Continuing on the Sustainability Journey

Throughout the semester, I have definitely learned that sustainability encompasses many different types of concepts as well as challenges. It is essentially all of the processes and ways that go into us humans living within our means here on Earth so that we not only reduce our negative impact on the environment, but we also behave in a socially-responsible way that benefits our own communities and society as a whole. Sustainable design basically takes all of these concepts and implements them into every aspect of the design process when creating physical goods such as apparel products and built environments such as buildings, and even entire cities.

After this class, I view sustainable design as having two segments: environmentally-oriented sustainable design and socially-oriented sustainable design. The environmentally-oriented part of sustainable design involves using theories such as industrial ecology and biomimicry as foundations for the actual design process so that energy and resources are used in the most efficient way possible. Environmentally-oriented sustainable design also aims at minimizing waste as well as minimizing, if not completely doing away with, the amount of toxic chemicals that are emitted into our environment in all phases of a product’s life including the gathering of resources, the production phase, the merchandising phase, and the consumption phase. Socially-oriented sustainable design typically involves concepts such as empathic design, emotional attachment, the focus on human needs, social entrepreneurism, and design activism. I view this type of sustainable design as emphasizing on things such as employing local citizens in the production of products or designing with the consumer in mind so that a product’s life is maximized; therefore, combatting the issue of overconsumption, at least to a degree. This also involves implementing fair and ethical practices along the supply chain such as fair treatment and pay of workers. Another thing that goes into socially-oriented sustainable design is designing in a way that benefits a cause or is a catalyst for change in the world.

Prior to taking this class about sustainable design in apparel and interior products, I had a much narrower view of what exactly sustainable design was. Basically, I thought sustainable design was all about making clothes out of recycled or organic cotton and hippie, tree-hugger companies that advertise their mission to save the planet. I never gave much thought to the social aspect of sustainable design except for maybe when I’ve learned in my other classes about fair labor and government regulations regarding fair labor. Actually, during my internship last summer, I had to do some research on local brands and brands that give back, either to a charity or to the community, and it never really occurred to me that that was a part of sustainable design. This course has also challenged us to think of ways to make sustainable products “cool” or fashionable, which has been a big learning outcome for me along this “sustainability journey”. Sustainable or “green” products are no longer only targeted at a certain market of “tree-hugger-type” people in my mind. In fact, in order for sustainable design to become more of a norm in our industry, it has to be marketed to and accessable or usable by everyone. One of the other outcomes I will take away from this class is just how big and bad our society’s overconsumption problem is and what impacts this has on our environment. I, myself, have been guilty of contributing to that problem, especially in the way that I’ve been caught in the trap of the marketing of fast fashion way too often. I’ve realized how much of my money I’ve given to companies that make clothing that is literally designed to be thrown away after a short time and left to sit in a landfill the rest of its days. I’ve definitely found this to be in the back of my mind constantly after the things I have learned in this class, and it has made me alter my behavior and reduce the amount that I consume. I also have found that I have taken more interest in the social aspect of sustainability design than I would have expected. I think the concept of producing and shopping locally has so many great impacts on local communities. For one, it can be much better for the environment in the way that local materials require no long commutes and excess energy consumption. I also really like the idea of designs that are inspired by and teach about a place’s history and culture, which is why I actually really enjoyed the topic my field team and I presented about for the final design slam. Also, I liked learning about design activism, and how people design with a cause behind their design. I could see myself working for a company that implements at least some kind of socially-responsible practices into their design and their business.

After all we have learned throughout the semester, I am interested in learning more about the advancements and the increasing use of alternative and environmentally-friendly materials and proceses in the apparel industry. When we learned about alternative materials, it was apparent that many of the materials were such better alternatives compared to the unsafe materials and manufacturing processes that are commonly used in apparel today. For example, some of the chemicals that are commonly used in manufacturing processes are so damaging to our ecosystem and even damaging to people’s physical health. It almost seems like it would be a no-brainer to make the transition to the safer alternative materials and proceses. However, a lot of what the issue seemed to be was that the market had not yet grown enough for these materials; therefore, many of the alternatives were costly, and the majority of the industry has not used or tried to use these materials and processes in their products yet. On the bright side, I’m a believer that there is a lot of opportunity in the future for these kinds of safe alternatives. I’m interested to see what kinds of breakthroughs the apparel industry will make regarding safer methods in the next ten years or so.

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