Ask the expert: what can designers do?

By  Via

Every other week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Have a question you want answered? Send it here. And read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.

This week’s question:
Designers have a significant role to play in moving away from planned obsolescence towards a more sustainable fashion industry. What choices can designers make to contribute to more long lasting fashion?

Anna Brismar: Yes, the fashion industry has been dominated by the strategy ofplanned obsolescence since at least the 1950s. We now need to move away from this unsustainable industry norm towards more sustainable production practices. As a designer with influence or control over design and material sourcing, there are various choices to be made to prolong the lifetime of a garment. Of course there will always be trade-offs and practical limitations involved, but knowing one’s possibilities and preferred choices is a first step in contributing to a more long lasting and sustainable product. Here are some key aspects to be considered in the process of design and sourcing:

Choice of fabrics and other materials

An important part of the design and sourcing process is the choice of fabrics and other materials:

More sustainable fibers: Organic and/or locally produced fibers, as well as fibers from recycled textile waste, are to be preferred as opposed to conventional and virgin fibers (see MADE-BY’s fiber comparison). Similarly, other materials in the garment, such as thread, buttons, zippers, and prints, should also be sustainably produced and sourced. Using yarn from recycled textiles is a growing trend that we will see more of in the coming years.

Durable fabrics that last in quality: The fabric also needs to be as durable as possible, i.e. it must not easily tear, break or wear out. Some fabrics are more sensitive than others, but will still last long if they are cared for in the right way.

A good mixture of fabric fibers: The “weakest part” of a garment will always be the limiting factor. Clothes sometimes contain a mixture of different fabrics. For example, if a blouse contains a mixture of silk and viscose, the silk parts may be the first to break and will thus limit the garment’s life expectancy. Likewise, other materials, such as the thread, buttons, zipper and prints, should also be durable. Plastic prints are often quick to lose their texture, which can be seen on many children t-shirts, thus reducing the overall durability and lifetime of the garment.

Color pigments and dyes: The fabric should also be chosen with respect to dyes and coloring pigments, opting for both durable and non-toxic alternatives. Some dyes quickly lose their color intensity and may not be ideal on certain clothes. For example a black cotton skirt may easily fade after some washes, while a black wool skirt will look well longer. Thus, the challenge is to use a dye that fixes well onto the fabric, or use a coloring technique and shade that fades with beauty.

Ethical supply chains: The supply chain of the garment’s fabric and other components should be transparent and ethical, which includes workers’ rights and conditions and animal welfare.

Easy to wash and care: All the material in the garment should be selected and combined to enable easy and gentle care, in terms of washing, drying, ironing, etc. Fabrics that do not require frequent washing, such as wool, may be a better option than cotton on certain clothes. A mixture of different materials demanding very different caring practices are not optimal for easy care.

Choice of design, style and fit

Choices related to design, style, and fit are also crucial aspects of making more long lasting products:

Long lasting design: Garments should be designed to look good and feel comfortable for as long as possible, ideally for a lifetime. As we know, successful fashion trends return, and some design pieces become wardrobe classics while other styles become long-lasting essentials.

Customizable and adaptive design: Garments can be designed to allow for adjustments in terms of size and fit. For example, a blouse can be designed with horizontal straps to adjust the size around the chest. Likewise, trousers can be designed with an elastic band or straps at the waist, to enable resizing of the waistline. The same garment can thus be made to fit two body sizes, for example 36 and 38, thus allowing for slight fluctuations in weight over time.

Design to facilitate repair: An essential design strategy to prolong a garment’s life expectancy is to allow for easy repair. This practice is sometimes called “modular design” or “circular design”. (In modular design, the garment is designed in modules that can be easily taken apart to enable easy repair and redesign.) For example, children’s jeans may be designed with knee patches already from the start (stretching all the way to the side seams). The patches should have separate seams at the knees that are easy to rip when repairing. Hereby, replacing a worn-out knee patch is facilitated and the new patch is less likely to fall off compared to a circular patch.

Zero-waste cutting: Pattern making and cutting practices are also part of the design process. There has been intensive research in this area in the last years, to develop new pattern making and cutting practices that minimize textile spill and enables more effective use of the fabric.

Design on demand: Finally, making fashion on demand is a very promising strategy to make consumers hold on to their garments for longer as they are taking an active part in the design process (primarily in its final stages). This practice is sometimes called “participatory design”.

This summary is by no means exhaustive – there are surely other important design choices and sourcing practices that could have been mentioned here. Thus, for further reading, please see Fletcher and Grose (2012) and Gwilt and Rissanen (2011).