The Hot Eco-Fashionista Five Principals of Good Design

Summer Rayne Oakes, the woman named “Hottest Eco Model, OK Only Eco Model” by Grist in 2006 is nothing if not conversation worthy. Which is why, when she walked onto the stage at Sustainable Brands 2010 , I opened my email. However, I quickly closed it and started taking notes when I realized that the 5’11 hottie in sandals and a sundress was pretty damn smart to boot.

Despite her true passion for sludge and bugs (which apparently comes up pretty frequently when she presents), Summer transitioned rapidly into sustainable design in the fashion industry- a topic she noted is appealing to her because it’s currently an oxymoron. The 5 design principals she outlined have relevance far and beyond the fashion world, for anyone who cares about sustainability:

#1: Good design is invisible

The best eco designs don’t have “NOW ECO!” blasted here and there all over the packaging- since they are light on the packaging. The design energy that goes into making a product more sustainable should be spent on the materials used, and on making it good enough to appeal to a broad audience who may or may not care about sustainability.

#2: Good design solves problems

Rather than designing products for the sake of creating demand and moving widgets, settle on the need first and then design a solution. In other words, there are good and bad ways to make a buck. Take laundry products. Some designers spend their time on products that replace one nasty chemical with another, created simply for the purpose of moving product and making money.  Despite the fact that “laundry” is a pretty crowded space, there are plenty of examples of innovation which actually solve a problem and make consumers’ lives better. There are 3rd world solutions like the Swirl Ball which puts the labor and water intensive challenge of clean clothes inside a bouncy ball on a stick. But, innovative design is by no means limited to the 3rd world. A first world example is Cold Water Tide which takes away the need to heat 30 gallons of water to wash a load of sheets.

#3: Good design considers life cycle

All good things must come to an end, and good design will consider what happens at the end of a product’s life. Herman Miller chairs, for example, are designed to be easily broken down, to make the recycling process easier. Ideally, this process should break down into a fully reusable set of components. Which get sent back to the manufacturer for incorporation into new products. “I’m not sure if Herman Miller is there yet, but I bet they are thinking about it”, says Summer.

#4: Good design is transparent

Patagonia is the name of the game here- talking just as much about the sustainability challenges they are currently working to overcome as they do about how environmentally friendly their products are. In return they are trusted and adored by customers for their transparency honesty and good values.

On Stage at SB10 (image from @asheen)

#5: Good design mimics nature

This was Summer’s favorite topic, I think, because many natural fabrics start with bugs and vermin. Many readers will be familiar with the principals of biomimicry— where designers are called to look to the natural word for elegant solutions to problems. Summer geeked out here on spiders producing thread that is nearly as strong as kevlar- doing it without material waste or enormous energy input.

There is no doubt that Summer held her own on the stage, and that she’s managed to do the same whether she’s talking to enviros who are skeptical about the fashion world, or fashionistas who are skeptical about environmentalism. I say go on with your bad self, Girl! Walk that conference floor like a cat walk. Just as long as I can hear more about the sludge if we cross paths.

Jen Boynton

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and normally happy baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.