The Power of The Designer To Create Sustainable Change

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.

– Jonas Eder-Hansen, vice president & development director at the Danish Fashion Institute | Recycling International

Designers should recognize that true innovation is best achieved by rethinking the entire apparel making process. The brand’s mission should be a collaborative road-map inclusive of design, sourcing and production in developing more sustainable practices.

According to Forbes, second to oil, the clothing and textile industry is the largest polluter in the world. Reference other related statistics from the article How Wasteful Are We?  The Fashion Industry’s Shocking Truth.

Given these shocking statistics, what power does the designer have?

  1. Procuring materials that are biodegradable, recycled, or materials that can have an end use to be recycled/up-cycled
  2. Pattern engineering and cutting to reduce waste
  3. Using earth friendly finishing processes
  4. Use of fair trade practices; economically empowering local communities
  5. Design with longevity – timeless, enduring styles
  6. Conscious messaging to the consumer

Many designers that we talk to are spearheading this environmental cause to reverse the negative impact from the fashion industry.  Laura Tanzer of Tucson says, “my environmental objectives are to come as close as possible to zero waste as a manufacturer of clothing can. To that end, we reuse and recycle everything possible”.

Silvia Giovanardi , of the namesake fashion house in Milan Italy, says she uses a lot of tools to lessen the negative environmental impact with her design practice.  She only creates patterns that produce almost zero waste.  Her use of natural dye and the positive value it brings is inspiring. “I use different colors that come from roots, leaves, flowers, etc., and I leave them in their original aspect by putting the plant as it is on the fabric. Then it is cooked with just vapor. In this way the fabric maintains all the therapeutic features of the plant. This means a strong and powerful cure for our body”.

In an interview with the Singapore based duo designer team Charles Cua and Melchor Guinto, I asked what has been their greatest achievement so far. Cua says that “Guinto believes that sustainability is key to being a responsible fashion designer. He believes in using skilled workers that are being paid reasonably”. They believe the reduction of waste can be accomplished by the use of materials in the best possible way, “by combining design aesthetics with responsible usage of materials to reduce wastage while at the same time maximize the properties of materials through cuttings and placements”.

Some designers only use discarded materials.  Their entire design philosophy and scope is to create by re-using, recycling, and up-cycling.  They create while saving the planet.

Amabelle Aguiluz, an artist and knit designer, says “I’m fascinated with the reconstruction, change and transformation of an item and breaking down the materials from its original purpose and function into something new”. Designer/artist, Narci Lee, who calls herself a re-fashioner, is doing her part in de-carbonizing the earth with her system of up-cycling.  She creates ‘one of a kinds’ from discarded household linens, men’s shirting and thrift store items.

So much of textile waste ends up on the cutting room floor.  Some designers use factory fabric cutting wastes and scraps and unused piece goods to not only create a collection but to build an eco-friendly business.

Paola Masperi, designer/owner of Mayamiko in Malawi, Africa ‘believes that ethical production should not compromise the quality and design of the product, rather it adds to its exquisiteness and value’.

Paola walks the talk when it comes to leading a sustainable business practice throughout the entire supply chain. She  is able to empower a sustainable community through her commitment of sourcing fabric and production from the local market [she has her hand in training and educating the community].  Paola adds, ” we source everything locally essentially having a carbon neutral position. We are too small for certification but working towards that.  Additionally the positive economic impact is multiplied in the community.  Shipments out of Malawi are sent with DHL which had a climate neutral strategy – this is why we chose them as shipping partners”.

Mayamiko designs and develops up-cycled collections, with a vision of capturing a global consumer. Paola says her environmental contribution is completely zero waste. “We recycle every bit of material we have left, any unsold items are up-cycled into new products or we create items for the community ie fabric balls for local schools, bunting, school uniforms, etc.  But in general we try to produce just in time so there is no wastage.”

Designers can design with longevity – styles that are timeless and enduring, that stand the test of time.  “Clothing can be sustainable and yet still fashionable”, says Mimi Wong of Minan Wong.  Her focus is style, comfort, and quality with the sustainable emphasis on longevity.  Yes, what an interesting concept to invest in fashion again!!  Her collections are investment pieces for long wear and are timeless against the fast trends.  She is based in NYC and produces in the USA with a sustainable supply line in both materials and manufacturing.  “While others aim to be big, I aim to offer small lots/runs that are exclusive.  Less is more and I hope to educate the modern consumer to purchase investments rather than dispose.  Timeless fashion vs fast fashion.  I hope to go back to the days of couture, we all need it.”

I view ethical fashion as an investment – sometimes it might cost slightly more upfront, however, when something lasts for years, doesn’t fall apart after a few wears, and gives me great joy and peace of mind, it saves me time, money, and heartache in the long run. So, for me, ethical fashion is simply a smart financial decision as well.
– Sica Schmitz, Founder, Bead & Reel, an Ethical Boutique

The public and the fashion industry have a long way to go in shifting the demand away from unsustainable consumption to a business model that will thrive in a much needed sustainable environment and, at the same time, offer fashionable clothing.  I spoke to Sica Schmitz, founder of Bead & Reel, an Ethical Boutique.   As an online independent retailer whose focus is purely ethical fashion, I wanted to hear her thoughts on the shifting perception of the consumer on sustainable clothing as fashion and a conscious responsibility.  As a buyer/procurer for her store, she comments, “I see fashionable, wearable, desirable styles all the time, however, most are coming from small brands and small boutiques like my own who aren’t yet reaching mass markets”.

Designers/brands are leveraging their marketing know-how to communicate a message of conscious fashion through labels and hangtags; point of sale displays; and their overall branding strategy message.  Sica elevates her communication by co-hosting an annual Fair Trade Fashion Show.  This platform of messaging is a multi-level event that not only showcases a fashion runway but engages talks with industry professionals; a trade event; education; and networking.  Sica says, “this show is so important to me, to help this shift in perception by showcasing the fashionable side of sustainable fashion that isn’t generally known”, and I would add, while educating and engaging the public and industry.

These handful of designers/brands are making an impact on conscious fashion and they represent many like them around the world.  Their vision and mindset enables them the power to create a sustainable change throughout the fashion system.  You have to believe, communicate, and put into action.

Images  from Look Book of Charles Cua and Melchor Guinto, Photographer MJ Suayan

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor