• Jonn Langan

6 Ways we can design more sustainably

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine as "5 Ways we can design more sustainably". This article expands and explores the points made to further explore the subject of sustainable design.

Firstly, what is sustainable design? The dictionary definition of sustainable is “pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse”

In the design sense, sustainable has become synonymous with recycled materials. But this does not need to be the only consideration to make a design “sustainable”. Sustainability can come from a multitude of different design considerations, as well as the material it is created from.

The Higg Index covers all the environmental considerations a company might think of to create more sustainable products. From the material choice, to the supply chain, to the transportation and the distribution. But what else could and should be considered on a design level?

Just in creating a design there are a lot of opportunities to make a more sustainable product. Here are 6 filters that every design can be passed through to help improve its level of sustainability.

1. Do we need this product?

A simple question, but one which is overlooked a thousand times. Often we create products just because of an opportunity to create. But in actioning a design into a prototype, we have approved an increase in our carbon footprint, through the cost of materials, prototyping, shipping as well as the human resource cost. But with better planning, research and briefing, this kind of situation can be completely averted and companies can focus efforts and resources on those products we do need.

The planning side of creating product is one fraught with questions that may never be answered perfectly. But with some courage and a strong understanding of the impact of not making a product, we can be assured that any decision we do make to create something new is sound.

2. What is the expected lifecycle of the product?

Again a simple question, but again this is one which is not often asked. If we are designing a product to last a lifetime, then we should make sure it is capable of doing so. Therefore we should make sure all the components of the design are robust enough to satisfy this want. But if we are designing a product to last a single use or a single season, then we won’t need to build the product in the same way. Although should we really be designing products in this way anymore?

Whether or not we make a new product is a question that is asked often. With the lifecycle of a product increasingly under scrutiny, how do we make those decisions to make a new product or not? The easiest way to do this is to gauge the expected lifecycle on the basis of product type.

For example a 3-layer waterproof garment for extreme weather conditions would normally have a very long (if not lifetime) lifecycle, as the material & constructions can be made incredibly robust. Where as a lightweight t-shirt is not expected to have such a long lifecycle, down to the degrading nature of the material and need to wash more frequently.

Although the shorter lifecycle of a t-shirt, should not just be accepted. There is a lot more we as an industry can do to make even these products more robust. From anti-odour treatments, to enhanced quality blends, to even clear after care information to the consumer to help them understand how and when they should be washing the product. The key here is to ask the questions, break perception and not just assume.

Image Courtesy of Firdaus Roslan

3. How repairable is the product?

As we start to realise how many products we use, then through either degradation or damage, we throw them away or recycled them. Should we be looking at the construction, materials and finishings to ensure that it is easy enough to repair a product, to enable its continuing use. This seems a better way to elongate the lifespan of product and is far more sustainable, than breaking the product down to into its component parts, and starting the design process again.

Also the repairability of a product can again be judged via the means of the same lifecycle analysis as above. How long do you expect the garment to be in use? If, for example you take the 3 layer waterproof jacket mentioned above, then maybe we need to make sure the product has a high level of repairability. By this I mean constructions are easy to deconstruct, so that repairs can be made. This can include but not be exclusive to bonding techniques, drawcord adjustment constructions, lining integrations and much, much more.

4. How recyclable is the product?

For some products we know that there is always going to be a shorter lifecycle, and therefore we know that we will want to recycle them. So how can we design products to incorporate this knowledge? By limiting the amount of components and base material types we can make this process easier. But even if a product is made using 1 single material, it will be difficult to break down to be used again at a yarn level. New chemical process’ are improving all the time to make this process’ easier, as explained in this chemistry world article, but ultimately these systems just aren’t in place yet, commercially. So careful consideration is needed to design products, with a shorter lifecycle, to be easier to break down and recycle.

With this knowledge, designing items that fit into this category will need to be analysed closely to make sure nothing inhibits this recycling process. Be mindful of labels, tapings, stitching qualities & print technologies, as missing one small element can cause huge problems down the line.

5. Can we design without producing a product?

As the modern era of design is changing to incorporate new technologies, the need to create a physical product is lessened. Amongst this technological change, is the rise of 3D clothing specific drawing programmes like CLO3D. These systems can change the way we design as we can create “1st” prototypes virtually, check fit against our own specific body shapes, create a patterns that can be checked for efficiency, or just get verification of the concept. All whilst not producing a single product. This ultimately can bring the conversation full circle to the first question: “Do we need this product?” well before we start the process of prototyping.

The implementation of 3D prototyping is starting to be used more commonly within some major brands, but the impact can go much further than just at the start of the process. 3D renders are increasingly becoming important in the selling side of the process. With photorealistic textures and fluid animations, a product and its attributes can easily be communicated to the customer. Furthermore colouring up & adding graphics to show alternatives can be done relatively quickly and inexpensively, again without actioning any physical materials or samples. So could this be the future of how ultimately we reduce the impact of making samples to sell a product?

6. How can we use up all the left over material?

There are tens of thousands of tons of left over material created by garment & fabric suppliers every month. A lot of this left over material is being better identified and sent for recycling or re-use. Companies like Reverse Resources are implementing systems to help identify, re-use or re-allocate this material to reduce this kind of waste. But there are still so many companies with “fabric mountains” hidden away in factories, being left to essentially rot. So could companies better implement “use-up” programmes to reduce this “waste” fabric? Having clear visibility and a desire to use this wastage before there is the need to ship it away, would ultimately seem like a better solution for when fabric has to made.

These are just a few things that we can do as designers, to help make better decisions, create more sustainable products and be more considerate with the planet’s resources. Although designers are just one cog in the apparel machine, they need to do their bit to make sure we are designing and creating products for the right reasons.

For more on how we can design more sustainably and generally be better people contact Jonn at jonnlangan@hotmail.com

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