Carole Collet Course Director, MA Textile Futures, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, University of the Arts London

“Does it run on sunlight? Does it use only the energy it needs? Does it fit form to function? Does it recycle everything? Does it reward cooperation? Does it bank on diversity? Does it utilise local expertise? Does it curb excess from within? Does it tap the power of limits? Is it beautiful?”i Janine Benyus

“It May be true that one has to choose between ethics and aesthetics, but whichever one chooses, one will always find the other at the end of the road.”ii Jean-Luc Godard

The textile industry is one that is ubiquitous, one that supports local, global, established and growing economies. It is also an industry contributing to major environmental crisis. Yet the mechanics of this industry remain largely unknown to the mainstream consumer and to the average designer. This article highlights the changing role of the textile designer, and how creative practice and innovation can lead to ecologically driven design proposals. It is more than time to re-evaluate our design aspirations, and to challenge the key economic drivers of the textile industry: that of seasonal and fast-changing styling trends. Issues of aesthetics need to be confronted with ethical values. What follows is informed by the design, research and educational practices of the MA Textile Futures course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in the UK.

Textile designers serve an industry that is a significant contributor to the world economy, encompassing both local and small-scale production as well as very large and complex manufacturing plants. “In terms of its output or production and employment, the textile industry is one of the largest industries in the world.”iii The number of sectors involving the production and fabrication of textiles ranges from agriculture, petrochemicals, finishing manufacturers, clothing factories, architectural and interior products, to technical textiles and even the space industry. The impact of the textile industry on the environment is complex, and sadly not limited to recent times. Ever since the onset of the industrial revolution, for which the textile industry played a key role, the use of large amounts of water and energy has been taken for granted. Historically, dyers and finishers set up next to rivers, where untreated and polluted water could be discharged directly into the stream.

Today likewise the main environmental concerns surrounding the manufacture of textiles include the use of large volumes of water; the reliance on oil resources for energy and the making of synthetic fibres; the generation of toxic chemicals; and the production of large quantities of waste on the side both of the manufacturer and the consumer. “The industry that launched the Industrial Revolution has long illustrated some of its most notorious design failures. About one half of the world's wastewater problems are linked to the production of textile goods, and many of the chemicals used to dye and finish fabrics are known to harm human health. Often, the clippings from carpet or fabric mills are so loaded with dangerous chemicals they are handled like toxic waste, while the products made from these materials are considered safe for use in the home.”iv

Besides its direct impact on our earth resources, the textile and clothing industry is notorious for its problematic and unfair use of labour, particularly where women and children are concerned.

Today the world population is around 6.6 billion. “By 2050 it is estimated that the earth’s human population will be 9.07 billion.” So, in a little more than 40 years from now, our world population will have increased by a third. This is unprecedented. All industries will have to adapt to this rapid development while addressing the environmental impact of the production, consumption and post-consumption of their outputs. The US National Academy of Sciences “has calculated that human consumption surpassed the regenerative capacity of the planet around 1980, and we are now pushing its systems well beyond their ability to heal.”v If we look at the figures below,vi we can appreciate how much the production of world textiles has increased, going from an estimated 48 million tonnes per year in 1990 to nearly 68 million tonnes in 2004. Within that period, we can also see that the greatest increase has been the production of polyester, an oil-based and therefore rapidly diminishing raw material.

This increase is clearly unsustainable in light of the major pressures that the world is facing in terms of energy production, access to clean water, and climate change. With the looming addition of three billion people, we must rethink the design and production of our goods and services. The black sheep of the textile industry should teach us a lesson: cotton, the world production of which is responsible for a dramatic impact on soil, water reserves and air. In the name of progress and efficiency, the growing of cotton consumes one quarter of the world’s pesticides and is known to have destroyed the Aral sea; a crisis so acute that the United Nations described it as one of the “most staggering disasters of the 20th century.”vii Unfortunately, these disturbing facts are still largely unknown to the average consumer, and sadly to a lot of textile and fashion designers as well, whose responsibility is negligently or innocently involved. Of course we cannot remain unaffected by the growing awareness of general environmental issues. The media is regularly covering issues related to CO2 and climate change, and it would be difficult to be unaware of the environmental situation at this time. However, the specific impact of our industries, particularly the textiles and fashion sectors, remain extremely complex and largely isolated from our day-to-day lifestyles. In the UK we design here and now, but we mass-manufacture most of our goods in emerging economies, where pollution seems invisible to us, disconnected from our daily lives – or so we think. Particular toxic chemicals banned within the EEC are used in the manufacture of some textiles outside of Europe, but once imported and washed in our homes they can release unwanted toxins into our own very rivers.

The recent shift of textile production to Asian countries has enabled manufacturers and retailers to reduce production costs to such extent that Western consumers can enjoy innocently extremely cheap and fast fashion. Instead of rethinking our consumption patterns, the cheap mass manufacture of clothing entices us to consume more, carelessly. “Well Dressed,” a recent report published in 2006 by the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, established that “waste volumes from the sector are high and growing in the UK with the advent of fast fashion. On average, UK consumers send 30 kilograms of clothing and textiles per capita to landfill each year.”

We also know that recycling textiles is actually a traditional industry in the UK, with sound systems in place for collecting, sorting and recycling. Therefore, it should not be that difficult to change our patterns of post-consumption. Reusing and buying second-hand clothes can also have a major positive effect on the reduction of use of water and energy. “If everyone in the UK bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year, it would save an average of 371 million gallons of water (the average UK reservoir holds about 300 million gallons) and 480 tons of chemical dyestuffs.”viii But for William McDonough and Michael Braungart, “recycling is an aspirin, alleviating a rather large collective hangover… overconsumption. The best way to reduce any environmental impact is not to recycle more, but to produce and dispose of less.”ix That’s where design can make a difference.

In July 2007, the UK Design Council published the UK Design Industry Skills Development Plan which highlights the vital role of design in our economy and acknowledges that the UK creative industries is “the fastest growing sector of the UK economy, developing at an average 5% per annum between 1997 and 2004.” The education sector has been part of this success: “The number of undergraduates and postgraduates taking design related degrees has grown steadily, with a 40% increase in the number of design graduates between 1996 and 2004, and a 71% increase of postgraduates.”x

But what do we call design? To what extent does our design curriculum begin to tackle environmental issues? When it comes to textiles, design is often reduced to a styling exercise, one that epitomises originality, self-indulgence in the act of creating, and the value of craft in reference to the Art and Crafts movement. Innovation is often associated with the use of new technologies and materials, or simply with a redefinition of aesthetics. Textile and fashion design is victim of its own success. Design attracts glamour, trendy lifestyles, and is rather too often detached from the harsh reality of the world environmental implications of the textile and clothing industry. For a start, there is an obvious contradiction between the seasonal, ephemeral aspect of the textile and fashion industry and environmental concerns which are about long life and quality. Students entering the world of textile design education are often motivated by a passion for making and an interest in aesthetic issues, but rarely because they are willing to make a contribution to the environmental debate. As stated by the Design Council, and after a two-year consultation programme:

“A key new skill set is needed to address sustainability, but as yet there is little demand for it in the industry. Our consultation found that designers place a low priority on developing skills to tackle environmental and sustainable development challenges. Experience from other countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden suggests that if a critical mass of designers were equipped with knowledge about product life cycles, the impact of material choices and manufacturing processes on product development and consumer behaviour would be considerable.”xi

In MA Textile Futures,xii the core philosophy of the curriculum is to expose designers to key issues concerning our future, and sustainability is a key driver. Students come from all over the world and can join the course after the completion of an undergraduate programme. Yet, after a degree in textiles and fashion, most of them join us with little critical awareness of their industry and oblivious to the environmental impact of their design activity. Few have addressed design and its ecological impact as part of their previous design education. A questionnaire distributed at the beginning of the course in October 2007 revealed that 83 per cent of our first year Master students did not understand the core issues of sustainability relating to their industry. This is a shocking fact when we know that eco-conscious design can have a tremendous impact on the production and consumption of a product. “80 per cent of the environmental impact of the products, services, and infrastructures around us is determined at the design stage.”xiii

Sustainable textile design doesn’t just require different design approaches, it requires constructive and proactive multidisciplinary collaborations. William McDonough and Michael Braungart are the very embodiment of one such successful collaboration: a chemist and a designer/architect working together on design briefs. The most relevant example is perhaps their work produced for Design Tex in collaboration with the Textile Mill Rohner. “We were asked to focus on creating an aesthetically unique fabric that was also environmentally intelligent.… The team decided to design a fabric that would be safe enough to eat: it would not harm people who breathed it in, and it would not harm natural systems after its disposal. In fact as a biological nutrient, it would nourish nature.”xiv The success of Climatex Lifecycle asserts a new model of design for textiles: a symbiotic collaboration between science (chemistry) and design, backed up by a strong corporate commitment to sustainability. For students, it is often a huge and uncomfortable learning curve; one that requires them to rethink their values and design methods, confronting them with a redefinition of their roles as designers. We need to inform them and equip them with as many ideas and tools as possible to begin to deal with the world of our future. In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart argue that being “less bad is not good enough.” In a context where we still have to work hard to convince designers to proactively engage in the sustainable debate, doing “less bad” is a start. As designers and educationalists, we urgently need to create more positive role models and more success stories, ones that do not compromise either aesthetics or ethics.

“Something is beautiful if it is desirable to people, therefore the beautifulness of something depends entirely on context. So design is not about beauty, beauty is just a presupposed by-product of what designers do. Beauty in design means finding enjoyment in seeing or using a product or service, or enjoying the experience of doing something differently, i.e., actions can be as beautiful as things.” Clare Brass, Head of Sustainability, Design Council, UK, October 2007

Most textile designers will have been trained to approach a design brief by producing so-called trend/mood boards to define the design direction of their collection. This entails producing a visual narrative to express a particular design concept; choosing a colour range and sourcing a variety of fabrics and trimming in line with this concept. Aesthetics and styling are everything in this business. The design development follows: be it printed, knitted or woven designs, the main goal is to achieve an exiting collection in line with the chosen style. This is a fairly reductive and simplistic summary of the basic methodology of textile design, but represents in broad outline what is still in place in the industry.

Introducing ecological thinking in the process implies the need to challenge the hierarchy between aesthetic issues and ethical values of material sourcing and production methods. Sadly, the latter is too often perceived as a compromise to the design direction, but there have been notable exceptions. When she was design director at Esprit in the early 90s, Linda Grose – a pioneer of ecological thinking in fashion design – implemented new sourcing practices and devised “Ecollection,” a separate line of clothing that acted as a pilot research project for the company. This allowed the company to effectively acquire new skills and knowledge and to embed them in the design process step by step. However, such a design direction also needs to be fully backed up by corporate responsibility, and designers cannot do it alone. Even so, it seems that more companies are rising to the challenge, and all eyes have been on Marks & Spencers in the UK since they announced their new environmental business plan last year. In the early 90s, the whole fashion and textile industry grasped on the “eco-trend” for a very short and “pattern-less” season. Unbleached, creased, ragged, “sexy-hippy” or “eco-chic” fabrics invaded the high street and succeeded in convincing most designers and consumers that eco-design was not only of poor quality, but rather unexciting and plain. To this day I still have conversations with some of my students and colleagues who assume that eco-textile design must look “green,” and be made of natural materials and dyes. This is changing slowly as we now have access to a wider range of sustainable fabrics, from organic cotton and hemp to biopolymers such as Ingeo. I very much believe that an eco-conscious collection does not need to have a particular style to be credited as such. Davina Hawthorne, Elena Corchero, Heather Smith and Lucy Fergus have dedicated some of their design work to prove just that.

Biomimicry: what lessons can we learn from mother nature?

I once read that about 70 per cent of textile designs are floral prints. Most certainly, the history of textiles showcases the visual representation of nature as a primary creative inspiration. With recent developments in material science we can now move away from iconic representations of nature and start to design, fabricate, and recycle as efficiently as nature. The world of biomimicry has become a key inspiration for the future of design strategies and methodologies since it was championed by Janine Benyus in her book Innovation Inspired by Nature, Biomimicry in 1997. As Benyus suggests, when it comes to designing solutions, nature has a head start of nearly four billion years, and has experimented across millions of species – so why not look at role models in nature that can become design models for our very own products. This approach is very much practised in the field of biology and life sciences. Bioengineered materials (also called biomaterials, biomolecular materials or organic/inorganic interfaces) have opened a realm of possibilities for scientists to design materials, surfaces and finishings that mimic natural systems to deliver pre-established functions. In textiles, pine cone fabric, gecko tape and Velcro are the infamous obvious references. But what we really need now is to make accessible to designers biological principles and biological data that can generate a new evolution of design products, not just materials. This is a current project undertaken by The Rocky Mountain Institute and The Biomimicry Guild, who have launched a biomimicry database.xv

Design applications developed in symbiosis with bioengineered materials are key to the future of design and its impact on society. Biocouture, a recent collaboration between fashion designer and futurist Suzanne Lee and material scientist David Hepworth is a great example. This science and design partnership led to the production of clothing by bioengineering fabrics manufactured by bacteria.

“BioCouture aims to address ecological and sustainability issues around fashion. The BioCouture research project is harnessing nature to propose a radical future fashion vision. We are investigating the use of bacterial-cellulose, grown in a laboratory, to produce clothing. Our ultimate goal is to literally grow a dress in a vat of liquid…”xvi

At the onset of the twenty-first century, the reconciliation of aesthetics and design ethics should be a priority for designers and for design education as a whole. In the context of textiles, it is time to re-evaluate our understanding of design and market place, craft and manufacture, product lifetime and post-consumption. Designing seasonal trends and planned obsolescence should not belong to the designer’s vocabulary. A better and more holistic definition of sustainable textiles should open the door to better design and sustainable consumption. We cannot rely solely on consumer power to change our practices. We should not be content to look back at traditional making and craft techniques as potential solutions. And we cannot resolve future challenges by focusing on just one aspect of the problem at a time. Recycling and organic manufacture will help, but our focus should be to review our systems of design and innovation. Designing products may well soon belong to the past as designing services becomes more relevant than ever. We also need to look ahead and collaborate across disciplines, such as material science, hi-tech engineering, biology and biomimicry to come up with successful designs. Success such as defined by balanced ecosystems in nature. When it comes to designers, the survival of the fittest will be dependant upon their ability to understand and adapt to sustainable challenges intelligently and proactively.

i p. 291, Innovation inspired by nature, Biomimicry, Janine M. Benyus, Quill, 1997 ii as quoted in Beauty is Nowhere, ethical issues in art and design, edited by Richard Roth and Susan King Roth, C+B Arts, 1998, chapter: Toward the Spiritual in Design, Victor Papanek, p.37. iii p. 19, The Textile Industry and the Environment, Technical report 16, United Nations Environment Programme, Industry and Environment, 1994 iv Transforming the textile industry, Victor Innovatex, “Eco intelligent polyester and the next industrial revolution”,By William McDonough & Michael Braungart © 2002 http://www.mcdonough.com/writings/transforming_textile.htm v The Oblivious capitalist’s day are numbered, Andrew Zolli, Fast company, issue 113, march 2007, p.64. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/113 vi p. 13, Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom. Julian M Allwood, Søren Ellebæk Laursen, Cecilia Malvido de Rodríguez, Nancy M P Bocken, University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing. 2006 vii http://www.ejfoundation.org/page327.html viii http://www.wasteonline.org.uk/.../Textiles ix p. 50, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way we Make Things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart. North Point Press, 2002, quoting Use less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are, Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje, 1998 x p. 24, UK Design Industry Skills Development Plan, Design Council UK, 2007 xi p. 27, UK Design Industry Skills Development Plan, Design Council UK, 2007 xii http://www.textilefutures.co.uk xiii p. 1, In the Buble, John Thackara, MIT press 2006 in reference to statistic quoted in Design Council, Annual Review 2002, p.19. xiv p. 106, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way we Make Things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart. North Point Press, 2002 xv http://database.portal.modwest.com/ xvi http://www.biocouture.co.uk