Research: Sustainable Consumption

Sustainability in fashion and textiles is a very complex subject, as it requires taking into consideration and making conscious decisions about all the environmental and social impacts of a product. It not only covers sourcing and production, but also consumer use, lifetime and disposal. I believe that in a consumerist society it is virtually impossible to live a fully sustainable life, as production of material goods will have some degree of negative consequence. It is not black and white and will involve weighing up the advantages against the disadvantages and coming to a compromise[1]Twigger Holroyd, A. (2014) Keep and Share [Online] Available from: [Accessed 27 Nov 2014].

Built-in obsolescence is standard practice for a lot of businesses, as it is a way of generating more sales to help with long term financial success[2]The Economist. (2009) ‘Planned obsolescence’, The Economist [Online] Available from: [Accessed 27 Nov 2014]. We are constantly encouraged to buy more products through marketing and advertising. Within the fashion industry there has been a huge move towards disposable fashion, made from cheap fabrics and not designed to last. Fashion designers work in a very fast paced environment, they are expected to keep on top of the constantly changing trends and churn out new ideas to keep sales figures high. Collections are no longer twice a year, as most designers now show four seasons and retailers have deliveries of new designs at least once a month. ‘We shop for clothes addictively…The pressure to constantly re-formulate identity instigated by changing fashion trends feeds insecurity and rising levels of psychological illness. The products themselves exploit workers, fuel resource use, increase environmental impact and generate waste'[3]Fletcher, K. (2008) Sustainable fashion and textiles: design journeys. London: Earthscan: 117.. It is not only harmful to the environment, but it puts a lot of pressure on the people working in the industry. Sweatshops not only exist in factories, but also in design studios. My personal experience of the industry has made me question ethics and I feel passionate about the human aspect of design, production and consumption.

Consumerism is ingrained into our society and although it has many negatives, I don’t believe that anti-consumption is the answer to everything. It is human nature to desire things, either for survival or to satisfy an emotional need. What we buy is a form of self expression and products can contribute to the enhancement of our lives. Kate Fletcher, who has been working in sustainable fashion and textiles since the early 1990’s, believes that:

‘fashion is symbolic…[it] links us to a time and space and deals with our emotional needs, manifesting us as social beings, as individuals…If we want to avoid depriving people of their need for identity and participation, we can’t just forget about fashion and scrap everything other than the wardrobe basics. In other words, we can’t radically cut consumption of clothing until we begin to understand its significance as a satisfier of human needs'[4]Fletcher, K. (2008) Sustainable fashion and textiles: design journeys. London: Earthscan: 119-120..

Sustainable fashion often focuses on reducing damage to the environment, over consumption and the exploitation of vulnerable workers. These are important issues that need to be addressed, but sometimes it ignores the root cause, our basic needs and wants. For long term success of sustainability goals we could look at tackling the issues from two angles; By trying to minimise the negative effects of consumption, such as making changes towards fair trade, organic materials and recycling. As well as maximising the positive effects, by promoting interaction, participation and a greater connection between user, maker and product. By doing this we can change ‘the emphasis of our practice away from producing goods that undermine us and the health of our environment and society and onto those that nurture our well-being'[5]Fletcher, K. (2008) Sustainable fashion and textiles: design journeys. London: Earthscan: 122.. In a book about fashion and sustainability, the authors, Fletcher and Grose give an example of this:

‘A fashion garment made with recycled materials satisfies the basic need for a healthy environment by reducing the depletion of raw materials and load on landfills. But delivered to the wearer as a finished and static piece, the relationship between the garment and wearer is manifest simply in an act of consumption. An item developed to be co-designed by the wearer, on the other hand, offers a host of immaterial benefits, including the opportunity for participation, inventiveness, creative expression and unique interpretation, as well as the opportunity to develop new skills – all of which contribute greatly to the deep personal growth of the wearer'[6]Fletcher, K., Grose, L. and Hawken, P. (2012) Fashion and sustainability: design for change. London: Laurence King Publishing: 133..

Human well-being doesn’t lie in products, but designers can try to meet the emotional needs of users through material goods. ‘Most things should be made at the direct request of the people, to fulfil a specific need or want’[7]Papanek, V. (1983) Design for human scale. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. The problem with a lot of mass produced design today, is that it is so trend driven that consumers needs and wants are being manufactured through marketing, by companies that encourage excessive consumption. Our desires are being subconsciously influenced, resulting in the loss of choice, diversity and individuality. Fletcher tweeted that ‘industrial fashion may appear to offer huge choice but it’s mainly a homogeneous assortment'[8]Fletcher, K., @katetfletcher (2014) ‘’Industrial fashion may appear to offer huge choice but it’s mainly a homogenous assortment’ -@amykeepandshare in #sustfash_handbook 1/2′. 23 Nov 2014, 7.30pm. [tweet]. The founder and owner of SCP, Sheridan Coakley, wrote in the latest issue of their magazine:

‘I like the idea that designers shouldn’t be constantly employed by companies to make things. Rather that they should be employed by companies not to make things, and to use their understanding of design to make the world a better place’[9]Coakley, S. (2014) ‘Issue number 5’. SCP Magazine, April 2014 (5): 1..

Consumption and sustainability do not naturally work together, but I am questioning how I can use my design skills and knowledge to produce products that address human emotional needs, in order to achieve a long-term sustainable balance. Rather than blindly churning out huge quantities of products, which I was expected to do when working in the fashion industry, I would like to design products that people connect with. To build a relationship between designer, maker and user. Fletcher sums it up well:

‘We will see beauty and greatness in garments that value process, participation and social integration, in pieces that advance relationships between people and the environment. The activity of friends knitting together is beautiful…supporting a disadvantaged community with careful purchasing is beautiful…Sustainable fashion is about a strong and nurturing relationship between consumer and producer'[10]Fletcher, K. (2008) Sustainable fashion and textiles: design journeys. London: Earthscan: 125..


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