Can Designers lead the change for Sustainable Fashion?

The focus on the fashion ecosystem to better address sustainability issues is increasing. Can design lead the change to sustainable fashion? I spoke to Anurag Rana, a designer and a skill / livelihood development expert. She dwelled on innovation in materials and processes, circular design and much more. She further highlighted the need for an open repository of knowledge for designers and others in the fashion ecosystem.

Will designers start the change?

I don’t think designers will demand it. The future of materials will demand it. Designers don’t always create the demand or the supply. It’s the consumers who do and designers have to adapt to that consumption. The consumption pattern is what really creates demand. Designers typically solve problems that have been given to them and mostly don’t dictate things. Which is why, I believe that designers are unlikely to start the change towards sustainability, but market forces and newer materials will drive this change.

And we also need to remember that designers create what the large brands will buy. Just by convincing people about sustainability, we can’t get them to be more sustainable. At the end of the day, we must remember that the client or the buyers in a large fashion house or brand is also a consumer, and like everyone else, they want a better world. The two need to work together, clients need to enable designers to solve these problems around sustainability.

Do Designers have the latest information on products?

Design is such a generic term, and everybody’s working very specifically with different kinds of products and different kinds of materials. Further, there is a lot of change happening with different kinds of materials research and innovation. Therefore, whenever one is given a project, you just have to do enough research and understand it thoroughly before really delving deep into design solutions.

What are the principles of circular design that the designer needs to think about?

Firstly the concept of circular design is extremely ‘new’ as a term in the Indian context. If we were to really look at the term carefully, we have to go back to where the product cycle begins. When I was in design school, we were taught, “define the problem, and provide different design solutions”.

But now the circular concept needs to be incorporated in design teaching and design training – we need to tell the students, “the design solution does not end at creating a product, it ends when the product ends and where it ends”.

Designers will have to step in and tell clients, “if we are creating a brand for you, the brand will be presented in a certain kind of packaging, but where what is that packaging going to be made of? Where will that end? Will it be biodegradable. If, not, will the company be responsible for the unused part of the product?”

Therefore, these are extremely tricky questions, but we can’t think around it or bypass it anymore. It’s the elephant in the room that we need to look at. This is why design has become integral to every kind of development.

There is no organisation anymore, that doesnt understanding the need for design. It has also been foreseen by the Indian government because we are setting up design schools in almost every part of India now. Realizing the increasing importance of design in economic, industrial and societal development and in improving the quality of products and services, the Government of India had initiated a consultative process with industry, designers and other stakeholders to develop the broad contours of a National Design Policy.

On effective design

It’s never about faster design, the way we have faster production. Design is a process. Our clients need to understand that design is not a generic, falsifying outer approach to make something visually more appealing. That’s not only what design is. Design has to go to the core. It’s a process that takes time to find the most suitable solutions, and that’s that should be the approach. I think design thinking needs to be more streamlined and the approach to design needs to be understood better.

On materials innovation

Materials innovation is an interesting space. The reason that anybody’s asking about it is because suddenly everyone is looking at alternate materials. So, if we were to look at what happened during industrialization and we need to understand the thinking of that time. People basically said, “we need mass scale, we need large volumes of this particular product created continuously”.

However, over a period of time new materials have emerged. Many of them based on natural sources. Many others that have been with us over centuries. For instance, bamboo has existed in every part of India. Traditionally and culturally, and we have known how to use it to make everything. We make houses out of bamboo, glasses and cups and furniture are all based on bamboo. Bamboo fibre is now being used to make clothes. Which other material has lent itself to everything across the board? A good material today, needs to be understood in its entirety. Bamboo isn’t a material that has been developed today, it’s been there for years and decades if not centuries. That know-how needs to be captured. How was that material used?

There are these unique materials and many layers of knowledge that are emerging. What we need is a shared platform of understanding this in a larger perspective. If somebody’s got a better technology to process bamboo in a different way or in a better way to make the same basket or a product or a jar or a table, can we share that? Is there a platform that is open about it, there isn’t? There is no such platform that exists worldwide, where they say it is open source, which says, “Look, I know how to work on this particular material in this way, this is the best I can do, and this is the know how!” There is no amalgamation of ideas, design and technology in one platform, that is the level I think we really need to reach.

Open source and collaboration

Collaborations between the makers, the designers, the facilitators, the on ground, need to be open source. Today, grassroot level technology isn’t being talked about, let alone materials. Where you can find a common knowledge system that can be taken and stepped upon further?. So, what happens if a repository of platform like this is built? Design schools will be able to tell students, “this is where you research, this is the background, this is how it was used, and now you take it further”. So, when that knowledge system is taken into a design solution, there will be some interesting design ideas, an entirely new perspective that will emerge. Then you will not be able answer, “Can this material be used over a 10 or 15 year lifespan?” Yes, because that research would have already happened, hence, the design student or the designer, whoever is working on that material or the process will already know.

On transparency and traceability

I think that transparency is all that’s required. You can have a technology that says, this is really 100% organic or it is what the label says! That’s it.

Enabling a maker or a designer is very different. This has a totally different nuance to the conversation as compared to when you’re talking about it from a design and consumer perspective. Traceability versus authenticity are two different conversations. You can say a particular material is authentic if it came from a traditional ethnic group or country, whether it’s traceable to its maker is something else entirely. I think that we need to be very clear on why these traceability markers are being put and what are they going to achieve.

Sustainable fashion in 2020

I think we’re going to be looking at a very different kind of consumption, which is going to be it’s not only about slow fashion anymore.

So if we were to talk about from the company’s point of view, we have to reduce consumption of materials to be more sustainable. Then we increase the price of the product and make the product so special, that the consumer only wants five of those pieces in a lifetime. This is a very different perspective. And I feel that this is a better perspective.

We need to ask these question of ourselves? Why do we need so many clothes? Why do we need to be able to throw away those clothes every season? Can we not have that one piece that is so special that stays with you? Maybe not worn everyday! So if we were to segregate that, every day when was special day wear, and therefore have that much in our wardrobe, I think we’re looking at a generation which will start looking at a Limited Edition.