko Vukasovic |

Every garment in the shop has been designed by a designer. The media talks about glamorous famous designers who set new trends and control their own collections in minute details. They can determine the environmental impact of their designs. These garments are out of the price range of most of us. There is a niche market of sustainable clothing which is designed and produced to the highest environmental standards, but this pushes the price up considerably and only appeals to a small fraction of the market.

Most garments are designed by designers working for retailers and manufacturers, who research what will sell and decide the overall look and feel. They select the materials and determine how the garment is made. Making all the fundamental decisions, designers seem the ideal people to take ownership over its sustainability.

However, it is not that simple. Designers can’t just design what they like or think would be good for the environment. The garments need to be bought. What people buy depends a lot on what they see other people, especially celebrities, wear.  Fashion might demand certain materials or processes that designers are expected to adopt in their collections. Strong competition on price has pushed manufacturing to ever further places, so that designers have little personal contact with the manufacturers and are often unaware of how the garments are made in detail and, therefore, what the environmental impact of the manufacturer process might be. Much of the environmental impact of garments is not in the sewing or knitting of the garments but in the generation of the fibres and the making of the fabric. From looking at the materials, it is impossible to assess the impact their production has had. Fabric printed with organic dyes and made using properly treated waste water looks very similar to fabric made without any care for the environment.

While it is possible to make tests to find out, in practice it is mainly price and brand that give an indication. Theoretically, it is possible to do life-cycle assessment on the garments, but the cost of this would far exceed the profit margin of any individual design. Designers are not just dealing with one design at a time, but usually are involved with hundreds of different designs and materials. They simply don’t have the time to follow individual materials or manufacturers up in any detail.





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