Brief for design schools

The theme of this project is the potentials for substantial reduction in the material flow within the textile sector. In principle this reduction can take place by 1) reducing the environmental impact in the production phase, or by 2) expanding the life of the existing fibers, re-using the products, re-designing the textiles and recycling the materials.

Our plan is to focus on the potential to reduce the volume along the lifecycle of textiles, where also the use, maintenance and washing of clothes within households play a decisive part. Special focus will be on the innovative role of design and designers. The plan is that a representative for the “Textile Waste as a Resource”-project will come to the three design schools in the project and give an over-view of how the different phases in the life-cycle of clothing effects the over-all environmental footprint of apparel, but with greater emphasis on the last two phases of the life-cycle – when clothing is nearing the “grave”. Relevant research done by SIFO will also be presented to give more in-depth back-ground. Specifically this is technical testing of washing and spin-drying, and an ongoing study is looking at why clothes go out of use in households. A paper on old mending techniques in a new perspective along with the D.I.Y.-traditions and redesign, will also be part of dissemination. All other in-put available in the project, will be made available to the students.

Call it an increased focus on both the use and after-life of apparel. The fact that three design-schools in Norway, Sweden and the UK are cooperating gives the students a unique possibility to interact and the potential for international attention. We have identifies the following areas that would be interesting for students to pursue:

Storage (prolonging durability): How does how we actually store clothing affect their life-time, how often we launder them or how much we use them. Could storage be “re-invented” so that one optimized care and minimized washing, need for airing, repairs (e.g. because of moth-holes), ironing, etc. Could new storage-ideas make us actually make us more aware of what we own, why and the meaning clothing has for us on a deeper level?

Fit: A study done by SIFO shows that many buying-mistakes because of confusing labelling of apparel ends up as textile waste. The same study also showed that for women using larger sizes, it was more difficult to find a size-standard they could adhere to. But more important: Most ready-to-wear clothing can not be individually fitted, except maybe in leg-lengths. This is, however, changing as designers are finding ways to costume-fit even what is in fact ready-to-wear.

Reduced washing: What type of materials need less wash, and what type of processes in the textile industry would reduce the need for washing (nano-technology being at the fore-front)? Are there design-tricks that would reduce washing, e.g. patterns that “hide” stains, airier arm-pits that reduce sweat-stains, inlays that could be removed and washed – in areas where one knows from experience that smell and stains are a problem? These are suggestions that have already been tried out, but could one go further in this area?

Technical wear and tear: Related to the topic mentioned above and has so far been reflected in strengthening those areas one knows are more prone to stress, signs of wear and holes. Typically this will be elbows, crotch-area, knees and collar, and on jeans: under the buttocks. Could historical mending-techniques give ideas to new applications?

Flexible usage: Do we need to change outfits several times a day? Could the same pieces of clothing have several functions and reduce the need for clothes-changes? A project at KHiO already looked at this (“From Mountain to Party”), and could be an interesting starting-point for similar thought-processes and design-ideas.

The logic of fashion vs. durability: Are these two concepts opposed or can they co-exist? Could clothing be potential “good” waste and end up as compost on the one hand, while classic and quality clothing stayed with us – being updated by those who created it – on demand? What systems would need to be in place?

Mental re-design (issues on to how many occasions one can wear the same dress etc): How can styling become an integral part of how we deal with our wardrobe, and make few items go a long way? Could a few basics become the basis for endless combinations, and how would that be possible?

The research project will among other studies follow the consumption patterns of 16 selected families in relation to apparel. These families have for half a year collected the clothing that they plan to dispose of and Ph.D. Research Fellow Kirsi Laitala is embarking on her second round of in-depth interviews, where the goal is to find out what exactly triggers this process. This will be done through looking at diaries kept by the families, face-to-face questioning and technical analysis of the discarded textiles in SIFO’s laboratory. In an effort to involve more consumers, SIFO has also posted a questionnaire on the Internet, where they encourage the general public to answer questions about clothing- and care-habits.
Technical research has also been initiated in the area of reducing water, chemicals and energy-consumption in wash and care. The preliminary results are promising, especially in reducing the washing-temperatures, but also when looking at cleanliness in comparison with how full machines are loaded with laundry.

How may a reverse life cycle approach to ecological design increase our understanding of the potentials and barriers for change? This is one of the main research questions posed, which of course has opened up for several sub-questions and work packages. With the working-title “From textile waste to material resources in a grave to cradle perspective” the project aims to use a multidisciplinary approach looking at how waste reduction can contribute to reducing the material flow and turning waste into material resources. This is a project that aims to reverse the classical LCA and start with what we generally see as the end result. But the project also aims to take a deep look at the consumers' role in the life cycle of textiles and clothing, including how we care for what we buy, as mentioned above.

Using a multidisciplinary approach, including natural sciences, social sciences and cultural studies, the project focuses on the potential to reduce the volume along the lifecycle of textiles. But by looking at use, maintenance and washing of clothes within households; the project hopes to high-light exactly how much this influences the environmental footprint of apparel. A reversed life-cycle approach implies that the starting point is the two last phases in the LCA: 1) the user-phase and 2) the recycling phase where waste is potentially transformed into resources. Technological knowledge on how to care for clothing has gradually vanished due to decreasing textile prices, thus making the knowledge and techniques scarce. In general fast fashion does not encourage quality or repairing of clothing. At the same time, we see resurgence in D.I.Y.-traditions and redesign, along with the consumer wanting to be a prosumer or involved in the design-process in new and exciting ways. 

The results from the work-package with the design-schools will result in an exhibit which will be a starting point for a dialogue with industry. 

Another important question posed by the research project will be what the role of political authorities will be in overcoming barriers for change and how are they able to stimulate the reduction of the material flow. In Norway it is now forbidden to dispose of textiles on land-fills. The current “solution” is to burn all organic waste – including textiles – in order to produce energy. If this is a good solution for the end-of-life phase remains open to discussion, but coming up with alternatives involves many issues – from proper and relevant labelling of content and chemical treatments to how one can make clothes more durable and less “so last season” once they’ve done their fast fashion service.