By Sarah Ditty, Editor-in-Chief of SOURCE Intelligence, Ethical Fashion Forum
At least 1.2 million tonnes of clothing and textiles are dumped into landfills in the UK every year. Only 16% of discarded clothing gets recycled or reused every year.
Design can often determine the entire lifecycle of a garment: how it’s used and how it’s disposed of and at what rate. Your design choices ultimately influence how your customer uses the garment and can have a profound social and ecological impact.
1) Design for longevity.
While clothing and textiles are piling up in our landfills at a rapid rate, the most obvious thing to do is to design your products to last – quality, style, fit and functionality. Classic cuts, shapes and colours will transcend seasons better. Adding in adjustable or detachable elements means your customer can customize to need or preference.
Make sure seams are done properly and areas that get extra wear and tear are reinforced to ensure durability. And remember comfort is key.
WRAP says that extending the average life of a garment (which is 2.2 years) by just three months would lead to a 5-10% reduction in carbon, water and waste footprints and cut costs significantly. These simple design considerations can have a huge impact.
2) Design waste out of the equation.
Think before you cut. Will your pattern result in a lot of offcut material? If so, rethink the design and pattern to minimize this. Try one-piece construction, jigsaw cutting or the subtracting cutting method. If you do have offcuts, use them creatively. Use them to make accessories or integrate them into garment details. It might be a bit trial and error but it’s worth it. Wasting fabric is essentially wasting money and generating needless waste for the landfill.
Don’t stop there. Why not design it to be reused or deconstructed easily? When your customer decides they no longer want to wear the garment, the materials might still be in good shape. These materials can be re-invented into something else. Why not make it easy for this to happen?
3) Celebrate other cultures.
There are millions of artisans around the world from Peru to India that specialize in beautiful weaving techniques, hand block printing, exquisite embroidery, beading, natural dyeing, filigree, batik and much more. Incorporating these elements into your designs helps to preserve and showcase these ancient and precious skills. It also will give your products an extra added value, something unique, something collectible. Plus, handcrafted products are typically made in a way that’s inherently more ecologically sound. It’s the nature of the process.
4) Choose Smarter Materials.
Look for natural materials or plant-based synthetics that are biodegradable. Silk, leather, wool, cashmere, hemp, bamboo and cotton are natural materials but consider how they are processed before you make your order. Conventional cotton uses a lot of harmful pesticides. Organic certified cotton will ensure that you’re getting fabric made without loads of bad chemicals. Wool, cashmere, silk and leather is biodegradable but processing can sometimes involve harm to animal welfare and degradation to the environment. Search out natural, plant-based, or at least AZO-free, dyed fabric and vegetable-tanned leather. Man-made, plant-based fabrics like Tencel, Modal and PLA are good alternatives to polyester, nylon and other plastic-based materials. If you can’t find a good alternative, look for recycled materials like PET-based recycled polyester, Econyl nylon, recycled cotton or even end-of-roll fabrics, offcuts and other disused materials.
Knowing which materials tick all your boxes (weave, weight, colour, price, eco-footprint, social impact, etc.) can be a bit of a minefield. Approach it creatively rather than as a constraint and use tools like the MAKING smart phone app to help you weigh up the options.
5) Look for Certifications.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to know if something has been made in a sustainable and ethical way. For assurance, try to choose fabrics that have been certified organic or Fairtrade, preferably both, where possible. This ensures that your fabric has been made with respect to the planet and that the people producing the fabric were paid a fair wage for their hard work.
Choosing a Manufacturer
6) Visit Your Factories.
It’s not always easy or affordable to visit your manufacturer, but it’s such an important investment if you can make it work. Seeing first-hand how your factories work, what their conditions are like and the people behind your products is key to knowing that you are doing things in a fair, respectful way.
It’s also very helpful in building close, long-lasting and mutually beneficial business relationships. It will serve to help ensure that you get great products, made well and delivered on time.
7) Ask questions.
No matter if you are able to visit your suppliers or not, ask lots of questions and ask for evidence. Have they been through any social, environmental or health and safety audits, and can they share with you the results? What do they do with their waste? Do they recycle? What are the working hours there? What kind of programmes do they have for their workers – training, healthcare, childcare, any other benefits? What kind of contracts do their workers have – short-term, seasonal, part-time, full-time? If something makes you feel uncomfortable about the working conditions, it might be best to just go with your gut.
And ask questions of yourself and your process too. Do you know where your fabric came from, could you try to find out? Do you know the specific person or people working on your products? Do you know what their life might be like? Do you care? Even just asking your own self these types of questions is a good start on your sustainability journey.
Marketing & Selling
8) Use sustainability as a special story, Adds value.
Your customers choose your products mostly because they like the style, design, colour, fit, quality and it’s within their budget — but having a sustainability story attached to your garments can be a really nice added bonus for your customer. Ok so it looks good, it fits me, it’s a good investment and it’s good for people and planet – win, win!! And it’s good for the people behind your product too, it celebrates their work and shows your customers that there are faces behind what they buy. Makes it all that more special.
9) Think about your packaging.
This is one of the easiest ways to be more sustainable. Whether you’ve got to wrap it all up and send it off to your stockists or you’re shipping directly to your customers, there’s a lot of packaging involved. And this generally goes straight to landfill. Fortunately, there are quite a few options on the market for cool, innovative packaging solutions: from recycled, recyclable hangers to hangtags made of seeds that can be planted to dissolvable plastic bags. A pretty simple Google search should bring up quite a few options. At the very least, choose recycled materials.
10) Be patient and progressive, you can’t do everything at once.
If you don’t know anything about sustainability, this all can seem really daunting. But don’t worry, start with something small and achievable. Then, set some goals and milestones for improving your social and environmental impact over time from collection to collection. Reward yourself and shout about it when you’ve found that you’ve made a positive shift. It’s a journey and no designer or big brand is perfect.