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Design sustainable fashion

Consider the environmental impacts during production and manufacture

On this page

  • What is eco-design?
  • How to reduce your environmental impact as a fashion designer
  • Ethical considerations

Reduce your environmental impact

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 can 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 can include:

  • dyes
  • solvents
  • yarns (both natural and synthetic fibres)
  • paper patterns
  • machinery.

The main environmental 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.

Materials

Natural and synthetic fibres are the two main types of fibres used to make materials. Natural, or organic fibres include cotton, wool, hemp and bamboo, while synthetic or man-made fibres include polyester, nylon, spandex and acrylic.

Miniminsing the impact of materials

  • When selecting materials, 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. Choosing fabrics that require less detergents and can be cleaned in cold water will reduce environmental impacts.

Manufacturing

There are a variety of production techniques used in the manufacture of fabrics, including:

  • weaving
  • spinning
  • knitting
  • wet treatment
  • sewing. 

Apart from the energy and water used during manufacturing, there are also inevitable waste products – such as waste water – that may be contaminated with chemical products. 

The manufacturing of garments or soft furnishings from prepared fabrics can result in off-cuts. 

Miniminsing the impact of manufacturing

  • Waste can be minimised through good pattern design and cutting techniques.
  • To reduce the impacts associated with manufacturing, choose manufacturers who employ cleaner production, or have environmental management certification. 

Inks and dyes

Most fabrics go through a process of wet treatments, such as:

  • de-sizing
  • pre-washing
  • mercerising
  • bleaching
  • printing.

Many of these processes require chemicals and dyes that are potential environmentally hazardous waste products, contribute to climate change, and may release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. 

Miniminsing the impact of inks and dyes

  • Avoid inks and dyes that contain toxic heavy metals (for example, cadmium and beryllium) and preference natural dyes made from plant materials. 
  • Look for dye manufacturers who recycle their waste.

Transportation

As most garments are lightweight and ambient, large quantities can be shipped at a time, making transport less of a priority with regard to environmental impacts. 

Heavy vehicles such as trucks also contribute considerably to climate change through their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Miniminsing the impact of transportation

  • Always preference shipping over airfreight for international transportation, and for ground transport preference rail over road.

Care instructions and labelling

The care instruction label provides an opportunity for your customers 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.  

Miniminsing the impact by labelling

  • 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 your care instruction labels.

Wider ethical issues

The fashion industry is often criticised for the use of unethical labour practices, particularly in the production of garments and footwear. 

Minimising unethical labour practices

  • 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.

Discover more tips on how to design products that reduce environmental impacts

Read our checklist on designing sustainable fashion