Circularity in Product Design
September 2nd, 2021 - New York City, NY
"Is it possible to design a garment that supports regional industry, provides traceability for each component and process, and shifts the customer's relationship with the clothing. If these are achievable, can you maintain artistic integrity and provide a sense of individuality for the wearers?"
Humans are makers, but as one works in the garment industry they often realize that making isn't a good enough reason in itself. The unethical habits of the industry are blinding, and a few seasons will show the corners cut in the name of cost savings: wage theft, poor waste managment, unintentional product design, etc. These unnerving sights are unavoidable if you are on the ground visiting the factories and suppliers, but an added complexity is that people can make things easier than ever. One quick message on Alibaba can lead to a sweatshirt in a matter of days. The barriers to entry are lowering, but at what cost? Designers' detachment is only exacerbated, and so follow consumers'.
The scariest part about these exploitations is that they are in the name of trash. 21 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste end up in U.S. landfills alone every year, and that figure is growing. Between 2000 and 2017, textile waste increased 54 percent per person. It's fair to say that much of modern day fashion is designed without the clothing's lifecycle in mind. Often times, it's a step in the wrong direction. Retailers want customers to forget about that old style and come shop whats new.
Every single second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is being buried or burned.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, it isn't currently possible to clothe 7 billion people with artisanal hyper-local goods. Meaning- fibers grown, yarn spun, fabric woven, designed, cut, sewn, and dyed under one roof to serve one community. We would need to slow our consumption and shift our perceived values immeasurably to do so. Our question remains: is there a middle ground which supports regional industry, provides traceability for every component, and shifts the customer's relationship with the clothing. If these are achieved, can you maintain artistic integrity and provide a sense of individuality for the wearers? And of course, can it be accessible?
To us, it was clear that circular product was the next step. In design, circularity is relinquishing the need for virgin resources as well as setting up the necessary infrastructure for true recycling once the product is rendered functionless. We say "true recycling" because much of our triangularly labeled products are unavoidably landfilled or down-cycled, and often times brands are not held accountable. We wanted to create a product from post-consumer material which could be useful once again in its next life. To reach this, product development had to cover design, production, and customer relationships.
Develop a functional product with artistic integrity. The product must serve a purpose, and it's decorations must offer honest expression. Streamline patterning and trims to minimize waste and maximize recyclability. Package with reusable post-consumer material.
Source non-virgin recyclable inputs from US suppliers. Please note the three necessary characteristics in that statement: local, non-virgin, recyclable. Ensure that the combinations do not diminish recyclability. High quality and ethically made are given attributes. Make the product locally with workers who are compensated fairly for the value they create.
3) Customer Relationship
Offer product take back at end of life for recycling. Incentivize customers to repair. Communicate product's composition and function; customers should purchase if they need the specific hoodie not for false social desirability. Comprehensive low-impact care guide.
And so came our circular botanically dyed hoodie.
A sweatshirt is a typical garment- one that we could produce haphazardly in a matter of weeks. In this case, we wanted to throw that variable out the window. Again, our top priorities were the local sourcing of responsibly made components, ethical production of the sweater, and both up and downstream waste managment. Once we set these rules, the creative side of garment making came to life. We found that the aesthetic variables weren't constricted but grounded. Just as the mills and factories which fit our criteria filtered, so did the drowning freedom of design.
Thread is a perfect example of our decision making process. Most sweatshirts out there are a clouded mixture of synthetic fabrics and threads. In order to reach a circular product, we had to:
1) use natural thread so it would biodegrade if for some reason it was thrown away
2) keep the body 100% natural so the entire sweatshirt could be mechanically broken down and recycled at the end of its life
3) purchase the thread from a US spinning mill
4) confirm that they are using US cotton (very uncommon, many US fabrics are made with imported yarns)
5) consider how to dye the sweatshirt given that the thread is natural
6) educate customers as repairs will be more frequent and using a differing thread could lead to inconstancies while redyeing
And to hammer it home, once we sourced the perfect fit from a small supplier in the southern US, we found out the lead time would be 6-8 weeks. It was ultimately tripled due to the flash snowstorm that hit Texas this year. Similar problem solving rings true for every component and process of the sweatshirt: botanical dyes, recycled cotton terry, cotton care labels, etc. All of which are so few and far between in the industry that the cost, timeline for production, and sourcing difficulty are all significantly increased.
The industry's major players, the military, big box retailers, and fast fashion retailers, apply so much pressure to cut costs that ethical production and sourcing isn't remotely attainable. It creates wage theft from garment workers, fails to consider a product's lifecycle, and creates an uneven playing field for small businesses. Adding a new cost (albeit a small one at 25 cents a pound) to recycle scraps and unusable products is out of the picture for these businesses. The good news is that creating an honest product exposes the seedy underbelly of the industry and creates a realistic and relatable perceived value. After all, sweatshirts are amazing, complex tools produced by skilled workers. They deserve respect in their design, use, and death.