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Design sustainable fashion

Design ethically sourced fashion with only minimal impact on the environment.

On this page

  • Create fashion using environmentally kind materials
  • The best fibres and fabrics to use
  • How to develop a design process to produce sustainable fashion

Reduce your environmental impact

Designing your fashion taking environmental impacts into consideration during the production and manufacturing process is known as eco-design. Eco-design not only improves the environmental outcomes, it may also reduce your costs in the long term.

What are the impacts?

The production, manufacturing, transportation and use of textiles for fashion and interior furnishing applications uses dyes, solvents, yarns (both natural and synthetic fibres), paper patterns and machinery. The main impacts arise from material selection and use, manufacturing processes, the dyes used to print fabrics and the ethical issues around the human labour used to create garments. The impacts are outlined below.


There are two main types of fibres used to make materials – natural (or organic) and synthetic. Natural fibres include materials like cotton, wool, hemp, bamboo, cashmere and leather, whilst synthetic fibres include polyester, nylon, spandex and acrylic. When selecting materials always consider how the product will be used and match durability with garment type. Washing can also contribute a considerable amount of environmental impacts to a garment. So for example choosing particular fabrics that require less detergents and can be cleaned in cold water will have relatively reduced environmental impacts.


There are a variety of production techniques used in the manufacture of fabrics including weaving, spinning, knitting, wet treatment and sewing. Aside from the energy and water used during manufacturing, there are also inevitable waste products produced, such as waste water that may be contaminated with chemical products. Manufacturers who employ cleaner production or have environmental management certification should be given preference because this will reduce the impacts associated with manufacturing. The manufacturing of garments or soft furnishings from prepared fabrics can result in offcuts. Through good pattern design and cutting techniques the waste can be minimised.

Inks and dyes

Wet treatment is the process of de-sizing, pre-washing, mercerising, bleaching, printing and dying that most fabrics go through. Many of these processes require chemicals and dyes and thus create potentially environmentally hazardous waste products, contribute to climate change and may release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. Avoid inks and dyes that contain toxic heavy metals (for example, cadmium and beryllium) and, where possible, preference natural dyes made from plant materials. Also look for dye manufacturers who recycle their waste.


As most garments are lightweight and ambient, large quantities can be shipped at a time. This makes transport of less importance with regard to environmental impacts. However, for international transportation always preference shipping over airfreight, and for ground transport preference rail over road. Heavy vehicles such as trucks also contribute considerably to climate change through their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Use guidelines and instructions

The care instruction label provides an opportunity to minimise the environmental impacts associated with a product’s life. Washing in hot water requires energy to be used and so contributes to climate change. Garments that require harsh detergents for washing pollute wastewater. Therefore, items that can be washed effectively in cold water and with a minimum of detergents will have a reduced impact throughout their life. Where possible, always indicate cold wash on care instruction labels to inform consumers.

Wider ethical issues

The fashion industry is often criticised for the use of unethical labour practices, particularly in the production of garments and footwear. In recent years there has been a rise in consumer labels that promote ‘ethical’ fashion, such as the ‘no sweat’, ‘fair trade’ or ‘sweatshop free’ brands. These have been strong and successful communication tools for consumers, and are worth investigating as options for your products. If you are producing offshore, check the working conditions of manufacturing operations and request third party verification.

Tips to design products that reduce environmental impacts

There are a number of ways you can design your fashion in a way that considers the environment. Consider the following:


  • think eco-fibre: there are a variety of fibre options for garment construction and textile use, and each has pros and cons from an environmental perspective
  • make it last: select materials and design styles that will promote durability and longer use of the garment. Try not to design fads as these will inevitably end up in landfill
  • enhance recyclability: selecting materials that can be easily recycled, or designing the product so it has a timeless style, will decrease its environmental impact
  • reduce your VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds): volatile Organic Compounds are the funny smell you get from dyes and inks, and they are potent greenhouse gases


  • less is more: reduce the ecological footprint of your product by designing patterns to use up as much of the fabric as possible. Also reduce hems and seams etc. where possible
  • think life cycle: try to find innovative ways of reducing the impacts of your product throughout its life, from packaging to the washing and care, and end of life
  • be efficient: select manufacturers and production processes that are energy efficient, use green, renewable energy and make efforts to reduce inputs such as water and chemicals
  • make it multifunctional: encouraging customers to do more with less through multifunctional design promotes overall environmental benefits
  • zero waste: find ways of using offcuts, scraps and damaged stock so that it minimises waste to landfill


  • label it: labels are an essential part of a garment and a great way to communicate eco-options to consumers. For example include information about ethical construction
  • look for certification: ask your suppliers, manufacturers and contractors to provide you with independently verified certifications for environmental management and ethical practices
  • offer a service: why not take your product back or let customers trade it in when they are finished with it? Then you can re-construct it into something new or donate it to charity.