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Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

Conscious Design Can Drive Systemic Change in the Fashion Industry


The fashion industry as a whole doesn't have a great reputation. Consider the culture of overconsumption and the growing tidal wave of low-quality, rock-bottom-priced products. How can it ever become truly sustainable?

Many companies have made strides in water conservation, eco-labels and have even engaged with consumers to talk about consumption. However, there is another avenue that can effect more widespread change: making better choices in the design phase.

To get more information, I spoke with Holly McQuillan, senior lecturer at Ngā Pae Māhutonga - the School of Design, and Debera Johnson and Tara St. James of the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA, part of the Pratt Institute), to discuss challenges in fashion and how change at the design level could impact the industry.

According to St. James, fashion has huge challenges at every level of the supply chain, from designers to manufacturers and consumers.

Material waste

McQuillan says that, in 2015, the fashion industry will produce 400 billion meters of fabric -- just for apparel. This is roughly the amount of fabric it would take to cover the entire state of California. Fifteen percent, or 60 billion meters, will be wasted during the production phase (extra fabric, itself a finished product, that ends up on the cutting room floor), before the garments even reach a consumer. The number of garments created each year is the equivalent of everyone in the world having 20 new items annually.

This excessive oversupply is driven by pressure on consumers to buy large numbers of garments and frequently replace them in order to keep up with changing fashions.

"The idea of fast fashion is like the packaging industry, where it’s used and thrown away very quickly, rather than the product that’s inside that’s of lasting value. So, when you start to imagine that kind of waste that’s produced from that kind of manufacturing, really it’s not fashion anymore, it’s packaging. It’s packaging for people," Johnson says.

McQuillan believes one solution is for items to be designed out of natural fibers (and could be compostable, like Freitag’s recent line), unlike the blended fabrics in common use today. A garment that is all cotton, or all polyester, can be recycled. But blend the two, and the fabric becomes a recycling liability. A design change could remedy this. Thoughtful use of zippers and buttons that are durable but can be removed later would also aid in end-of-life disposal.

As a designer, how do you encourage consumers to keep a garment? 

McQuillan thinks outside the box. “What if there were jeans that could be changed from boot-cut to thin-leg? Or a top that could go from a high neck to a low one? If there was a place you take them or send them to be altered and returned to you?” McQuillan asked. “Wouldn’t that make a great business model?”

Water conservation and traceability

Perhaps more than any other issue, many consumers are aware of the problem of water waste in fashion – both during production and consumer wear. Series sponsor, Levi’s, has made great strides in this area, developing a production process that uses less water for its Water<Less Jeans. This product came to fruition when the company took a step back and tackled the problem in the design phase. The company also encourages customers not to wash their jeans, engaging shoppers and saving valuable resources.

As for traceability, "You can grow cotton in North Carolina, ship it to Colombia to have it turned into T-shirts (or Mexico or Bangladesh), and it's very hard to track where it started and where it ended up," Johnson says.

Johnson and St. James believe that all these concepts are hard to convey to consumers in a manageable way, and many designers don't understand them, either, which exacerbates the problem. A few brands have tried to capture this information. Customers can track the journey of their clothes with Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles program, and Timberland has launched an eco-label to make its products more transparent.

Design and changing fashion from the ground up

Many consumers don’t realize that garments are still made almost entirely by hand. While some industries have become automated, fashion is still created by people sitting down at machines and sewing. Despite recent mainstream news stories about horrible working conditions in sweatshops, factory fires and worker deaths, the concept still seems too remote for consumers to comprehend. Most customers don’t know how many hours of effort it takes to produce one piece of clothing. This ignorance has contributed to our current unsustainable state of fashion, McQuillan explains.

“Historically, wardrobes were treated better because garments cost more and were of higher quality. Now we don’t care [about our clothes] because clothes are so cheap. Fashion has never been cheaper than it is now." McQuillan says. Although she doesn't think we will see a huge change in the fashion industry in our lifetime, she remains optimistic. "[But] cultures change, so therefore the culture we have now can change.”

Right now, consumers can, and do, go out and buy a $5 shirt, and when it wears out in a few months, spend five more dollars to replace it.

How can consumers believe that a shirt only costs $5 to make? In the face of getting a good deal, many consumers don't want to look beyond that, but it is inherently an unsustainable business model. Somewhere that inequity has to be absorbed, and most often, Johnson says, it is another country’s economy that shoulders that burden.

McQuillan, Johnson and St. James, who all contribute to the education of emerging generations of designers, tell a similar story. Even when students love design, surprisingly they often don’t know about all the design choices they can make at the beginning of the process to improve the product and improve the industry.

St. James explains that when they work for a big brand, often designers only see part of the production process, and because the fashion supply chain is so complex, they are making design decisions based on limited understanding. However, sustainability is being built into many more fashion programs. Johnson puts the number at 35 and counting, and the increased awareness is making a difference.

A small manufacturing facility itself, BF+DA guides designers and small labels to develop their own lines by teaching them to look at the whole picture and make informed, sustainable decisions. Not only does it open designers' eyes when they are able to see the process from beginning to end in-house (people making the pattern, people cutting the fabric, people sewing the garments), but it is also eye-opening for the public, who are welcome to tour the facility.

"A lot of the corrections [to the industry] that are being made, are being made after [a product's design] -- not during the design process where they could really have the most impact," St. James says.

The only part of the process BF+DA cannot do (yet) is make their own fabric, but the school helps designers find the most sustainable options by helping them ask the manufacturers the right questions and feel empowered enough to ask.

"The goal for the BF+DA," Johnson says, "is to share [its knowledge] with as many people as possible. Sometimes people really want to do it [design sustainably], but they just don't have a clue as to how to start."

To that end, BF+DA is about two months from launching a website to describe the process and invite a virtual walk through.  The site will walk them through the process and also help them learn to approach design consciously by understanding sustainability from multiple perspectives like water, toxicity, energy usage and work force conditions.

If new generations of designers bring conscious and ethical thought to the design phase of the process, progress may begin to permeate the fabric of the industry from the ground up. With these programs and others, more designers will be able to see the big picture and learn the right questions to ask in order to make sustainability start at the beginning.

Image credit: Peter Tannenbaum, used with the permission of Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator and the Pratt Institute. 

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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