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5 Things Fashion Designers can do today to Achieve Sustainability

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

What 5 things can do today to incorporate sustainability in design? Advice from industry pros

During the pandemic, the major footwear and apparel sourcing trade show, The Materials Show, went online in its first-ever digital show. As part of three days of networking and education, Inside Fashion Design founder and co-founder of Creative Capital Design, Britta Cabanos, co-moderated a panel on “Sustainability in Design” alongside Jim Chi, of Cascade Management and Oregon Sports Angels. The panel featured professor and industrial designer Matthew Rhoades, eco-fashion writer Sass Brown, sustainability strategist Caroline Priebe, footwear designer, and consultant Pete Lankford, and materials designer Alex Carlson. Here is what we learned about the state of sustainability today at this very special event:

1. The Way We Teach Design Needs to Change, and It’s Starting To

For decades, designers were taught to solve problems with a particular set of parameters in mind: How do you make something quicker and more cheaply?

These days, questions of ethics and sustainability are moving to the forefront of design, transitioning from the realm of industry talk into the classroom, design studio, and manufacturing. The next generation of designers is already learning to consider the other aspects of design and development, and learning to think in new ways.

“Everything is changing,” says educator and designer Matt Rhoades, “The modern DNA of these new designers that are coming out—they’re not just CAD producers, they’re not just graphic designers. Everybody has to be more socially conscious as to what’s happening in the world.” Rhoades says, “In the past, designers never really had any opinion about it. They just wanted to make it lighter weight or more breathable, or look better or more on-trend…I’m trying to get them to be a lot more aware of what’s happening in the bigger world, the bigger picture so that they can bring that to an infinite level within their design.”

2. Designers Can Play a Key Role In Reaching Sustainability Goals

Designer Pete Lankford points out: “The design problem today doesn’t necessarily mean pattern, color or shape anymore…Really, the level of play is about solving for sustainability.”

  • Swap in ideas like “circularity” for sustainability, or look at any option that deviates from the linear business model, and it’s time to start examining where the work of designers fits into the larger puzzle.

  • Design moving forward needs to consider the life of the product beyond the sale to its endpoint. Thanks to their training as problem solvers, and by being there at the very start of the process, designers are uniquely positioned to help companies solve this problem. “In the absence of true strategy, product strategy, it’s up to design to be able to solve the problem for the brand,” says Lankford. How? It’s a long answer, but it one key tenet is “The rule of ‘green is a free gift with purchase’—you can’t ask them to compromise on style or value.”

  • Designers have to build sustainability from the start, designing for durability, repairability, disassembly, and circularity.

  • Designers must challenge the status quo. Even when asked to create something new, there are often a lot of parameters on what designers can do. Ask “Why is it complicated? Why does it need to be complicated?” and challenge the answers.

  • Use those moments of exploration as inspiration to do something new. Then work to show that your ideas are possible. “Showing the proof of concept before things are totally baked is what kind of holds feet to the fire to get things done.” Says materials designer Alex Carlson, “A lot of the time that’s what we need so we don’t get stuck in a rut.”

3. What Comes Next Is a Paradigm Shift

Lankford says, “The next thing is really a leap, a paradigm shift, to say ‘we are now going to build things that are meant to come apart, that are meant to be repaired, that are meant to be streamed on whether it’s in a synthetic or natural cycle.” He describes the footwear industry in the late 2000s as tuned for value, consistency, and scale. Things got really efficient—“It’s kind of like a Big Mac.” Those are completely different practices and goals than creating something that is entirely circular.

4. Start over. Revisit all assumptions about known materials. See how technology has changed.

Lankford points out one example of a company that is developing a new kind of leather that’s engineered to be fertilizer for organic farming at the very end of life. Look back, too. Find old construction techniques that can lead to a new and better-valued product. There are a lot of things that have already been invented but weren’t appropriate at the time.

5. Here’s The One Thing We Can All Do Now

The one thing we can all do today is help raise awareness. Designers and consumers alike need to start asking the hard questions—right now. Hold yourself accountable for your purchases, and encourage your friends to be aware of what’s going on in terms of fashion waste and pollution. Consumers are asking for a high level of transparency in the supply chain. Bigger brands need to rise to the occasion, and governments need textile recycling infrastructure. All of this needs bigger buy-in from the next generation. “Ask that question of ‘Why?’,” says Carlson, “Why do we have fast fashion? How can a tank top be $5?” The decisions you make now have associated costs that affect humans and the planet down the line.

Want to learn more? Here are some of our favorite links, along with learning opportunities:

Like this article? Please share! Have a favorite brand, process, or idea about Sustainable and Ethical Fashion? Please share! We are constantly curious and have a love of learning- we would love to hear your POV!


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