May 5, 2023

What is sustainable fashion design?

Theren Moodley
Theren Moodley
A decade's worth of fashion experience across; product design, development, sourcing & logistics

In an age where every choice we make leaves an imprint on our planet, the fashion industry stands at a crucial crossroads. Sustainable fashion design emerges as a beacon of hope, challenging the norms of an industry often criticized for its environmental and social impacts.

But what exactly is sustainable fashion design? It's more than just a trend; it's a movement towards creating garments with a conscience.

As we unravel the intricate tapestry of the fashion world's environmental, social, and economic effects, we also explore the innovative solutions and practices that designers can adopt to steer this industry towards a more sustainable future.

Recently, we discussed this topic at a round table event in New York, and today we'll delve deeper into it and share some feedback.

But first, a TL;DR:

  • Using textiles that have limited environmental impact, are deadstock / recycled or have good labor practices are examples of how fashion can be sustainable
  • Another example of sustainable fashion design is the production of smaller batch, longer-lasting garments - known as slow fashion
  • Optimizing visual communication with vendors, to limit production errors and wastage is another way sustainable design can be implemented
  • However, issues with cost, traceability and societies consumption model, make these ideas hard to execute

Also checkout our easy to digest research on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.

For everyone else, join us as we delve into the complex world of sustainable fashion design, where every thread matters and every choice can lead to a greener, more equitable world.

Our sustainable fashion design round table in New York
Our community discussing examples of sustainable designs in New York (Feb-2023)

👚 What is sustainable fashion design?

In summary, sustainable fashion design is the ethos of sustainably designing garments.

To understand the solutions and practices available in sustainable fashion design, we first have to comprehend the current impacts of the fashion industry. W‍e will break down the environmentalsocial and economic impacts today and explain the practices that designers can take to navigate these waters.

What are the impacts of the fashion industry today?

A summary of the environmental impacts of the fashion industry

  • Environmental Impact: The fashion industry is a significant contributor to environmental degradation. It accounts for about 1% of global crude oil production used to produce synthetic fibers, leading to substantial emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants. Notably, an estimated 60% of clothing and 70% of household textiles are made of synthetic fibers. The industry is also a major source of microplastic pollution in the ocean, with 200,000 to 500,000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles entering marine environments annually, accounting for 35% of microplastic pollution. Furthermore, producing a single cotton shirt requires about 2,700 liters of water, enough to meet the average person’s drinking needs for over two years​​. Aside from raw material impact, it also creates a significantly amount of waste, from post-consumer waste that roughly occupies 5% of landfill space, to major brands being accused of burning tons of unsold inventory.
  • Social Impact: From the social aspects, the fashion industry is known for its challenging working conditions and exploitation, particularly in developing countries. A significant proportion of the workforce in the garment industry is young women aged between 18 and 24. In a recent study, which interviewed 400 garment workers across nine countries, the Worker Rights Consortium found that even those employees who managed to hold onto their jobs reported a 21% decrease in income between March and August 2020 – with monthly wages falling from $187 to $147, far below the amount needed to live a "decent life with basic facilities." Additionally, there have been instances of forced and child labor in various countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, and others, as part of the industry's supply chain​​.
  • Economic Impact: Economically, the fashion industry plays a dual role. While it contributes to global economic growth, it also highlights the economic disparity between developed and developing nations. Clothing production has approximately doubled in the last 15 years, driven by a growing middle-class population and increased per capita sales in developed economies. However, the annual value of clothing discarded prematurely is more than $400 billion. Addressing the environmental and social problems created by the fashion industry could provide a $192 billion overall benefit to the global economy by 2030​​.

How fashion can be sustainable through fabrics

Several methods of sustainable fashion design can be used. 

  • Avoid using synthetic fibers. Instead, use fabrics with minimal environmental impact during their growth, harvest and production. Eg, hemp, flax seed, bamboo, and some kinds of silk. There are also innovators in this space who are creating carbon negative textiles such as Rubi Laboratories.
  • Another option is to use recycled, reused, or dead-stock fabrics from our partners Queen of Raw and Fabscrap
  • Finally, sustainable design can come through using fabrics not sourced from regions with human rights abuses, such as Xinjiang and Uzbekistan cotton.

Sustainable fabrics in Make the Dot's Fabric Library
Sustainable fabrics in our Fabric Library

Sustainable fashion design in concept and product development

Sustainable fashion designers play a crucial role in how fashion can be sustainable, as they initiate the design process.

  • Working closely with vendors is key for sustainable fashion design, with clear communication helping to prevent misunderstandings, production errors and garment destruction
  • When creating patterns, designers can follow zero-waste design techniques to reduce textile waste at the design stage. There are also innovative providers such as SXD helping designers and brands achieve this.
  • Another example of sustainable fashion design is creating circular products that are produced, consumed and recycled in a sustainable fashion loop, which we learned on our visit to Fabscrap

Real-time visual collaboration is a way to improve communication, avoid mistakes and reduce product destruction

Fashion designer and brand owner, Gloria gave her take at our event in New York.

For me sustainable fashion design can only be slow fashion. That means designing high quality products that will last for a long time, can be custom made and will not end up in landfill.

Sustainable fashion design in production

Next, another example of sustainable fashion design is through the actual production process.

But with greenwashing prevalent in all aspects of the fashion value chain, finding trusted vendors is easier said than done.

Other sustainable fashion design practices

Outside of the core design and production process, there are other measures which can help a brand become more sustainable.

♻️ Why is sustainable fashion design important?

Designers and brands have a lot to manage on their plate so why should they care about sustainability?

The 3 main reasons are supply chain considerations, regulatory control, and new employment opportunities.

  • As supply chains are hit with extreme weather events causing vulnerability of raw material supplies and surging energy prices
  • Sustainability-related legislation is rapidly evolving across the EU, UK and US, and businesses in the fashion industry must adapt to stay compliant.
  • Research by the International Labor Organization (ILO) has shown that sustainable fashion design has the potential to create new employment opportunities in developing countries. Brands that adopt sustainable design practices would also be better positioned for investment opportunities.

Check out our research on ways the EU is regulating the sustainability standards of the fashion industry.

🧗🏾‍♀️ The challenges of sustainable fashion design

Sustainable fashion design is not without its challenges.


The world’s hyper-consumption 

There is a constant high demand for new fashion trends, driven by the hyper-growth capitalist society of today.

With brands producing as many products as possible, cheaper and faster, this leads to using harmful materials and production methods.

I recently had an interesting conversation with fashion designer Jenny from Hong Kong brand PYE, who explained the paradox.

Consumers are working longer hours for lower wages than before. They are then expected to purchase products with these wages. Brands also try to produce as many of those products as quickly and cheaply as possible, to meet the demand, which means more work for local workers and their families who are trying to escape poverty.

Sustainable fashion design is hard

Creating a sustainable garment is a challenging task. 

  • The sustainable fashion designer must have knowledge of sustainable design and use technology to accurately communicate the designs to vendors
  • Sustainable materials are difficult to work with, have limited quantities, higher prices, and limited end-product uses
  • Therefore, fewer styles can be produced, and the prices are higher due to the cost of materials and transport
  • Finally, the overall target market is smaller, making it harder to sell sustainably designed garments

Sustainable fashion design is even harder to trace

If all that isn’t enough, tracing sustainable vendors is nearly impossible, with greenwashing commonplace.

After all, unless a brand has a man inside of a factory, do they know it’s sustainable all the time?

A friend of mine who works in sustainable sourcing in Hong Kong and throughout Asia, and chose to remain anonymous was clear.

What we think of sustainability is a myth. Even if a brand wants to source sustainability, it’s incredibly hard to do so. When we visit a factory one day, it might be okay, but we have no idea what happens when we leave.

Recent strides are being made in technology that can track fabrics to a microscopic level, with Swiss company Haelixa providing dyes and traceability of the actual thread.

Giving brands full visibility of their supply chain.

🔚 Conclusion

So, what exactly is sustainable fashion design?

Is it creating products using sustainable textiles and fabrics? 

Or is it producing garments in smaller quantities with higher quality products that are made to last? 

Maybe it's communicating better with vendors to create products with fewer mistakes and less likelihood of being destroyed? 

Sustainable fashion design encompasses all of these aspects.

As consumers, we have a responsibility to lead brands to vote with our wallets and consume fewer products that last longer from sustainable brands we can afford. 

This is important because it doesn't matter which came first, the chicken or the egg. 

In the end, both were eaten anyway.

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