Circle Economy
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Circle Economy

Design out waste! (Step 2)

This is the second step of our 5-step plan to circularity. Read step 1 here.

Designers are often seen as being at the helm when it comes to driving sustainable change in the fashion Industry. And it’s no wonder why, when an estimated 80% of a product’s environmental and economic impact is determined at the design stage. But with great power comes great responsibility, and we must ensure that designers have both in equal measure.

In order to inform and empower designers to effectively drive this change and enable a circular fashion industry, we’re expanding on two of the design principles we believe are critical in moving past the concept of waste.

After WW2, the bid to encourage ‘consumption as a way of life’ triggered a unanimous drive toward mass-produced, disposable goods, and new levels of hyperconsumption were made possible through the twin methods of planned and perceived obsolescence. Today, both strategies continue to be adopted by the fashion industry, and with success: between 2000 and 2014, for example, consumers have increased yearly consumption by 60%, but use their clothing for about half as long.

The first cornerstone in beating planned and perceived obsolescence is to design garments that last: extending the life of clothes by an extra nine months of active use alone would reduce carbon, water, and waste footprints by around 20–30% each.

Physical Durability

Whether it is using high quality materials, finishings, and construction, or ensuring that style and fit are timeless and not trend-sensitive — physical durability is all about designing and constructing a garment so that it can resist damage and wear, and serve a long and useful life. In the past, this was common practice (who can forget these infamous unbreakable stockings from the 1950s!) but now it is a novelty and a niche, with a few pioneering souls pushing durability to the max.

Emotional Durability

That said, durability this is not all about quality — emotional durability plays an important role too. After all, why is it that we cling so dearly to the 80s denim our mother gave us, or the sweater we bought during college years? Research posits that by designing garments that engage and delight the consumer over time, such as Patagonia’s pre-loved Worn Wear collection, our heightened emotional attachment to and satisfaction with them can ultimately save them from landfill.

Mythbuster: Some scientists and design experts are questioning whether longer garment lives are always necessarily a good thing. A new school of thought, trialed by Filippa K and Mistra Fashion Futures, is pushing for fashion to adopt appropriate lifecycles. The groundbreaking research is debunking the notion that ‘slow fashion’ is always preferable to ‘fast fashion’. When designed with intent, could a short-cycle, hyper-recyclable garment be the future of fashion?

While designing for long life is a basic and critical principle, the unavoidable truth is that all garments will eventually be disposed of by the consumer. And what then? All good things must come to an end, and good design will plan for this inevitable moment of disposal. The extension of a long-life garment, is a garment that is built to have multiple lives.

Design for Repair and Redesign

While the repair and reuse of garments is often tackled through the business model itself — e.g. Mud Jeans’ jean leasing scheme or the LENA library — clever design and the application of disassembly and modularity principles can further optimise such strategies. Conducting research and user testing to assess where the damage is likely to occur in a garment allows us to design in such a way that product parts can be easily replaced, upgraded, or fixed.

Design for Recycling

At present, many design approaches to recycling are ‘reactive’ as they attempt to work with existing waste streams at the point of disposal. Designers need to adopt a more ‘pro-active’ systems-based approach that identifies potential barriers to recycling at the outset and in doing so ‘design out’ complicating factors.

In order for this to happen in practice, manufacturers and designers must first understand the processes that occur at a product’s end-of-life, so that they can ensure their products have effective ‘inbuilt’ recycling routes and can be easily (and fully) incorporated back into the material cycle.

Basic guidelines include the use of mono fibre and mono material for ease of recycling (Kate Goldsworthy’s collection is a great example!), the elimination of hazardous toxins, dyestuffs, and coatings, and the elimination of heavy hardware and/or electronics.

Of course, designing for cyclability is context-dependent and should be flexible, as technology is in constant development. Therefore, it is critical that designers foster active and ongoing relationships with the recovery solution providers themselves, to move beyond ‘guesstimate’ principles and co-develop dynamic and comprehensive design guidelines that match the input material requirements of available and advancing recycling technologies.

Mythbuster: Unfortunately, just because a garment is technically ‘recyclable’ does not mean that it will be practically recycled. No matter how much care is put into the design, after a garment ‘made for recycling’ has reached end of use, to expect it to get back to a producer with the recycling capabilities needed to actually turn it back into usable fibres is currently unrealistic. Approximately 75% of post-consumer textiles are never even collected and from the 20% that is collected most is sold on for re-use or downcycling. Keep an eye out for step 5 in the series, where we will explain what is needed to overcome this leak in the system.

Here’s what you can do to get started!

  • Consider the purpose of your garment and what the appropriate lifecycle for that function is.
  • Consider what parts your garment is made of (tags, zipper, basic fabric, buttons, etc.) and research and assess the impact, durability and recyclability of component parts.
  • Consider what will happen to your garment at end-of-life and how you can design your product so that repair, reuse and recycling is not only possible, but probable.
  • Get inspired by those who are pushing the boundaries in this space including MUD jeans, Freitag, and Filippa K.
  • Deep dive into the topic:
  • Circular Design Guide (EMF/IDEO)
  • Close the Loop
  • The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan

We will dig deeper into our 5-step plan at Beyond Green 2017. Stay in the loop.



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Circle Economy

Circle Economy

We empower businesses, cities and nations with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into action.