Responsible Design Starts at the Design Phase

“Up to 80% of a garment’s environmental impact is decided in the design phase. Only a few designers and product developers realize their potential to create sustainable change through their decision[s].”

Jonas Eder-Hansen, Vice President & Development Director at the Danish Fashion Institute, Recycling International

Designers have incredible power to bring sustainability into each step of the lifecycle of their creations. Design decisions, fabric choices, and how brands market the use and disposal of their pieces each have powerful impacts on people and planet.

Part of what sets sustainable fashion designers apart are the hundreds of small decisions, each requiring deep analysis and thoughtful research, that go into creating a more mindful garment. And if it weren’t already challenging enough, many sustainable designers often have fewer options and resources at their disposal, which means making the wrong choices can have significant consequences.

As any sustainable designer knows, there is no product creation that can have zero environmental impact – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t strive for lower impact. One of the most sustainable design choices any brand can make is the longevity expected – and encouraged – for the life cycle of a garment. Thankfully there are many creative design options to mix and match from.

DESIGN

SEASONLESS: Design styles that transition smoothly between seasons and easily layer as weather grows cooler. This may reduce net development costs, as you are creating styles that can play longer-lasting wardrobe roles which you can just tweak over time. Additionally, providing these types of choices encourages customers to invest in slow, seasonless fashion.

TIMELESS: Avoid designs that are too trendy. Choose classic and timeless shapes or styles outside of trends that allow for longer customer enjoyment. These pieces cost your customer far less per wear, and this makes it easier for designers to use the ethical, sustainable materials and production methods that are often much pricier than the “norm” of synthetic fabrics sewn in sweatshop conditions.

ONE SIZE: Bodies fluctuate season to season and year to year. By creating relaxed fits in limited sizes or one size which can work on a variety of sizes and bodies, you reduce the need for synthetics (no stretch needed!) as well as simplify production since you will not need to manufacture a variety of sizes (meaning less patterns, samples, and development costs for you!). Brands like Kowtow and EILEEN FISHER have successfully marketed this model.

ADJUSTMENTS: Try creative details such as a closure with two width options or elastic to allow for easy adjustments. Allowing for longer hem allowances that can be let out, or raw hems that can be brought up. Consider options like pockets that can be sewn in or out as bodies change, and waistlines that can be adjusted with belts or ties. Try doing fittings on multiple fit models to make sure styles work on a wider range of bodies.

FILL A NEED: While there is still much space for growth in sustainable fashion, there are also certain areas of the market that are becoming saturated. Before you begin your next organic t-shirt line or Made in America yoga pants, make sure there is a need for an additional styles in this category, or that you are offering something so unique that your pieces will easily stand out.

TEST: There are now a plethora of fantastic ways to test out immediate customer interest before creation, from focus groups to pre-sales to crowdfunding. Check out companies like Grammar and their successful Kickstarter collection of white button down shirts, or Maven Women which allows customers to vote on their favorite styles before production begins.

ZERO WASTE: Before you even begin manufacturing, careful design can also be used to reduce waste during the production process. Creating zero waste designs – meant to use all the available fabric draped in pleats, folds, and gathers – can cut down significantly on fabric waste. While zero waste may not be feasible for every designer’s aesthetic, creative patternmaking can ensure that as little waste is created as possible.

SKIP SPANDEX: Creative design can even allow for more sustainable fabric choices by creating shapes that have room to bend and move without the need for synthetic stretch like spandex or lycra. Roomier cuts like batwing sleeves, dropcrotch or wide leg pants, or building in gathers or pleats will allow for extra fabric when needed, offering the comfort customers expect without the synthetics. And for when you do need some extra stretch? Try designing on the bias!

Related story: 10 Fashion Brands Innovating with Textile Waste

FABRIC

While there can be much debate over the environmental impacts and usefulness of various fabrics, fabric selection is one of the most challenging – and most important – choices a designer can make for socially and environmentally conscious production.

SOURCING: Start with producers who share your values rather than conventional fabric companies. Look to source from sustainable mills and distributors rather than looking to match a conventional material, as that might not exist at the price point and MOQs you need if at all.

REUSE: Look for reclaimed materials or recycled fibers like recycled cottons, polyesters, wools, nylons, and others to prevent the need for new resources. If you can’t find the right reclaimed materials, choose textiles that can be recycled or biodegraded at the end of a garment’s life cycle – just note that most blends cannot be recycled or biodegraded, so sticking to 100% of a specific fiber will allow for the best end-of-life.

LONGEVITY: Livia Firth’s #30wears challenge encourages consumers to think of longevity in their purchases, but it’s also up to designers to choose the fabrics that can withstand the test of time. Choose durable fabrics that can be worn at least 30 times for at least ten years. Make sure to properly educate your customer on their care and be realistic about what may work for each customer’s lifestyle.

WRINKLES: If your customer is particularly sensitive to wrinkles or hates ironing (as many people are due to our culture’s use of polyester and toxic fabric processing to create “wrinkle-free”), try naturally wrinkle-resistant materials like knits instead of wovens.

MOQs: No matter how much you may love a certain textile, if you can’t meet the MOQs or price point it isn’t the right option for you. Create your own miniature sourcing library of fabrics that meet your price point, MOQs, and sustainability guidelines so you’ll have reasonable expectations of what you have to work with.

BE REALISTIC: As desirable as it is to trace cotton to the literal farm or factory it comes from, for smaller brands that is tough if not impossible. Until you become a super sleuth, look to certifications like organic and fair trade. Don’t let perfect be your enemy and just do the best you can when you start, keeping in mind where you’d like to land when you do scale up.

Related story: The (Near) Impossibility of Organic Cotton Traceability

PRODUCTION

Fashion supply chains are notoriously long and complex. One way to have greater control over the impacts of production is to keep it to as few steps and as local as possible. Choosing fabric options local to yourself or your factory cuts down on transportation costs and their environmental impacts. It also reduces challenges that can arise from dealing with many locations often spread out over multiple countries. And it also makes your oversight of ethical and social issues easier — it uses far fewer resources to closely monitor and builds relationships with a few groups in one locality rather than over a dozen spread around the globe.

Try to see if you can:

-Source fibers in the same region as your mills
-Source textiles in the same region as your factory
-Consider manufacturing in a country you will be selling in

And don’t forget hang tags, care labels, trims, and packaging – these can be sourced locally, too.

WASTE

Textile waste is a massive problem but it’s also an opportunity for designers to lead the way on solutions. Designers need to talk to one another and figure out alternative solutions. We are in the beginning phases of tackling the textile waste crisis which means all ideas are welcome and needed.

DISPOSAL: Look for a partner that can do wonders with your “waste.” Fabric scraps and non-wearable samples made out of 100% cotton, polyester, or wool may be able to be boxed up and donated to FABSCRAP, a New York-based organization that offers pickups in New York City and also accepts donations mailed in from other parts of the country. They find the most appropriate use for your materials, from insulation to design school projects. Some factories may also have their own programs like the fair trade, eco-conscious factory Mehera Shaw in India, whose partner the Meher Road Foundation promotes women’s micro-entrepreneurship and turns your scraps into upcycled accessories.

RECYCLE: Another way to help with end-of-life waste is to offer your customers a way to thoughtfully dispose of items when they are done with them. Many large retailers offer in-store recycling programs in partnership with I:CO, and you may be able to set one up yourself or a community collection center in collaboration with other small designers.

UPCYCLE: You can also consider using “scraps” to create new small goods designs, such as unique scarves, belts, or pocket squares, or donate your non-sellable samples to creative friends who may be able to turn them into their own unique pieces. That dress with the too-tight skirt from your second fitting may make a fantastic top for someone through minimal tailoring.

BUY BACK: Buy back programs help close the loop, like Bead & Reel who offers to buy back gently-used sustainable pieces to re-sell on the growing second hand market.

DONATE: Encourage donations to local homeless shelters, clothing drives for those affected by natural disasters, or other (carefully vetted) charitable organizations.

While there is no “perfect” sustainable garment, there are many steps each designer can take throughout the design and production process to help bring down the environmental and social impacts.

Where will you start?

Rebecca Ballard is a lawyer, advocate, and the founder of Maven Women, which creates socially conscious, elegant workwear and day to evening attire for women thoughtful about people and the planet at each step. Feel free to contact her at Rebecca@mavenwomen.com.

Sica Schmitz is a consultant, activist, and the founder of the award-winning ethical boutique Bead & Reel. She is a Fair Trade LA board member, Fashion Editor of Vilda Magazine, and founder of the annual Fair Trade Fashion Show in Los Angeles. You can connect with her at sica@beadandreel.com.