Sustainability in design education is worth more than a conversation. It should be at the core of every lesson.
Sustainability is unquestionably the most important issue in the fashion industry. Currently our beloved hobby-lifestyle-career has the embarrassing status as runner up to the most polluting industry in the world, second only to Big Oil. What a bummer. Our poor planet will not be able to cope with the waste, pollution and resource shortages much longer. This boils down to the intention of design. One design decision can cause thousands of litres of water waste, can cause harmful work conditions for hundreds of people, and in some cases can be responsible for child labour violations, not to mention the immeasurable pollution of eventually discarded textiles. If any person could be entrusted with such global responsibility, surely it should be imperative to undertake training in ethics and sustainability? Maybe that’s just us, or maybe this should absolutely be at the forefront of design education. Ireland, we love you, but we need to be better.
Fashion education in Ireland is renowned for producing incredibly creative and ambitious fashion designers. We’ve exported talent to almost every European design house, high street store and some even start their own successful brands (heya Simone.) Our contribution to international design is a huge ongoing achievement and something we are so proud of. Our design education is, however, still in development when it comes to teaching for sustainability - a minimum of this is taught in courses across the country. This shortcoming in our outgoing designers ends up impacting the industry universally.
What's going wrong?
Every day thousands of garments are produced across the world which will inevitably end up incinerated, in landfill, or chopped up and stuffed into car bodies for insulation. Seems a pity. More than a pity, really. Down-cycling is a major resource waste. Hi-tech development, intricate processes of extraction, extrusion, dyeing, production and trend forecasting come into play in each textile produced. There is a gap in the valuable resources we discard every day and what they could be turned into. This is called Designed Obsolescence and it is the enemy of sustainability.
We all know the story of the linear lifespan. If you don’t, here’s a quick recap:
- The designer imagines a new style made from whatever textile fulfills costing requirements set out for them,
- the garment worker makes it, sometimes - a lot of the time - at an impossibly tiny wage,
- the consumer buys it and wears it until they don’t like it anymore or it becomes worn out,
- the garment is then either disposed of, or given to charity shops, or down-cycled (all stop offs on the way to the dump).
And thus the item and its materials, so quickly after their creation, becomes obsolete again
So, where does the solution begin?
Designers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a garment. The solution is in their hands. Design methods are hugely important when it comes to pre-consumer waste. The majority of designers create their initial design sketches completely separately from their pattern cutters, who translate 3D shape representations into the technical 2D puzzle that gets stitched into a piece of clothing. A frivolous frill here, a deeper armhole or neckline, a cutout shape, can mean many kilograms of unused fabric cuttings on the factory floor before a consumer has even laid eyes on the cute top that created all that mess. Textiles can take up to thousands of years to biodegrade, sometimes releasing poisonous toxins into the surrounding environment. The designer-pattern cutter relationship has the potential to be a holistic back and forth which could minimise environmental impact. Institutes like the Parsons New School for Design have begun offering zero waste pattern cutting courses, but this method still has a long way to go for industrial scale impact.
Often very new, inexperienced designers are charged with creating these initial sketches, without too much thought for pre-consumer waste. These young designers head straight out of university into design jobs, sometimes without any sustainability training. The extent of a third level student's education on sustainability is often a passing suggestion, among hundreds of other pieces of advice, on a course already packed with prerequisite requirements. This illustrates the need for sustainability to have its own rightful place within a course timeframe; as a topic prioritised and supported by educators themselves. This could mean that they are constantly designing for obsolescence, without realising it! Fashion students are often known as the ‘nerds’ of art institutions because of the high demand of the course. Can they really be blamed for not taking on extra work? There is potential to make sustainability an integral part of assessment requirements along with aesthetic design decisions and technical skills.
Who will guide us?
This training already exists in places like the Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI) which integrates sustainability into their syllabus from the very first step of training young designers. Luxury group Kering (subsidiaries include Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen among others) are making steps in the right direction, slowly. The RCA have made some great developments in sustainability, including the world’s first viable leather alternative Piñatex. Companies like Patagonia, Mud Jeans are already disrupting this linear system with a more ‘circular’ outlook where the garment can be returned and recycled to become a garment again. If every designer started working in this circular fashion, refused to work in a wasteful manner with textiles and methods that destroy lives, well, things would be much nicer for everyone, wouldn’t it? Imagine how guilt free your fashion choices could be. Irish designers need to be a part of this revolution. Irish fashion design courses have much to catch up on. How do we get there? Let’s join the conversation and become active in cleaning up our own business.
On March 7th Nu. will be hosting this conversation at the NCAD gallery with a panel of illustrious guest speakers. Our special guest, who we are over the moon to present, is Carry Somers. A name you should know by now. Carry has spearheaded the Fashion Revolution movement which aims to reform the system of thoughtless fashion design and production. Every year Fashion Revolution commemorates the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh and encourages consumers to buy consciously. The annual activation comes complete with social media friendly #WhoMadeMyClothes. Check it out and participate by turning your clothes inside out, taking a selfie and tagging the brand, asking the tough question “Who made my clothes?”
Accompanying Carry on our panel of guest speakers is Rosie O’Reilly of We Are Islanders and Kate Nolan, of [ MADE ] Store & Gallery who are co-founders of ReDress. We will also be hosting a swap-shop at the gallery after the panel discussion. Come join us and bring all your clothes you’re sick of, and swap them for something cute. We've also managed to source some delicious snacks for post-discussion hang out time, which will be accompanied by a side of live dj-ing by Súlán O Muirgheasa. Check out our event for more details.