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July 5, 2011 / KristenMakes

Sustainability – what does it mean in fashion?


Reversible is a project in which I share the work that I am doing for my MA in Fashion & Textiles Design.  I am investigating sustainable design for knitwear in a reversible and reworkable context.  Utilising the organic quality of the knitted structure to create intrinsic shaping and detail as fabric and garment are simultaneously created, I am designing and knitting a garment that can be worn in different ways and produce different looks.  As such, I invite the wearer to engage personally with their own wardrobe, and hopefully value and meaning can be instilled into a garment that would otherwise be thrown out after a few wears.  In this blog feature, I will talk about why I chose this path, how I am proceeding, and what the final product will be.  I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in this space so that we may all learn and benefit.

As promised, here is the next instalment in the Reversible Project, in which I am only barely going to grace the huge topic that is sustainability in fashion.  Bear with me, this is quite a lot.  However if you must glaze over (and I truly understand if you do) at least skip ahead to the end, I want to know your thoughts!

The word ‘sustainability’ is heard so often now that it is actually easily unheard.  It can be dropped in conversations like a buzz word to indicate the speaker is green-minded, but in truth sustainability, or ‘the capacity to endure’ (that’s right, I’m referencing Wikipedia!) is quite difficult, practically impossible to achieve.  According to the UN Document, Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development:Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.  Think about it:  to be sustainable, you must live in such a way that does not hurt or affect future generations’ capacities to endure as well.  Is it really as simple in concept as planting a new tree for every tree you cut down?   Even so, how do you keep track of what you’ve used, when everything we buy and use has so many components?

If we were to apply the UN’s definition of sustainable development specifically to fashion, one can say that the role of the responsible designer/maker is to design, manufacture, and sell garments that meet the needs of the today’s shopper without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.  Yet ecologically and ethically sound fashion is fraught with complications and paradoxes.  What might be responsible in one view may not necessarily be sustainable in a different view.  Take fibres for example:  cotton is a natural fibre and can be renewed, however it requires enormous quantities of water not just to grow the fibre, but also for washing the end-product garment (Fletcher, 2008, p. )8; whereas polyester is derived from non-renewable petroleum oil, the production of which requires very little water, not to mention the easy after-use care involved (Black, 2008, p. 151). Likewise in business practices, Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, is known to have revolutionised localised production and labour standards as a fair and vertically-integrated manufacturer, but alternatively in my opinion his personal in-office behaviour is far from ethical.

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Sustainable practice in fashion is a very broad and hard to cover topic with many elements, including materials-sourcing, production, design, and consumer responsibility.  If each smaller system were approached individually, slowly but efficiently and comprehensively the entire system will be addressed and changed.  Great strides have been made and are still being made to adopt sustainable practises in both materials-sourcing and production, but it seems that designer and consumer responsibility are rarely considered by large manufacturers.  I will continue to focus in more depth on these latter two sectors, rather than write up what could amount to an entire thesis’ worth of information and losing you, dear reader, in the process.

Design for Sustainability

More and more attention has been given to design recently with help from design innovators such as Tim Brown of IDEO.

Change By Design

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According to Sandy Black, ‘gradually, over the last few decades, concepts within a sustainability agenda (longer lasting goods, low energy and environmental footprint, reduced wastage, or recyclable materials) are now routinely considered as part of contemporary architecture and product design.  However, the same approach has not yet been automatically and comprehensively applied to fashion design…’ (Black, 2008, p. 50).  Timor Rissanen points out that there is a difference, however, between sustainable design and design for sustainability, in which the latter ‘refers to design that fosters more sustainable behaviours in users… includ(ing) laundering and drying, repair and alteration, and delaying disposal, amongst others’ (Gwilt and Rissanen, 2011, p. 135).  Black explains this concept further by listing how important design is to blazing the trail in which eco-fashion is to be considered desirable.  Strategies in which this can occur include:

Re-use and re-design’ —  toward which our beloved blogger Zoe of So, Zo strives with TRAID Remade to rework second-hand garments into something new and beautiful

High Waisted Denim Shorts

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New Design and Manufacture Processes’  —  an example in this which gets me really excited is seamless knitting machines such as Shima Seiki’s WholeGarment® machine

‘Make Less but Smarter Clothing’  —  hopefully you might consider my own reversible and reworkable garment idea (more later!) to fall into this category, as it reduces the need for more garment pieces being that it is versatile can be worn in different methods.

‘Repair and Remodelling Services’  —  Barbour, for example, offers free repair and rewaxing services throughout the life of your garment, and at 13,000 jackets serviced a year, this offer is widely taken advantage.

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Consumer Responsibility

As you can see, the designer must first initiate and encourage sustainable practises, but it is up to the consumer to follow through.  This can be the most difficult sector for change as they involve radical cultural change in thought, consumption and care patterns.  Jana M. Hawley boldly states that ‘fast fashion will not go away.  But perhaps over time, more and more people will search for their personal styles as they embrace more fashions that are produced locally, authentically, and with consideration for quality and the environment’ (Gwilt and Rissanen, 2011, p. 153).  Fast fashion is only so popular because the industry is consumer-dominated and right now the consumer for the most part, demands their clothing to be fast, cheap, and good, but Black explains that in no situation are all three achieveable (Black, 2008, p. 182), and as such, ‘the current “fast fashion” ethos of cheaper and faster clothes is inherently unsustainable and cannot continue indefinitely’ (Black, 2008, p. 78).


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Not only does the consumer need to be made aware of responsible shopping habits, but also responsible care habits.  Most importantly of this is laundering, as ‘most of (a typical garment’s) environmental impact comes from laundering and not from growing, processing and producing the fabric or disposing of it at the end of its life’ (Fletcher, 2008, p. 76).  A big influence in this matter is consumer education.  In Shaping Sustainable Fashion, an essy by Kathleen Dombek-Keith and Suzanne Loker entitled ‘Sustainable Clothing Care by Design’ goes into significant detail about consumer understanding about how and how often to properly launder garments; and in Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, Kate Fletcher explains how important it is for the consumer to understand different launder needs of different fibres rather than lumping all fibres together in a high-temperature load.

This post has by no means been an explaination of the broad context of sustainability, but rather an attempt to touch upon those aspects of sustainability that really intrigue me.  I hope that it has been informative and helpful; if you have any questions or comments, let me know!

Well if you are still with me, bless you!  That was quite a load of information (but I had a lot more than that to say I promise you!), and although I sprinkled it with images here and there, it was perhaps a lot to stomach and process.  However, I just have a wee bit more to share and a question for you too!

In my readings (of books and blogs) I have come across many different companies, organisations, and initiatives achieving extraordinary things in ecological and ethical fashion practises.  I think one that really stands out to me is the IOU Project where you can buy a garment and learn of its entire story from the master weaver who wove the fabric, to the artisan who created the garment, and lastly you can complete the journey by uploading your image and telling about yourself, the garment owner.   It is amazing how little we consider each item we purchase, but through this well-organised company and interactive website, a garment I ‘own’ is less a material object and more a meaningful and cared-for piece.  I personally am really in love with the Reversible Shift (of course!).

What companies/organisations/initiatives have you been impressed with?  Or what are some interesting thoughts or ideas you have had?  I hope to learn of some really cool people out there doing really cool things!  And of course if you have any questions, please ask (via comment or email – – both are great)!  Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you are having an amazing Tuesday!



Leave a Comment
  1. frayedattheedge / Jul 5 2011 3:30 pm

    I guess with me you are preaching to the converted. When I was little, I turned the collars and cuffs on my Dad’s shirts (for extra pocket money!) and made clothes for myself from my Mum’s old ones. When people are pontificating about natural fibres being best for the environment, I always ask if they know that cotton production (unless it is organic) uses high levels of chemicals. In these days of economic dowturn, we have to accept that many families rely on cheap and cheerful fashions/fabrics. Yes, there are charity shops, but they still need people to but new clothes which they will eventually donate to be resold.

  2. knitlass / Jul 5 2011 3:57 pm

    Hello! An interesting post – I work on sustainability issues in the built environment, but as a knitter and (bad) sewer, I am also interested in sustainability in other aspects of life including fashion/clothing.

    I would like to point out a couple of other things to add to your thinking.

    First, the Brundtland definition of sustainability which you quote has equity at its heart – not only between current and future generations, but also within generations (inter and intra generational equity). This means that in fashion (and everything else) that we need to think about what we are doing to current generations particularly the poor. In fashion this is particularly relevant because of the tendency for the trade to make use of exploited and underpaid labour in countries where costs and regulation are lower. So, that’s another aspect of sustainable textiles – making sure that we dont support exploitative systems of growing, weaving, spinning, dyeing, sewing or finishing.

    The second thing I want to add into the discussion is about renewable vs. non-renewable resources. Textiles made from oil/petroleum come from a non-renewable resource – whereas cotton, linen, hemp, wool, bamboo all come from renewable resources. This distinction is important and will become even more important as oil gets even more expensive and scarce. Should we use oil for things (e.g. textiles) which can easily be substituted with natural fibres? Many of these choices are not simple.

    You mention the use of water to produce cotton, and the impact that home care/laundering has in terms of a garments overall ecological footprint. This is really important, and if you think about it, is where the greatest changes are possible. Given that that’s where the greatest impacts are, then it behoves us all to respect the resources we consume and make really good use of them. I have two small children, and regularly have to sort through clothes which are too small. This is my approach…

    Anything in good condition is either passed onto a friend, or sold through a nearly-new sale.
    Clothes which don’t sell or which aren’t suitable for passing on go to a charity shop.
    Clothes which are badly stained or very worn, are repurposed. To date I have used them to make washable wipes/cloths, dribble bibs, dressing up clothes and bags.

  3. Kerry / Jul 5 2011 5:17 pm

    It was interesting to read about some of the great initiatives in your post, I didn’t know there was so much going on to add sustainability and responsible consumerism to fashion. However I think that such a massive change is required to get us away from fast fashion, to transform our way of thinking so that when we buy things we are investing in them rather than just purchasing them. I love the example of Barbour jacket re-waxing you gave but as this is for a product in the higher end of the market, it is so important that equivalent initiatives are available on the high street. I don’t know if this example counts, but something as simple as getting your shoes re-soled and re-heeled can extend their life. That is something that I personally do, and try to buy good quality leather shoes that will last for some time. I have noticed some of the high street chains using organic cotton, but this always seems to have been for a special range. I would love to see a big and influential chain like M&S only use organic cotton as then I think other companies would follow suit. If McDonalds can use only free range eggs I’m sure something similar can happen on the high street! Sorry, I don’t know if that answers your question, but I’m enjoying your reversible posts nonetheless!

  4. Barbara Rainier / Jul 7 2011 1:02 pm

    I never knew about fashion sustainability. I did know, however, that my mother always made over my cousins clothes for me. She darned my dad’s socks and put new elastic in his underware and pajamas. I love making old things look new. My favorite is an apron I made out of a demim skirt. Your reversable jumper is very clever.

    You pose some interesting points. Cotton is renewable, but much more difficult to maintain. For instance my non renewable vinyl tablecover wipes clean with a few quick and easy strokes. My cotton tablecovers must be laundered and ironed every time there is a spill. We will be very interested in hearing about the continuing story.

  5. Mom Orme / Jul 8 2011 5:02 pm

    I can just ditto some of Barbara’s comments. Since my mother lived through the Depression, she made do, re-did, mended, turned collars, darned socks, etc. Even though she made most of our clothes from new material (or the pretty feed sacks she would get), she enjoyed re-making clothes given to us — not a re-fashion, just making them to fit us. Once I was a teenager, she often made 4 or 5 interchangeable pieces that coordinated and taught me how to use them effectively. No fad fashions for me; I knew I’d still have to wear them long after the fad was over. And, of course, not cutesy shoes…just good, solid shoes (which I hated!) that could be resoled.

    We sometimes received hand-me-downs from people, so I guess that’s making fashion sustainable. My children, also, were the recepients of hand-me-downs, which I greatly appreciated.

    You’re doing a great job. Keep it up. (Maybe you need to interview some elderly people who lived through the Depression; they know a lot about sustainability. How ’bout your g’ma?)


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