Research: Sustainability in Textiles

Notes from Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher & Lynda Grose:

An interesting comment from the beginning of this book is:

Sometimes… the biggest change comes from a series of small, individual actions rather than from big international declarations – a realization that brings change within the reach of us all. [p10]

This is stark contrast to a textile artist I contacted via email who commented:

I am afraid I have never got involved in the matter of sustainability, as I tend to use very small quantities of material.

Transforming Fashion Products

Sustainability issues:

  • climate change
  • adverse effects on water and its cycles
  • chemical pollution
  • loss of biodiversity
  • overuse and misuse of non-renewable resources
  • waste production
  • negative impacts on human health
  • damaging social effects on producer communities

This list creates a complex trade off of characteristics for each fibre. Sustainability-led innovation roughly divided into:

  • increased interest in renewable source materials
  • Materials with reduced levels of processing ‘inputs’ eg water, energy
  • fibres produced under improved working conditions for growers and processors (Fair-trade fibres)
  • materials produced with reduced waste eg biodegradable, recyclable fibres. Note: biodegradability/ decomposition inhibited if synthetic and natural fibres combined. Facings and trims also need to be considered.

In their book Cradle to Cradle William McDonough & Michael Braungart propose two cycles acceptable in sustainable industrial economy:

  1. composting – waste from one part of economy becomes raw material for another
  2. industrial recycling – materials perpetually reused

Significant challenges to a fibre’s biodegradability:

  1. Design of completely biodegradable garments where all fibres and component parts compost fully and safely.
  2. Development of suitable infrastructure to collect and process compostable fibres
  3. Better information and labelling for biodegradable fibres, specifying composting routes and differences from oil-based degradable or non-degradable synthetics.

People-friendly fibre issues:

  • health and safety issues
  • better working conditions
  • access to unions and living wages
  • larger questions on business models, domestic & global trading practices

Fairtrade is market-based response that emerged from need to maintain industrial production within safe limits – organisational fix. Challenge is for designers to develop relationships themselves.

If virgin fibres are compared on energy profile:

natural fibres < regenerated natural fibres eg viscose < synthetics


Goal -> Action

  • make wise use of natural resources -> minimise # processing steps
  • reduce risk of pollution -> minimise # & toxicity of chemicals
  • minimise energy consumption -> use low temp and/or combine processes
  • minimise water consumption -> eliminate water-intense processes
  • reduce landfill -> minimise waste at all stages

Interesting ideas to incorporate at design stage:

  • utilise natural variation in colour of fibre
  • utilise natural dyes
  • design patterns to minimise/eliminate waste – Sam Forno, Timo Rissanen, MATERIALBYPRODUCT
  • avoid usage of electroplated trims


Designers need to think about both where products are produced as well as how they are transported.

Consumer Care

Focus on cooler temperatures and line drying.


Almost 75% of textiles end up in landfill in UK.

Reuse < Reconditioning < Recycling < virgin fibre production

Take-back schemes oblige manufacturers to accept products for reuse/recycling

Transforming Fashion Systems


  • in a business context
  • trans- and multiple functions
  • trans-seasonal
  • modular
  • changing shapes

Optimised Lifetimes

“A discarded product is not an indicator of poor product quality, but rather of a failed relationship between the product and the wearer” – focus on building emotional response in wearer

Low-impact Use

  • low launder
  • no wash
  • design to stain
  • low iron

Services and Sharing

  • design for repair
  • leasing systems
  • design services


  • locally produced materials
  • utilising skills/heritage/culture local to material production


  • nature as a model – imitation
  • nature as measure – standard of comparison
  • nature as mentor – what can we learn from it?


  • steady state economics
  • rethink concept of fast fashion
  • slow fashion – small-scale production, traditional craft techniques, local materials etc. Focus on diversity


Max-Neef’s taxonomy of fundamental human needs:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

Little brown dress project – Seattle mum wore one brown dress for an entire year.


  • co-design – with users
  • craft
  • fashion hacking

Transforming Fashion Design Practice

Designer as communicator-educator

“A society that talks about creating jobs as if that is something only companies can do, will not inspire the great majority of its people to create jobs for themselves or anyone else” Donella Meadows

Designer as facilitator

  • enabling action and change
  • co-design
  • clothes swaps
  • ready-to-wear vs readiness-to-make
  • act as intensifier – eg use of craft

Designer as activist

working independently, with NGOs or government

Designer as entrepreneur

changing ways of thinking and acting, using new media

possibilities for fashion in a sustainable future:

  • impact rather than trend led
  • pluralistic aesthetic – regionally available materials etc
  • raw materials become scarcer -> other aspects of fashion dominate?
  • products and services adapt to regional/seasonal variation
  • optimise energy/water use
  • work alongside economists, policy makers, ecologists, business etc
  • reference psychology, sociology etc to develop new business models
  • business success measure in social, cultural and environmental value
  • scale of production will be proportional to community
  • scale of production will be defined by ecosystem
  • educational establishments involved in new business models

Organisations and certifications:

Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2012) Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd


Research: Slow Design

Craft – to me this means the process of creating a product. It conjures the idea of taking  skills learnt and refined over time to produce a creation by hand or using relatively basic tools as opposed to mass production.

According to Carolyn F. Strauss and Alastair Fuad-Luke, the guiding principles of Slow Design:

  1. REVEAL – Slow Design reveals experiences in everyday life that are often missed or forgotten, including the materials and processes that can be easily overlooked in an artefact’s existence or creation.
  2. EXPAND – Slow Design considers the real and potential “expressions” of artefacts and environments beyond their perceived functionalities, physical attributes and lifespans.
  3. REFLECT – Slow Design artefacts/environments/experiences induce contemplation and what slowLab has coined ‘reflective consumption’
  4. ENGAGE – Slow Design processes are open-source and collaborative, relying on sharing, co-operation and transparency of information so that designs may continue to evolve into the future.
  5. PARTICIPATE – Slow Design encourages users to become active participants in the design process, embracing ideas of conviviality and exchange to foster social accountability and enhanced communities.
  6. EVOLVE – Slow Design recognises that richer experiences can emerge from the dynamic maturation of artefacts, environments and systems over time. Looking beyond the needs and circumstances of the present day, slow designs are (behavioural) change agents.

I would like to think that this approach to design and making could have a positive impact on our consumption of products as the focus is on quality and the artisan’s skill. However, I cannot help but think that in the end cost will be the overriding factor when the majority of people purchase products. I am not sure that it is naive to believe that people will be willing to pay more for products that they know the history of once the price differential becomes large. Perhaps I am being skeptical however in the main people have a greater desire to find a bargain which would explain the rise of cheaper shops (such as those where everything costs the same) and a race to the bottom on price amongst supermarket chains.

I would like to say that I would be willing to spend more on a product created with these principles in mind however being on a tight budget means that price is a dominant factor on my purchases. On the other hand, the objects that I have the strongest affinity with are those about which I know the production history or maker. In a world full of homogenised products made by faceless corporations, it is refreshing to buy products that can be traced back to a single person.


Strauss, C. and Fuad-Luke, A. The Slow Design Principles: A new interrogative and reflexive tool for design research and practice

[All links accessed 21/3/18]