A Full Guide To Sustainable Fashion Design

sewing machine

Creating a more sustainable fashion industry should be a main priority since it has become of the most destructive and polluting industries in the world. Over the past few decades, advertisements have brainwashed everyone into thinking that buying more clothes will make them happier. Our relationship with our clothes has almost become toxic.

Let’s turn our backs on this throwaway culture and be more grateful for what we already have.

What Makes Fashion Sustainable?

The Materials

So many of our clothes are made of plastic, most of which are derived from oil. Some of the most common synthetic fabrics are:

  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Rayon
  • Acrylic
  • Spandex
  • Suede

Apart from the obvious issue with these which is that they contribute to plastic pollution and landfill waste, there is another problem which you may not be aware of. Every time they are washed in the washing machine, microplastics come off the clothes and end up in natural waterways. In addition, it depletes the earth’s finite resources.

When shopping around for clothes, look at the label. Don’t be ignorant. Know what you are buying. Choosing organic fabrics that come from nature is always the better option. Here are some of the most sustainable fabrics:

  • Organic cotton
    While cotton comes from a plant (a natural and renewable resource), if it’s not organic, then it’s not sustainable. Normal cotton farming is extremely water and pesticide intense. Organic cotton on the other hand has a low impact and uses sustainable practices.
  • Recycled cotton
    Cotton fabric can actually be turned back into the original fibers. Why is this good? Well, it gives the material a second life, reduces the need to grow more cotton, and reduces waste.
  • Organic hemp
    As you might have guessed, farming organic hemp is not as harmful to the environment as chemicals are not used. Some other great reasons as to why it makes an amazing fabric is because it has a high yield and requires less water.
  • Organic linen
    Linen is a very versatile fabric and one of the best when it comes to sustainability. Again, it comes from a plant. A flax plant to be precise.

Be a conscious consumer. Ignorance is not bliss in this case. And if you are a fashion designer, then you need to be aware of which materials are more eco-friendly so you know which to use in your design. Become a sustainable fashion designer and join the global movement. Don’t create amazing pieces at the expense of the environment.

Also Read: What is Slow Fashion? And How Do I Get Started?

Where Is It Made?

Look at the label. I bet most of the clothes you own were manufactured in developing country.

It’s rare to find a store that doesn’t outsource the work to less developed countries, but there are some so look out for them. However, do note that not all clothes manufactured in less developed countries are unethical and unsustainable. Some sustainable brands actually help local communities grow and develop by giving them a livelihood and a good income.

In the future, we need to see more clothes being made in the country they intend to sell them in, in order to reduce carbon emissions. This will only be achieved if companies start thinking about the environment more than their profits.

Another point that is important to mention is knowing where the company obtains the raw materials from. This can be found on the website of the brand so check that out before buying from them. If they are not transparent about it, they might be hiding something. Don’t hesitate to reach out to companies and ask them about their sustainability practices.

If you are a designer, it’s your responsibility to do the research and do your best to not let your creativity have a negative impact on the world.

Long-Lasting And High Quality

We are living in a society where new is better. This ain’t a good way to live. It’s about time we learned a few lessons from our grandparents. My grandma still wears clothes from 4 decades ago. Each piece of clothing she owns has a story behind it. We have lost that that connection. Now it’s time we get it back.

We buy and buy without thinking because it’s so cheap and easy to do. All we need to do is tap a few times on our phones, and the next day it arrives at our doorstep. Meanwhile, people are getting exploited and forests are cut down to give you empty happiness for a day or two.

Wouldn’t it better if you bought only a few pieces of clothing that were really high quality and you could still wear them 20 years later? Have a story behind each dress or shirt. Don’t aimlessly buy whatever catches your eye. Think before you spend. Always choose quality over quantity.

What I like to tell people, is wait 3 days before buying something. Most times that urge goes away and you save yourself some money.

As a sustainable fashion designer, make it your mission to only produce high-quality and long-lasting garments that people can enjoy for years and years. Not to mention, you will gain more respect from your customers if you follow your morals and ethos.

Timeless Design

Another part of sustainable fashion is creating timeless design. This is design that never goes out of style. Designing such garments will mean, people will not need to shop as often to keep up with new trends. People can sell them and let their friends borrow them even years after buying them and they would not feel old-fashioned. One of the most popular ways to produce timeless design is through a minimalist approach.

Reduce Waste

To make a piece of clothing, the pattern must be first cut out of the material. This inevitably produces waste. Cutting the fabric in the most efficient way possible can reduce the amount of fabric waste produced. Think about how to cut the different shapes and how you can reduce how much material you use.

Maybe you could even use the waste textile material for something else. Reuse it, upcycle it, or recycle it. There is always a creative solution to every problem. Making this particular industry zero waste will be one of the biggest challenges I think.

Related: 40 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Waste

Made On Demand

While technology has its downsides, we can use it to our advantage. The majority of the population around the world shops for outfits through online stores. We can use this to our advantage and make clothes on demand and stop this madness of mass production.

So clothing doesn’t go to waste, companies should only make what is ordered by the customers online. This way of manufacturing is very much plausible and is already done by some small companies like Rapanui.

Renewable Energy

It’s essential that the entire world moves towards renewable energy. It’s becoming easier and in fact, solar energy has recently been named the cheapest form of energy. This is such a big step forward for humanity. The most eco-friendly option is finally the most profitable option too.

Ethical

While some might say that ethics and sustainability are two different things, I believe you can’t have one without the other. Design cannot be ethical and not sustainable or the other way round. It’s important to treat all workers with respect, have good working conditions, and give everyone a good wage.

Another big part of ethical design is animal rights. Do you really want to wrap the skin of animals around you? Natural leather, wool, and silk put into question the ethics of fashion. Why do we let so many animals suffer just so we can feel ‘pretty’? Like always there are alternatives to these but be careful! Don’t solve a problem by creating another. Don’t buy the fake alternatives (e.g. faux fur) from fast fashion industries because they are often derived from non-renewable resources.

Recycle And Repair

Companies should give their customers the option to return the clothes back when they don’t want them anymore or so they can repair them and send them back. This diverts tonnes of clothes from going to landfill.

Instead of companies looking for repeat business to sell more clothes, they could make money from repairing and recycling existing clothes.

Packaging

The design process doesn’t end when you finish designing the garments. Sustainable fashion also includes the packaging.

In a physical store, this refers to the bags. While stores should be urging customers to bring their own bags, you need to design sustainable bags for those who forget or are not yet in the habit of taking their own bags when out shopping. First and foremost, bags should not be plastic. That’s the most important point. Make them biodegradable and compostable and write that on the bag so consumers know.

Now over to online stores. I would say sustainable packaging for online shops is even more important because of the sheer amount of online shopping that goes on on a daily basis. Use the least amount of materials, make it out of recycled cardboard, and be sure it’s biodegradable. You get the gist.

Other Things You Can Do

01. Buy Less

Hands down, this is the easiest and cheapest way to be more sustainable. If everyone started this habit of buying less, demand for stuff would decrease and less natural resources would be used up.

I’m not saying don’t buy clothes ever again, but reducing how much you buy will go a long way, especially if everyone starts doing it too.

02. Buy Second Hand

If you want a new shirt or jeans, first take a look at second-hand shops. They can be found in nearly every town. If not, there are a variety of different apps and websites where people sell clothes they don’t want anymore. A few examples are Vinted, ASOS marketplace, Depop, and ThreadUp.

03. Learn How To Sew

Learn how to sew and mend clothes. It’s a valuable skill that will become helpful at some point in the future. You don’t have to become a sewing master but learning the basics is essential. If a hole appears in your clothes, first try to mend it instead of rushing to replace it.

Learning to sew also opens so many opportunities to upcycle old clothes and make new things. It can be simple things like cushions but it’s still upcycling (and another way to explore your creativity).

04. Rent Clothes For Special Occasions

If you have a wedding to go to, for example, don’t buy an outfit that you will never wear again. There are places where you can rent clothes. It’s a cheaper option too. If you have the choice, rent instead of buying.

05. Borrow And Lend To Friends / Sell

There are so many apps where you can sell your clothes. Give them a second life. Extending the lifecycle and products and so important if we wish to reduce landfill waste.

Or an even more fun option is to do a clothes swap with your friends. We all have clothes that don’t really like anymore. However, it’s very likely that someone else will absolutely love it.

06. Look After It

Also, look after your clothes well so you don’t have to buy new ones so often. Know what to hang up and what to put in your draws. It might seem insignificant but hanging up jumpers can stretch them out.

Attempt to wash them less often if you can and when you do, put the washing machine at a lower temperature.

Best Affordable Sustainable Fashion Brands

Circular Design

The fashion industry is one of the top polluters in the world. Fast fashion is destroying the planet by the second. It can’t go on. Something needs to change. Whether you are a designer or a consumer you can do something about this.

Sustainable fashion is the way forward. In fact, if you combine everything above, you get something called circular fashion. It’s one step further than sustainable design. It’s the way consumers work together with businesses to create a closed-loop that benefits everyone including the environment. What I mean by a closed-loop is that the clothes are kept in use for a long time, or the materials are recycled or biodegraded so they don’t end up in the bin.

The Power Of Consumers

You as a consumer have the power to change things by choosing wisely where you put your money.

Perhaps, you alone cannot change a massive global industry but if more people come together and speak up about this issue, we could see some real progress. You choose what society you want to live in every time you spend your money. A quote that I love and think is quite fitting in this situation is one by Anna Lappé.

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

Anna Lappé

The Power Of Designers

You as a designer have the skill and power to create real change. Don’t just aim to become a fashion designer, aspire to be a sustainable fashion designer. It will be hard at the beginning of your journey (and maybe even impossible) but try not to work for people who do not have the same ethics as you.

If they don’t care about the planet or human rights, why should you work for them? Is money really more important than all that? Think hard before accepting a job.

Related: How Creativity Can Save The Planet

Conclusion

When everyone starts taking small steps like these, the planet will become a better place. Every single person on this planet has an impact on the world. Fashion is huge in our society and never stops evolving which is why I don’t think people will ever stop loving getting new clothes.

But if we make it the norm to thrift shop and to design in an eco-friendly manner, the fashion industry could finally become sustainable. Whether that will happens, is up to us.

I’ve said it before, no one is perfect. But you can aim to become a better person than you were yesterday. Change starts with you. Don’t expect someone else to do it for you. Get out there and start collaborating with others and inspiring the people around you.

All images from Unsplash

Sofia Hadjiosif
Sofia Hadjiosif

I've always cared about the planet but never knew how I could use my skills to create an impact. But that's when I decided to start Terra Movement. To get other creatives involved in the climate movement and inspire more people to help the planet and its people.

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