Sustainable Fashion Design: Oxymoron No More?

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Sustainable Fashion Design:Oxymoron No More?October 2012About BSRBSR works with its globalnetwork of nearly 300member companies to builda just and sustainable world.From its offices in Asia,Europe, and North and SouthAmerica, BSR developssustainable businessstrategies and solutionsthrough consulting, research,and cross-sectorcollaboration. Visitwww.bsr.org for moreinformation about BSR’smore than 20 years ofleadership in sustainability.At the Forefront of a Slow-Moving ShiftSlowly but surely the fashion industry is catching on to corporate socialresponsibility and sustainability. First came the anti -fur campaigns of the 1980sand 1990s. Many brands and retailers have since eliminated the use of fur intheir products or taken measures to ensure good animal welfare conditions intheir fur supply chains. Then, beginning in the late 1990s, numerous sweatshopscandals pressured fashion brands and retailers to implement factory complia ncemonitoring programs. Many now do so either independently or throughcollaborative initiatives such as Better Work or the Fair Labor Association.In the past several years, the fashion industry has faced intensifying criticismabout its environmental footprint and has once again reacted both on a brandlevel, with many brands establishing their own sustainability commit ments andstrategies, as well as on an industry-wide scale with initiatives such as theSustainable Apparel Coalition or the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Cleanby Design campaign. More recently, however, sustainability leaders in thefashion industry have begun moving beyond their initial reactive response towardproactively addressing environmental concerns at the beginning of the valuechain—when garments are designed.Sustainable design in fashion has so far been largely focused on materialsselection. Several brands have developed or are in the process of developingindices that will help their designers and product development teams choosematerials based on environmental impacts throughout the clothing life cycle.Examples of such indices include NIKE Inc.’s Materials Sustainability Index andTimberland’s Green Index, which inspired the broader-reaching Outdoor IndustryAssociation’s Eco-Index. Both NIKE’s index and the Eco-Index have also beenincorporated into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, which iscurrently endorsed by almost 50 industry-leading brands, retailers, and suppliers.This initial progress should be commended and further fostered, but there is onecaveat. While material s selection can influence environmental impactsthroughout the clothing life cycle and is therefore a priority, brands and retailersshould be careful not to equate sustainable desi gn with simply plugging materialsinformation into a computerized tool. Sustainable design requires a more holisticperspective that takes into account not only how fashion is produced, but alsohow it is consumed. After all, sustainable materials will have limited impact if lowquality or poorly designed garments are worn only a few times before they endup in a landfill. In addition, laundering is an impact hot spot for water and energyuse, though designers rarely consider the environmental effects of caring forgarments.BSR Sustainable Fashion Design1

Photos courtesy of BlessusA few examples of this broader approach to sustainable design already exist .Polish-based brand Blessus designs garments with a modular approach. Theyuse panels and zippers to create garments that can be reconfigured into multipleoutfits, thus increasing product versatility and longevity. Timberland’s Design forDisassembly shoes have been created with a few simple components in order tofacilitate end-of-life disassembly and recycling. Other brands, such as Goodone,From Somewhere, and Junky Styling, close the loop by up-cycling pre-consumerwaste or end-of-life castoffs into new garments.Inside the Sustainable Design ProcessAn interview with Nin Castle, cofounder and creative directorof sustainable fashion brand Goodone, reveals the challengesand rewards of sustainable fashion design from thedesigner’s point of view. Goodone, a highly acclaimed brandon the London fashion scene, uses up-cycled fabricscombined with locally and sustainably sourced m aterials tocreate a bold, color-blocked, and fashion-forward aesthetic.What first inspired you to launch Goodone back in 2006?When I graduated, there were not many designers creatingsustainable fashion, or at least not man y design-focused,fashion-forward sustainable brands. While still a student, Idesigned my final collection using sustainable fabrics. At thetime, I was unable to find sustainable fabrics in the U.K. I hadto order some of my materials from Japan or from the UnitedStates. But with shipping costs and import taxes, it becamefar too expensive, and so I started to look into using recycledfabrics.Photo courtesy of GoodoneBSR Sustainable Fashion Design2

Goodone claims to have developed a design method that is informedby the use of recycled fabrics, but not restrained by it. Could youdescribe your design process?I think a lot of people who up-cycle sometimes find it difficult to be inspired bytheir fabrics. Designing by up-cycling creates an additional limitation of whatyou can use and not just what you want to use. For Goodone, it has alwaysbeen important for us to keep design as the main focus. Every garment doesnot have to be 50 percent up-cycled materials, for example. Maybe a certainstyle will be only 20 percent recycled, and the rest will be sustainable and/orlocally sourced materials, depending on the design. Ultimately, sustainabilityhas to work around design—otherwise no one will want to wear your clothes!Despite your philosophy, are there ever moments when you feelrestrained by sustainability in your design process? How do youovercome these challenges?Of course! Sustainable design is basically an absolute nightmare. Thefashion industry is incredibly competitive; yet as a sustainable brand, we faceadditional constraints. Meanwhile, consumers expect to buy our products atthe same price point as those of other nonsustainable brands. At Goodone,we persevere because of how immensely satisfying it is to make a productthat people will buy based on its design, sometimes without even reali zingthat it is sustainable. Designing sustainably also gives us a lasting sense ofpurpose in an otherwise fickle industry.What creative opportunities has sustainability brought to your designprocess?Design is all about problem solving, reconciling what you want to do as adesigner with what is realistically possible. Creative opportunities can comefrom the extra layer of problem solving in sustainable design. Sometimesyour creative process is blocked by sustainability considerations, but thenyou take your design in a different direction and end up creating a muchmore interesting final product.To what extent do you think about the consumer phase (wear, care , anddisposal) when designing?The cradle-to-cradle discussion is common at Goodone. Beca use Goodoneis an up-cycling brand, we already use an end-of-life product in our designs.We also try to make clothes that last, clothes that are fashion -forward yet notso trend-driven that they can only be worn for one season. Closing the loopby reusing our own garments at end of life is an interesting possibility, but notone we have explored yet. As I said before, we have to pick our battles.It is unfortunate that the fashion industry as a whole does not give moreconsideration to the consumer phase. The biggest problem with the fashionindustry today is the way we consume. Materials selection would be muchless important if we were to consume less, better, and more sustainably. Ifconsumers demanded well -made, sustainable fashion and were willing topay for it, sustainability would suddenly become a priority for every fashionbrand. It always comes back to the consumer!Photos courtesy of GoodoneBSR Sustainable Fashion Design3

The World’s Most Sustainable Suit: Fashion’s Concept CarWhile niche-market sustainable brands such as Goodone are alread y well-versedin sustainable design, mass market retailers are beginning to explore this newterritory. T he “world’s most sustainable suit,” launched by leadi ng British retailerMarks and Spencer (M&S) in September 2012, is one of the most advancedexamples of sustainable design in mainstream fashion. Several years in themaking, the suit was designed collaboratively by a team of product developmentand sustainability experts to be as stylish as it is sustainable. Touted by M&S as“one of the greenest garments ever made,” the suit is comprised of organic wool,a lining made of recycled plastic bottles and canvas, and labels made of recycledpolyester, as well as reclaimed buttons and reclaimed fabric for the pockets andwaistband.Mark Sumner, M&S sustainable raw material expert, equates the sustainable suitto a concept car. “Like a concept car,” he says, “the sustainable suit representsour vision for the future of fashion.” As part of its long -term sustainability strategy,known as Plan A, M&S has committed to incorporating at least one sustainableattribute into every single one of its products by 2020. The sustainable suittherefore acts as a limited edition test-run of and opportunity to learn about thepossibilities (and current limitations) of sustai nable fashion. The first of severalsuch sustainable garments to be released over the coming year, the suit hasalready yielded some valuable lessons that can eventually be applied to all M&Sfashion products as well as to the industry more generally.COMPROMISE IN MATERIALS SELECTIONBecause of its many components and exact tailoring, a well -made suit is one ofthe most difficult garments to master under normal circumstances, let alone withthe additional constraints of sustainability concerns. Despite a positive synergybetween the product development team and sustainability experts, Sumnerdescribes how the challenge of designing a sustainable suit brought to lightcertain contradictions inherent to sustainable design.The choice of materials was particularly problematic. While a suit made entirelyof polyester would be the easiest to recycle at end of life, it would be lessmarketable to the target customer who prefers wool. A machine-washable 50/50blend of polyester and wool would forego the need for dry cleaning, but it wouldincrease water use by machine washing and would be more diffi cult to recycle atend of life. Similarly, recycled polyester thread, the most sustainable option forstitching, did not provide the strength and stretch required in a high-quality suit,thus jeopardizing the garment’s longevity. Materials selection therefore requiredcompromise and a delicate balance among different impacts across the suit’s lifecycle.Some elements of construction were also considered as part of t he sustainabledesign process. Fusible interfacing (a stiffer material that is bound to the inside offabric to give a garment its form) makes end-of-life recycling more difficult, forexample, but it was ultimately allowed because it is essential to the tailoredstructure and proper fit of a suit. In fact, aside from materials selection, thesustainable suit was designed, in terms of cut and construction, as a traditionalsuit would be. As Sumner points out, the suit was never meant to be marketed onits environmental credentials, but rather it was developed first and foremostaccording to typical considerations such as style and price.Photo courtesy of M&STHE CONSUMER ROLE IN SUSTAINABLE DESIGNM&S regularly engages with its customers in order to understand consumerperceptions of sustainability. “The U.K. consumer is very much in the process ofevolving his knowledge and view of sustainability,” Sumner observes. “Consumerfeedback is constantly taken into account in our design process as we try toBSR Sustainable Fashion Design4

address those sustainabil ity concerns which our customers have expressed,through focus groups, for example, to be most important.”While M&S was designing the sustainable suit, consumer perceptions weresometimes surprising. At first, customers reacted negatively to lining the suit withrecycled polyester because they intuitively—and falsely—believed that recycledpolyester was of a poorer feel and quality than more conventional choices. T hismisconception indicates that the sustainable suit and other forthcoming conceptgarments may offer learning opportunities for both M&S and its customers. Eachsuit sold in stores will have a QR code (Quick Response code) that customerscan use to search the M&S website for further information about the product’senvironmental impacts.While Sumner feels that it is still too early to draw any conclusions about thesustainable suit, his initial impressions are optimistic. “We hoped and, I think,were able to show both internal teams and the industry that it is possible andrewarding to engage designers in conceiving more sustainable products,” hesays. “One key lesson from this process is already becoming clear: Sustainabilitycan be done in a stylish way and in a commercial way.”Engaging Consum ersSustainable fashion extendsbeyond product design tosystems of production andconsumption. M&S recentlylaunched a fashion initiative inpartnership with Oxfam, whichis fronted by Joanna Lumley,and which is designed toencourage customers torecycle unwanted clothing.Photo courtesy of M&SBSR Sustainable Fashion Design5

Slow Fashion Gains MomentumUnfortunately, the potential positive impacts of selecting sustainable materialsare limited by fast fashion business model s, the current norm among massmarket brands and retailers, which lead to rapid product turnover and high wasteoutputs. The rate at which fashion production cycles have accelerated in recentyears is nothing short of shocking. Just a few decades ago, fashion designerspresented only two collections a year: spring/summer and autumn/winter.Today’s mass market brands rotate their in-store collections as often as everytwo or three weeks, a turnover that equates to roughly 20 collections per year!Meanwhile, fashion consumption has risen steeply due to a penchant for cheapand quick fast fashion fixes. In 2006, a study by Cambridge University found thatBritish consumers were purchasing more than one third more clothing than theyhad been just four years earlier. A study conducted in the same year by KantarWorldpanel (formerly TNS Worldpanel) furthermore found that U.K. consumerswere buying 40 percent of their clothing from value retailers with just 17 percentof their total clothing budget.PRESSURE ON DESIGNERSThe increasing supply and demand for fast fashion has created a vicious cyclethat is spiraling out of control , and designers are struggling to keep up. In 2010,renowned British and Turkish-Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan bought backhis brand from fashion conglomerate PPR in an attempt to relieve the pressure ofconstantly creating at ever-faster intervals. “Being in those houses is like runningon a diamond-plated hamster wheel,” he has been quoted as saying. “You haveto go faster and faster and faster, and chances are still very high [that] you willfall off.” Similarly, designer Tom Ford left Gucci in 2004 and has sincerelaunched his eponymous brand, which now shows only two collections peryear.For some designers, a slow fashion mindset is central to their design processand brand identity. Japanese designer Akira Minagawa, with his brand minaperhonen, is a particularly interesting example of sl ow fashion design. Ratherthan fluctuate from season to season according to the latest trends, hiscollections gradually evolve, reusing or reworking materials and silhouettes fromprevious seasons. For Hermes, a commitment to slow fashion has served toreinforce its brand identity of exceptional quality and exclusivity. In response tohigh demand for its handbags, the French fashion house refused to abandon itstraditional manufacturing techniques or drastically increase production volumes.Rather than deterring frustrated clients, Hermes’ slow fashion approach hasresulted in years-long waiting lists for some of the brand’s most popular modelsand Hermes handbags selling at auctions for more than US 200,000!BSR Sustainable Fashion Design6

mina perhonen2011/2012 Autumn/Wintermina perhonen2012 Spring/Summermina perhonen2012/2013 Autumn/WinterPhotos courtesy of mina perhonenSHIFTING CONSUMER DEMANDIronically, slow fashion designers and bra nds may be ahead of their fast fashioncompetitors in responding to a shifting consumerist paradigm. For more and moreconsumers, the temporary high of buying into the latest of-the-minute fashion isincreasingly fleeting and hollow. In an interview with EcoSalon, Elizabeth Kline,author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, describes thedisillusion that she and other consumers are beginning to feel with fast fashion. “Ithink the pace of fashion has become maddening to a growing numbe r ofconsumers,” she says. “The whole game of fashion feels arbitrary and pointlessnow.”A recent New York Times article confirms Kline’s observation. In the article, trendexperts and style leaders admit that trends are no longer the all -powerful dictumthey once were. Thanks largely in part to the internet, consumers now have accessto an unprecedented wealth of style information and are beginning to trust theirown interpretation and personal taste rather than mimicking select trends diffusedvia fashion advertising and shop windows.It can only be hoped that this disillusion with fast fashion and disinterest in passi ngtrends will translate into greater consumer demand for higher quality, unique piecesthat require more realistic production times. Brands and retailers would then haveno choice but to adapt their products, and business models, to changing consumertastes, thus initiating a more virtuous supply-and-demand cycle with a lessmaddening rhythm for designers and consumers alike.BSR Sustainable Fashion Design7

Thinking Beyond the IndexSustainable fashion design is a nascent concept at the forefron t of the industry’sdecades-long progression toward sustainability. While niche-market sustainablebrands, such as Goodone, have long made sustainable design a core element o ftheir brand identity, mass market retailers such as Marks and Spencer are onlyjust beginning to experiment with sustainably designed concept garments.The cutting edge of sustainable design in the fashion industry is currentlyfocused on selecting more sustainable materials. While materials selection isundoubtedly a priority, brands and retailers must eventually move beyondmaterials selection indices toward a broader definition of sustainable design .Responding to increasing consumer demand for more thoughtfully-designed,higher quality products will require a more systematic approach to sustainabledesign, one that takes into account not only how fashion is produced, but alsohow it is consumed.The NICE* Consumer Vision: A Touchstone for Sustainable Fashion Design* NICE stands for Nordic Initiative Clean & Ethical, which is a project under the Nordic FashionAssociation. The NICE Consumer is a joint project between the Danish Fashion Institute (throughNICE) and BSR to create a framework for engaging consumers on the sustainable consumption offashion.BSR Sustainable Fashion Design8

ReferencesAlexander, Ella. “Record-Breaking Bag.” Vogue U.K. 2011. ks-records.“Author Interview: Elizabeth Cline.” EcoSalon. 2012. -fashion/.Fashion Focus. Issue 29. TNS Worldpanel . 2006.Friedman, Vanessa. “Fashion: Creative Destruction.” The Financial Times. 7a-00144feab49a.html#axzz27TJGttpP.La Ferla, Ruth. “In Fashion, Are Trends Passé?” The New York Times. 2012.

of sustainable fashion brand Goodone, reveals the challenges and rewards of sustainable fashion design from the designer’s point of view. Goodone, a highly acclaimed brand on the London fashion scene, uses up-cycled fabrics combined with locally and sustainably sourced materials to create a bold, color-blocked, and fashion-forward aesthetic.