As part of being an ambassador for AYCH and an advocate for circular design strategies, I recently wrote an article for the ATLANTIC YOUTH CREATIVE HUBS blog about my views on the future of design. Whilst I could have gone a lot more in depth, I wrote this as an introduction for anyone who is interested in learning more about circular and sustainable design strategies but perhaps doesn't know where to start.
Although not a new concept, for the last few years the term ‘sustainability’ has become more trendy and talked about than ever before. Thanks to social media now allowing customers to directly ask brands questions such as ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ for the annual Fashion Revolution Week, where they have sourced their fabrics and how their packaging can be recycled, the power is now in the consumer’s hands. It is essential for us to ask the right questions and to push for better working conditions, equality within workplaces, quality finishes that increase longevity and less manufacturing waste for the sake of both our planet. However, it is not just about reconsidering the structure of new products that fall under the sustainable category, we also need to better appreciate what we already own and to acknowledge how we can bring a little TLC to our belongings, whether it is by fixing what is broken, adding custom elements or passing items onto a friend if the fit or style no longer suits. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with what is available to us now, both on our high streets and online, but there is power to be found in the idea that with every purchase you make, you are deciding what sort of future you wish to support.
It is estimated that by 2030 when the population is set to hit 8.5 billion, if we don’t change our spending habits we will buy 63 percent more fashion with a total of 102 million tons per year… that’s around 500 billion t-shirts! (1). For years fashion has used trends to guide customers and seasonal schedules, and typically since home-sewn garment culture has become less popular, there has always been two key releases per year for spring/summer and autumn/winter. However, since cheap labour became commonplace through the invention of fast fashion and overseas production in the 1980’s, this number has risen to now being between thirty to forty ‘drops’ (collections of clothing) per year from selected high street stores. This is all well if each item is worn and appreciated but unfortunately it is said that an average American throws away 80 pounds of used clothing per year, with only 2.62 million tons recycled and a whopping 10.46 million tons sent to landfill (2). It is not only the item itself that causes so much waste either, the initial manufacturing process requires enormous levels of water and energy to produce single items and it is a system that cannot be sustained for much longer. Another issue we face is the use of synthetic fabrics such as spandex, nylon and polyester which can be practical, stretchy and highly customisable but unfortunately when washed encourage microfibres into our waste streams which continue to the ocean at a scale that is unidentifiable to the human eye, but negatively impacts marine life. What is coming to light during the global pandemic is a change in how designers present their collections and a movement into fashion weeks being viewed online, therefore reducing conventional ‘seasons’ that will allow slower and more considered creativity and a push for shorter, more local supply chains.
With many of us realising that we cannot continue to manufacture and consume at the rate we currently are if we wish to have a healthy planet in the future, there has been a surge in popularity for slow fashion and a ‘buy less but better’ attitude. As the demand for sustainable products continues to rise, the issue that many manufacturers and consumers are finding is price. The cost of organically grown fabrics is still much higher than conventional and an eco-conscious lifestyle is often seen as a luxury limited to those who are able to afford it… but I think there are many different approaches that do not require lots of money such as browsing charity shops, swapping clothes with friends, using rental services such as Plymouth based Dressbox and using second-hand vintage and resale stores. If we each reassess our own habits and make space for a deeper appreciation for what we own, we may find that feel more satisfaction with less in the long run.
I think what is most exciting about the push towards improving the global supply chain is the experimental approach many creatives are having to design and the level of innovation that is coming out of a necessary change. Whether it is sewing collectives that are teaching different generations how to darn and patch their favourite items so they can be continued to wear, 3D modelling and on-demand manufacture that cancels out waste or bio-designers that see the use in food scraps and how alternative materials used in fashion could also help reduce issues within other systems such as agriculture; sustainability isn’t just limited to one area, it concerns all that we do.
There is so much information available online, via podcasts and books on the topic it can sometimes feel hard to navigate, so I have put together my top recommendations for how you can learn more about sustainable fashion and design.
Ask questions. Would you like to know more about where your favourite brand produces it’s designs? Use social media to ask them to tell you more or research into others who may have already done so. Many companies are ‘greenwashing’ which means they appear more sustainable than they are, so it is always worth asking.
Think about what you want to express. What we wear and how we adorn our personal spaces is a direct reflection of ourselves and an expression of what we believe in, our interests and a way we can communicate without words. Maybe you want to say that your friend made your jacket or it is just as unique as you are. By choosing independent brands or by attending second-hand markets, there is no saying what shiny gems you might find and chances are there won’t be many others like it.
Reconnect with nature. Play around with how flowers and natural fauna can change the colour of fabrics. If your favourite t-shirt could do with some excitement, why not try not to try a simple tie dye technique using turmeric powder, tea leaves or beetroot. Australian based brand Tinta have put together a beginners guide to natural dying and on their blog you’ll find a great film shot in Japan about the history of the colours you can achieve using natural materials. https://studiotinta.com.au/blogs/journal/in-search-of-forgotten-colours-sachio-yoshioka-and-the-art-of-natural-dyeing. A favourite of mine, California based Older Brother solely uses natural dyes and demonstrates what a wonderful finish you can get from non-toxic chemicals.
Learn how to repair. Search on youtube different stitch techniques or how to darn knitwear. Patagonia has some quick fix guides or check out my friend Molly who has been teaching online Japanese Sashiko repair workshops during quarantine.
Organise swap parties or sign up to a clothing rental service. Need a special dress for an event, outfit for an interview or just feel like trying a new look? There are alternatives to buying brand new items which will save you money and encourage pieces to be worn more than once. Why not organise a clothes swap with your friends who also want to refresh their wardrobes or look into rental services such as Plymouth based Dressbox which allows you to borrow multiple items at the one time, letting you wear new pieces without the commitment of owning them.
(1.) Thomas. D, 2019, Fashionopolis, CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon.
(2.) The Balance Small Business https://www.thebalancesmb.com/textile-recycling-facts-and-figures-2878122
[The Butterfly Diagram (Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, 2015: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/TCE_Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation_9-Dec-2015.pdf]
[Microscopic views of microfibers. Photos: Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB. via Patagonia: https://www.patagonia.com/stories/what-do-we-know-about-tiny-plastic-fibers-in-the-ocean/story-30357.html]
[Leather alternatives made from pinapple skin via Haeckels https://haeckels.co.uk/journal/leather-alternatives/]