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

Sustainable fashion design is an approach to designing garments that takes into account the environmental, social, and economic aspects of the design and production process.

Sustainable fashion design can can take many shapes, iterations and forms.

From creating designs more closely with manufacturers, thereby improving communication and reducing the likelihood of production mistakes.

To designing products with sustainable materials and fabrics in mind.

In summary, sustainable fashion design is a way of creating clothing that is environmentally responsible, socially just, and economically sustainable.

Sustainable fashion designers aim to reduce the negative impact of fashion on the planet in a number of ways.

This topic was a point of discussion in our recent round table event in New York.

So today we’ll be digging deeper into the topic, and providing some feedback we heard from the fashion designers we spoke to during the evening.

Our sustainable fashion design round table in New York
Our sustainable fashion design round table in New York

👚 What is sustainable fashion design?

In a quick summary, sustainable fashion design is the ethos of designing garments in a more sustainable manner.

According to Christl Baur, founder of sustainable fashion label, Baur Von Stricken,

Sustainable fashion should respect the planet, people, and animals. Designers who prioritize ethical and sustainable fashion share a common goal of reducing waste, pollution, and conserving resources.

However, sustainable fashion design could executed in a number of ways.

Sustainable fashion design in textiles and fabrics

Creating products that only, or mainly use sustainably sourced materials is the first way a product could be designed sustainably.

And even this sustainable fashion design sub-section has a few more options:

  • Creating garments using textiles and fabrics that have little impact on the environment in their growth and harvest, and have limited wastage in their production, such as hemp, flax seed, bamboo and mushroom leather.
  • Using fabrics that are either recycled, reused or from dead stock is a solution currently being pushed such as brands like Adidas and H&M, and de-stock providers such as Queen of Raw and Fabscrap.
  • Sustainable fashion design using industry standard fabrics, but ones that do not come from countries and regions with poor labour practices and human rights abuses such as, Xinjiang and Uzbekistan cotton.

sustainable fashion design fabrics
Some fabrics and textiles that could fit this approach

Sustainable fashion design in production and manufacture

Next, we’re looking at the actual manufacture and production process, and how that might help with sustainable fashion design.

Partnering up with transparent vendors that implement basic labour practices and production process are the easiest way to get started on sustainable fashion design.

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

A more detailed blog on that later.

Sustainable fashion design in ideation and process

Last but not least what does the actual design stage have to do with sustainable fashion design?

Being the start of the design process, fashion designers arguably play the most important role in making fashion design sustainable.

  • Working, communicating and iterating with the vendor and manufacturer is paramount for sustainable fashion design. Clear and transparent communication means less room for misunderstanding, less room for error and less room incorrect product manufacture. All of which means less garments are destroyed!
  • Designing a product to last, be repaired and customised goes against the consumption at all costs model that has powered the global economy since the 1980s, but it’s the only way fashion is ever going to reduce it’s environmental impact. The idea of slow fashion is nothing new in sustainable fashion design, with garments with longer lifecycles meaning few garments in landfills.
  • Designing circular products at the heart of any garment is another example of sustainable fashion design. Products that are truly circular in design, production and consumption. Lookout for a new blog on this topic in a few weeks.
  • Transparency with consumers is another way to make fashion design sustainable. Educate customers on sustainable practices by providing points for transparency a brand website, product labelling, packaging, and customer service. This educates them on the importance of sustainable fashion, promoting sustainability as a culture and encouraging consumer support.
  • Last but by no means least sustainable fashion design comes from designing with sustainability at the core of anything drawn or ideated, rather than an afterthought. That could mean creating a product designed to last, using sustainable fabrics in countries with strong labour laws.

Real-time collaboration is a way to improve communication, avoid manufacturing mistakes and reduce the number of products that are destroyed.

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.

When fashion is cheap, it’s because someone else is paying.

Be that a human, a plant or the planet as whole.

♻️ Why is sustainable fashion design important?

Now we’ve gone through the background, some boring, but important information I hope you all know already about sustainable fashion design.

Skip on to get back to the good stuff.

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters of our environment.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions.

Some fashion production processes result in significant air pollution, for example, the production of synthetic fabrics like polyester generates greenhouse gases, which as we know contributes to climate change.

The fashion industry's negative impact on the environment highlights the importance of sustainable fashion design.

  1. It helps to conserve natural resources by promoting the use of eco-friendly materials, resulting in improved water and air quality. For example, using organic cotton reduces the use of harmful insecticides and pesticides, thus promoting soil health and reducing water pollution, our most valuable resource.
  2. It supports fair labor practices by ensuring that workers receive fair wages and work under ethical conditions. Many sustainable fashion brands take measures to eliminate child labor or exploitation of workers in their supply chains, ensuring that they uphold industry-wide standards of fairness.
  3. Considering the entire life cycle of a garment, designing sustainability promotes economic growth by creating new job opportunities in the sustainable clothing industry. Research conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) has shown that the sustainable fashion industry has the potential to create new employment opportunities, especially in developing countries.

In an interview with Forbes, Catarina Midby, Sustainability Manager at H&M, states,

Because the fashion industry is a significant employer, we can drive positive changes by establishing and leveraging mechanisms that encourage a fair, sustainable and ethical industry.

Which comes first the chicken or the egg?

The consumer demanding sustainable fashion design or the brand promoting it.

I’ll let you, not the brands shareholders decide.

🧗🏾‍♀️ The challenges of sustainable fashion design

Sustainable fashion design is not without its challenges.


The hyper-consumption of the modern world

The fashion industry is fast-paced, and there is a high demand for new fashion trends and styles, driven by the hyper-growth and hyper-capitalist society of today.

This industry demands efficiency, productivity and growth at all costs.

These demands lead to the use of harmful materials and unsustainable production methods that are not environmentally friendly.

With brands producing as many products as possible, cheaper and faster.

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

Consumers today are working longer for less wages than before, purchasing products they are expected to purchase with their reduced purchasing power. Brands then try to produce as many of those products as quickly and cheaply as possible, which means more work for local workers and their families escaping poverty. So consumption of fashion is linked to the capitalist economy and the whole cycle.

Sustainable fashion design isn’t cheap

Another challenge is the cost of sustainable fashion design.

Sustainable fashion design materials are often more expensive than conventional materials, and manufacturing processes require extra resources, which are costly.

Additionally, educating consumers on the value of sustainable fashion design and convincing them to pay more for sustainable clothing can be challenging, and again costly.

Unless there is global regulation or industry standards there will always be consumers who can only afford to purchase cheaper, and brands willing to serve them.

As the old saying goes.

Sustainability is a rich mans game.

Check-out our blog on Gen-Z and their paradox with the problem.

Sustainable fashion design is hard to produce, move and sell

In a nutshell creating a garment that has been designed sustainably is simply are harder product to sell.

It’s harder to design, as the designer needs the knowledge and knowhow to ideate and design it sustainably, and use technology to communicate that design to vendors so the produce it without mistakes.

It’s harder to produce, as sustainable materials are generally harder to work with, have limited quantities, higher prices and have limited end product uses.

And it’s harder to sell, as less styles can be produced, prices are higher due the cost of materials and transport and the overall target market is smaller.

Jeans being destroyed - why we need sustainable fashion design
We must do better than this

Sustainable fashion design is even harder to trace

If all that isn’t enough, actually tracing green factories and sustainable vendors is near on impossible, with greenwashing common place in the industry.

After all, unless a brand has a man on the 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 obviously chose to remain anonymous was clear.

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

There are recent strides 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 then, what is sustainable fashion design?

Is it designing and creating products using sustainable textiles and fabrics?

Creating products in smaller quantities with higher quality products that are made to last?

Or, communicating better with vendors to create products that have less mistakes and are therefore less likely to be destroyed?

It’s all of the above.

Sustainable fashion design is an approach to designing garments that takes into consideration the environmental, social, and economic aspects of the design and production process.

Sustainable fashion designers aim to reduce the negative impact of fashion on the planet by using sustainable materials, producing garments in a more efficient and ethical manner, and designing products to last.

This approach helps to conserve natural resources, supports fair labor practices, and promotes economic growth.

However, sustainable fashion design faces challenges such as the hyper-consumption of the modern world, higher costs, and difficulty in production and sales.

Therefore we have a responsibility as consumers to vote with our wallets are consume less products, that last longer from sustainable brands we can afford.

Because it doesn’t matter if the chicken or the egg came first.

They both were eaten anyway.

You might also like

Get started with Make the Dot

Try for Free Now
✔ Unlimited collaborators
✔ Unlimited boards
✔ Fashion specific workflow tools