During Graduate Fashion Week we talked to eight budding eco fashion design students from London, New Zealand and India, to find out how easy “being ethical” actually is and why so many of our future designers seem so disinterested in saving our planet.
There are brave young students who aren’t afraid of tackling ethical issues head on: sticking to their eco principles even if it means adding extra time and effort to their workload. But what is it about “ethical fashion” that has other students running for the hills and what needs to be done to change things?
Are students encouraged to design ethically?
All of the students we spoke to noted that their course contained some element of teaching ethical design principles, even if not all students chose to work “responsibly” after that:
As Amy, a Fashion Design and Technology graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University told us, “My university really encouraged us to look at … [the] growing awareness and concern about sustainability.” .
So it seems that universities and art schools are educating students about the growing public awareness of the environmental and social issues within the fashion industry.
Why, in that case, aren’t more young designers designing responsibly?
There appear to be three key factors at play:
1. Whilst tutors and lecturers are happy to “educate” their students about the issues in theoretical terms, they are less likely to proactively encourage students to adopt eco design principles into their own work. As Valentini, a London College of Fashion graduatecommented, when it came down to the designing “it was more ‘up to you’”.
This reluctance to positively promote “responsible” design seems to stem from a still common misconception that focusing on ethical principles would hinder the creative process:
Laura, a Fashion Design graduate from the University of Plymouth, expressed this herself, “They don’t want students to focus on the ethical production too much to take it away from the designing.” As did Sofia, a Fashion Design Technology graduate from the London College of Fashion, “Ethical fashion has a bad reputation of not really being fashionable.”
2. It can take a lot more effort to source materials:
Valentini picked up on this aspect: “it is much more difficult (in comparison with other fashion products) to find the appropriate leather or fabric.”
And these problems sourcing eco fabrics aren’t exclusive to the UK, even Jane, a Fashion Design & Business graduate from Massey University, New Zealand told us, “There were many times when I was so tired and I just wanted to go down the road and buy fabric from a normal shop. Not slacking off was probably the hardest!”
3. The biggest issue though is that the wider fashion industry is not changing, so why should design students;
Tola, a Fashion Design graduate from the University for the Creative Arts, very perceptively told us, “I’d say it isn’t a focus for all design courses for the same reasons that it sadly isn’t the focus of all fashion practices. People want to make money and they don’t necessarily like the idea of being limited in certain ways.“
Jane from New Zealand agreed, adding, “I guess the reality is that a large portion of graduates will not be working within a sustainably orientated brand.”
So what is the solution?
Keeping It Current
Eco-conscious design students are incredibly perceptive to the fickle nature of fashion and are naturally adapting their designs, to appeal to the mass market. One of the common threads of these budding eco designers’ work, for example, is to address the pre-conceived “hippie” notions of ethical design; getting people to see it “as ‘Fashion’ not just Sustainable Fashion”, as Fashion Design and Technology graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University, Amy, puts it. They are achieving this by keeping up with current trends and making items that are as easy or easier to care for than fast fashion items.
Amy’s work doesn’t stop there: “I try to consider how to make my work as accessible as possible whilst being sustainable, for example; using hard wearing organic cottons that are easy to look after and can be washed at low temperatures.”
Similarly, Sofia adapted her designs: “My aim was to create a sustainable collection that wouldn’t look like one and which would be commercially approachable so I tried my best use methods that could be adapted for the fashion market.”
As did Laura, “As an ethical designer I keep up with current trends. Many of the fabrics can be washed; every garment I produce will be completed with washing instructions.”
Inevitably, if eco fabrics are difficult to source, designers will be less likely to bother to use them. Over the past few years, however, companies like Offset Warehouse have started to address that problem, paving the way for young designers to work more responsibly.
A one-stop shop for ethical fabrics and components that can be trusted to have come from ethical and sustainable sources, the company was founded by a former fashion student, after experiencing her own frustrations at trying to source fabrics sustainably. Thanks to companies like Offset Warehouse, it is now easy to get your hands on ethical and sustainable fabrics that are also “student budget friendly”.
“Offset Warehouse are brilliant as they provide clear descriptive information of all products therefore enabling me to share the information with the consumer.” (Laura)
“Offset Warehouse was an invaluable source of fabric for my final collection. The range of fabrics was the most extensive.” (Jane)
“I’ve found newsletters really helpful as they keep you informed about new fabrics and Offset Warehouse provide comprehensive information about the fabrics which is extremely useful but is something not all suppliers provide.” (Amy)
Time for Change?
It is outdated to think that all ethical design is made from ‘hippie hemp’, and Universities claiming “lack of supply” or “high prices” as excuses are no longer acceptable. It is vital that higher education institutions encourage their students to design ethically and sustainably and that young designers are facilitated to continue to do so once they start designing in the commercial world. It should not be left to the students to pave the way for their mentors:
Textile student Sarah, who graduated from Scotland’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design commented,“It is becoming more and more popular for students to take it upon themselves to work with sustainable materials so maybe in the near future design courses will follow.” (Sarah)
Fashion designers, journalists, trendsetters and consumers should make a stand and turn all design into ethical design instead of it being an outsider pursuit. The more people who demand it, the easier sourcing materials will become.
“It’s slowly becoming the new luxury I think and people find it more and more impressive to see people’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.” (Tola)
More information on the students:
- A University Of Plymouth Fashion Design graduate, Laura is in the process of setting up her own studio, hoping to get her designs out there for people to be able to purchase and enjoy.
- Since graduating from his Fashion Design degree at the University for Creative Arts, Tola has completed a Garment Technology internship with People Tree and has been working on an exciting re-making project with charity Fara on their newest shop, The Fara Workshop.
- Amy graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a degree in Fashion Design and Technology andis now working as a Womenswear Design Assistant, learning more about the industry. She wants to gain more experience designing sustainable fashion in the future.
- Geethu from Kerala, India has started a blog of designs and findings on slow fashion. She graduated in 2009 and is currently pursuing her masters in Costume design and fashion.Her ultimate dream is to become an ecopreneur, and have a 100% sustainable brand.
- Sofia will be graduating this summer from London College of Fashion with a BA in Fashion Design Technology, Womenswear, but has already been working with fashion brand Minna for the past 2 years. Her future plan is to carry on working in sustainable fashion and the dream would be to work for the brands like Edun or Stella McCartney.
- Sarah attended Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design where she studied Textile Design. Her work has been featured in various exhibitions and fashion shows, is stocked at www.perrynelvill.com, and is featured in a book about contemporary textiles.
- Valentini graduated from London College of Fashion with an MA in Fashion Footwear. She is now thinking about setting up her own footwear brand with ethical design principles.
- Jane graduated with a Bachelor of Design from Massey University in Wellington, New Zealandand is commited on being an ethical designer. Amongst other things she is designing and making lingerie pieces, sewing bits for friends and about to intern with a local designer.
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One thought on “Eco Fashion Design|Nobody said it was easy”
Lu Underwood says:
Hi, I’m an applied arts graduate form 2012 and working in recycled and sustainable textiles in furnishings and interiors. Although not fashion, the difficulty I face now is the same…….finding a comprehensive supply of sustainable and good quality furnishing/upholstery fabrics.
My course only briefly covered sustainability. Having had my own business in furnishings for 20 years, my frustration at not being able to find Eco fabrics led me to look at how design can influence our sustainable approach to production and consumption, for my dissertation. It is a really interesting question and has a complex conclusion encompassing social, environmental and economic aspects. I was encouraged by the number of large fashion manufactures that put a focus on the sustainability of fabric – M&S, Nike, Patagonia and the likes of H&M for its recycling scheme.
For consumers, it is cost and partly the ‘dippy hippy’ image of these fabrics that inhibits their spending. I believe things are changing. The ‘upcycle/re-use’ culture being created by todays economic climate, can only help to change our approach to materials in general. There is also now more education in awareness of workers conditions, slave labour and the heath effect of pesticides used in production. Our consumer appetite for new and constant change is now learning to ‘slow’ down. ‘Slow’ movements from food to design, are teaching us to buy locally sourced, good quality produce but more importantly, less often.
These cultural changes are needed for consumers to play their part along side designers and manufactures to produce sustainably. The then knock on effect of less pesticides, chemicals, pollution etc will be of massive benefit to workers and the environment.
For designers, the importance of our choice of materials and processes is fundamental to a sustainable approach. I believe our universities and colleges have to make this the foundation of all fashion and design courses for our students to embed it in their practise. I also believe that design is at its best when challenged in this way. Once consumers can see that design isn’t compromised by sustainability, the use of Eco fabrics will I believe, become mainstream and therefore more affordable. For this to happen, it is upto the large textile manufactures to produce a sustainable supply, to a fashion/interiors industry that is guided by new, innovative designers demanding such fabrics.
We can only hope!!