By Kendall Robbins

01 February 2019 - 10:41


Faber Futures x Gingko Bioworks Residency, 2017. Garment specifically pattern cut to be dyed by the S. Coelicolor pigment. Image courtesy Faber Futures.

Ahead of London Fashion Week on 15-19 February 2019, the British Council’s Kendall Robbins writes about sustainability in fashion, and how we could all make a difference through design.

A lot has happened since 2015 to help the world better understand the global threat of climate change.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that human choices could cause irreversible damage to the environment as early as 2030. They've done this through their 2018 report on the impact of global warming of 1.5°C above pre–industrial levels.

The topic is becoming more prevalent in popular culture, whether it’s David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II television series that revealed the impact of plastic pollution in our oceans to a general audience in 2017, or exposés into how major luxury fashion brands burn unsold stock worth millions of pounds to maintain their brand exclusivity.

Ethical buying is rising 

Do you know anyone who went plastic free? Or, do you know anyone who became vegan or started using a reusable flask instead of single-use coffee cups? According to the UK Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2018 there was a 19.9 per cent increase in ethical clothing purchases in 2017 compared to 2016. Ethical food and drink consumption was up 16.3 per cent, the largest increase since 2012, propelled by the growing sales of vegetarian and vegan products. The report also revealed that 25 per cent of surveyed respondents had avoided buying a product or using a service due to its negative environmental impact – an increase of 65 per cent.

Design is an important part of the solution

Beyond our choices as consumers, how can we change the production and consumption system for the better?

Design is fundamental to this process. It is through design that we plan and create the products, systems and materials that are made, consumed and often wasted. Design and creativity play a role in protecting our environment and world. 

It’s not just how you make a product, but what it’s made of

In fashion, this usually means a range of textiles – natural fibres including cotton, linen, silk and wool; semi-synthetic fibres derived of natural materials but treated chemically, such as rayon, lyocell and modal; and synthetic fibres, such as polyester, nylon, fleece or acrylic.

Producing these materials causes water waste, deforestation and over-farming. They can take thousands of years to decompose or even pollute waterways by shedding micro-fibres during washing.

Beyond fashion, products are made of materials that are mined or grown, processed and eventually disposed of. The Plastic Pollution Coalition’s research shows that plastic, made of a harmful and non-renewable fossil fuel, takes more than 2,000 years to break down with only eight per cent being recycled.

Three ways that people use design to meet global challenges

Ma-tt-er is a materials research design studio, consultancy and school that advises, designs and educates. In her recent book Why Materials Matter, ma-tt-er founder and director Seetal Solanki makes a case for why new materials can be a solution for the world’s global challenges. The book asks about the mundane and everyday materials of our lives, how science is innovating materials and their possibilities, and when put into action how these materials have the potential to create more responsible design.

SOYA C(O)U(L)TURE, developed by the female Indonesian design and free technology collective XXLab, uses liquid soya waste from tofu and tempeh production to grow alternative energy, food and bio material using bacteria and tissue culture. The project aims to reduce water pollution as well as poverty by using edible cellulose. Treating waste as a resource, XXLab has used design to re-purpose the value of this waste product.

Natsai Audrey Chieza at Faber Futures uses nature as the source of her design inspiration, harnessing lessons from biology and applying them to bio fabrication in collaboration with scientists and technologists. Streptomyces coelicolor, or S.coelicolor, is the first pigment created through a set of instructions that generate colour from bacteria written in invisible strands of DNA. S.coelicolor cuts out excess water and chemicals often used in traditional textile dyeing and the resulting industrial water pollution.

Find new materials and re-purpose waste materials

Material exploration doesn’t need to be intimidating. The open platform Materiom provides open source recipes for bio-materials. If you can get there in person, materials libraries – such as the Materials Library at the Institute of Making – are a resource of material possibilities. Material Connexion offers materials from around the world, with a database of suppliers and producers, and helps organisations and schools who want to build their own libraries.

Designer Christopher Raeburn is known for his re-purposing of waste textiles such as military parachutes. You can participate in up-cycling workshops at his studio. Finnish designers Tauko use discarded hospitality rental textiles, such as hotel bedding or tablecloths, to create contemporary fashion pieces. You could try the same with textiles from a local charity shop.

New economic models and systems

In the current industrial market economy, the approach is linear and focuses on extracting natural resources and making a product, that is consumed and disposed of. This approach pollutes the air, land, soil, oceans and freshwater ecosystems while negatively affecting low- to middle-income countries and women the most.

A circular economy model proposes instead to avoid waste and pollution by keeping materials and resources in use for as long as possible.

Two circular economy approaches in fashion

Emerging British menswear designer Bethany Williams uses circular economy approaches in her fashion collections. In her Breadline collection, she collaborated with Tesco and the Vauxhall Food Bank in London. She exchanged fresh fruit and vegetables from Tesco for household waste items from the food bank users, and developed them into textiles combined with recycled Tesco cardboard packaging.

Sustainable fashion rental company Higher Studio offer a curated library of new and archive stock by sustainability minded designers. The purpose of the library is to reduce the need to buy new product by providing a rental service. This liberates designers from the seasonal system, allowing them to be more experimental and client-focused.

Learn about the circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotes a transition to a circular economy. Their Circular Design Guide takes readers through different systems for circularity and the role of design. It provides a series of workshops, videos and tools for working with students. The Foundation also works with schools and colleges to develop new circular economy curriculum.

Circular economy also suggests slowing down

As consumers we are pushed to buy more, and more frequently, which means more must be designed and produced. The reverberations can be felt across the supply chain, with demands on farmers, manufacturers and their employees, designers and other people in the industry from press to advertising. In fashion, this has become an unsustainable model. Designers have to create new work very quickly for major fashion weeks. They are expected to turn around a 30-piece collection for each season, along with some mid-way seasons such as resort or pre-season collections.

In 2016, the Business of Fashion questioned whether this was having a detrimental effect on the mental health of those within the fashion industry. New systems and approaches began emerging, and some designers began opting not to show every season or do catwalk shows. Curator and Founder of Laundry Arts, Georgina Johnson, launched her Slow Fashion to Save Minds manifesto, to propose a new way of thinking about fashion at levels from design to production to consumption and increase awareness of its relationship with mental health and sustainability. Burn out is becoming a trend associated with young adults, and the fashion and design industries are suffering from it as well.

The role of craft in the community

The circular economy model advocates extending the lifespan of products; the introduction of more durable materials can help this. The idea of slowing down has given rise to a more craft-based approach, celebrating the hand-made, local ecological contexts and natural materials as well as community. Designer-maker Katie Jones draws on the knitting and crocheting she learned from her grandmother to produce luxury fashion collections. The brand also offers make-it-yourself patterns and workshops so that consumers can learn the skill themselves and make their own clothes.

In Thailand, PhraeCraft is a group of Artisans working in traditional and contemporary crafts who promote their network through events like the Phrae Craft Festival. They do this to reach new generations of potential makers, and demonstrate the role of craft in the community and on the environment.

Slow down by learning a craft

The Craft Council of England runs initiatives to promote craft as a career for young people. Their education manifesto outlines ways to get craft on the curriculum and makers into the classroom to share skills and act as role models.

UNESCO recognises craft as an intangible cultural heritage and encourages its preservation and the passing down of skills. With the European Union, UNESCO has launched a new project to bring craft into the classroom, including a new curriculum and pilots focusing on craft. An apprenticeship with master craftspeople at organisations like the Goldsmith's Centre can be a way to slow down.

The International Fashion Showcase is a programme for 16 emerging international designers, and includes a London residency. You can see the designers' work during London Fashion Week on 11-24 February 2019 at Somerset House, London.

More resources to learn about sustainable design

London College of Fashion’s How Can We Make Fashion More Sustainable free e-learning course

Disruptive Innovation Festival

Fashion Revolution’s How to be a Fashion Revolutionary Guide

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