TED writes for the Huffington Post

Design Life Times_400

A wee while ago Kay Politowicz was asked to respond to a question for the Huff. We thought it would be nice to share the piece with you on our TED blog.

Has global warming shifted the direction of textile research and development and how are retailers and manufacturers responding?

These huge questions are complex and interesting – so I am pleased to be able to think about them for a moment before answering!

Essentially – the research falls into the categories of: broadly academic and theoretical, institutionally funded OR industry based, technical or scientific and profit driven. Nothing wrong with either – both necessary, but largely separate in their focus and in their audiences. What is needed is some connection – especially through media communication. Fashion is entirely presented as ‘desirable image’ in popular media. The agenda- what it looks like, who is wearing it, where to get it and what’s coming next – are all promoting the consumption without reference to consequences – environmental or social. It would be interesting if some air and print time were devoted to the realities of existing production and the possibilities of alternative ideas – not just to publicise models of quality, longevity, locality, new technology and authenticity – but to explore what is really happening culturally in association with this contemporary phenomenon and what alternative activities/forms of creative engagement could become attractive to consumers.

The global warning awareness has changed the priority for research in design generally – if, by that, you link to environmental, economic and social issues. I would suggest that the most enlightened and engaged research is actually proposing a change to the role of the designer – to one who can facilitate change as well as come up with new reasons to make products.

Some 15 or so years ago – when Higher Education in the UK began seriously to fund research in art and design subjects, we set up a Research Group at Chelsea College of Arts, London, called ‘Textiles Environment Design’. The ‘we’ were a group of teachers, who were also textile designers…. in both roles, we needed to educate ourselves about the suspected environmental damage of textile production – to see whether there was any way that we could ‘design out’ some of the effects of our decisions down the production chain. It became the basis of a design practice-led research approach to our work and to the curriculum.

In many ways the distance between that moment – from THEN when our concerns were entirely about material and chemical pollution in production to the suspected waste in landfill – a ‘cradle to grave’ concern – to NOW, when it is clear that the only way to consider the impact of a design decision is to trace the journey through the ‘lifecycle’ of the material into its intended life as a product, which has a ‘cradle to cradle’ perspective in a circle of continuous use. An Internet community of researchers with this commitment is now able to propose initiatives, discuss ideas and make alliances.

Published design research over the last 10 years has raised awareness of the implications of ‘lifecycle thinking’ for designers (many), educators (some) and manufacturers (a few but increasing) – with a global map of interest in the ideas, where design thinkers and social anthropolgists have had an impact on the work of textile designers. In the UK: Jonathan Chapman, John Thackera, Daniel Miller; in USA – Michael Braungart, William McDonough; in Australia: Tony Fry; in Italy Ezio Manzini and many others. When we began our group in 1996, textile research was seen as a separate activity because of its particular technical materials development focus. It is now much more influenced by social sciences and anthropology – we believe the consumer has to be considered almost part of the ‘supply chain’ as we become aware of the global warming impact of laundry and disposal of clothing.

The increasing consumption of textiles for clothing is causing the biggest textiles impact on the environment – and gathering speed. It depends on oil and gas, consumes enormous amounts of water and contributes to vast mountains of waste. Fashion is seen by many, therefore, as the damaging industry – and must be stopped! But fashion is so much more than a problem product – it represents success, variety, entertainment, identity, ingenuity – and provides a source of economic prosperity. This fact is often overlooked by evangelistic, consumption-reducers. Practice-led design research, therefore, is being done into the production of textiles and garments that take their lead from theories of sustainability. But there is a huge gap at the moment between theoretical research and manufactured production.

In our research, we have devised a ‘TEN Strategies’ checklist for designers, by breaking down the ‘wicked’ problem into smaller elements to enable the development of a personal design brief. For example, we have been working as part of a research consortium with Swedish Government funding (MISTRA) and H&M, for the last 4 years, to make Swedish fashion greener and more profitable. They have a far-sighted approach to the problem, which has the buy-in of the giant fashion retailer H&M, one of the industrial players already committed to changing their supply chain to be more sustainable. The key to the effectiveness of this consortium of research groups is the range of expertise. Designers, political scientists, social scientist, fiber technologists, retail analysts and recycling experts are collaborating to propose systemic change for Swedish fashion. One of the most important features of the research is that it mixes funding from institutions and industrial partners. It therefore enables a bridge across the theory and practice ‘knowing-doing’ gap, to propose practical and profitable change – the only kind likely to succeed.

As for research and development within the brands – the significant players are investing in technical developments to make changes in their existing production chain. The US brand of Patagonia is an inspiration to production and development worldwide – aligning integrity with desirability in their product range. The active promotion of their values has attracted admiration worldwide. From this lead many other producers are listening for the first time to the possibility of change driven by a different set of imperatives from short-term financial profit. Puma are leading with investment into biodegradable, recyclable footwear, Levi with waste-less recycled polyester and water-less production. Considerable interest in ‘closed-loop recycling’ and Co2 waterless dyeing are providing credible developments in the production chain. Huge UK players M&S and Swedish H&M are retail leads in the link to ‘responsible’ consumer awareness.

A recent development is the interest from huge industrial partners in voluntary assessment tools to evaluate the environmental effect of decisions in the supply chain. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is a trade association of brands, retailers, NGOs and academics represent more than one third of the global apparel and footwear markets. In July 2012 they launched an assessment tool, based on established evaluation tools – including the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index and Nike’s Environmental Apparel Design Tool – to better measure the comprehensive environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products. Named the Higg Index, the tool is a transparent and open-source tool currently being examined by EU politicians for its usefulness as a basis for legislation so that companies could be required to identify opportunities to reduce impacts and improve long-term sustainability throughout their supply chain. Retailers such as Primark have recently joined the SAC, entering sustainability data into an online assessment tool to generate performance scores and benchmarks. It is, of course, focused on improvements to the existing system albeit connecting sustainable improvements with profit, which is hopeful – but it does not really address system change and it is a far cry from compliance to innovation in this field. That is just beginning to emerge via a new breed of designer-producers, who see creative opportunities in new models of production for the future, where products are combined with services and waste streams are identified as raw material for production. Currently operating at a small scale on average, the hope is that the ‘scalable’ ideas being explored will become competitive with large industrial producers especially if consumers are serious about their preference for sustainable production.

The Textile Environment Design ‘TEN’ design strategy cards, referred to earlier, is one of the first design tools for textile/fashion designers to make their sample collections become demonstration models of the change they want to see in production. The message can be either explicit or implicit in their work – and a new generation of design students is being encouraged to think of positive action in this respect, as a business strategy for their professional progress.

The change from reactive to proactive developments in production can be effected with far-sighted design change to the current system. The question remains: in the face of no credible oil/gas replacement fuel, rising populations and old fashioned acquisitive aspiration in social groups worldwide – will the changes come soon enough to be still relevant?

Kay Politowicz
14.11.15