Full Circle: Cradle to Cradle Fashion Design


In an effort to educate fashion students and industry veterans about circular and sustainable design, Fashion Positive recently hosted Circular Fashion Learning Day at Parsons School of Design. Fashion Positive, an initiative of the Cradle to Cradle Innovation Institute, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a closed-loop economy in which materials are endlessly cycled from production, to use and reuse - without adding to landfill. Fashion Positive’s main goal is to “identify, innovate, certify, and scale” critical materials to replace commonly used wasteful and harmful textiles.

The event opened with remarks from Burak Cakmak, Dean of Fashion at Parsons. He emphasized the importance of weaving sustainability into the curriculum so students understand the whole value chain and its effects on the environment - not just the traditional design process. His vision to transform students to future activists, rather than just employees, is inspiring.

Lewis Perkins, president of the Cradle to Cradle, laid out a more detailed overview of the organization’s mission and some of the current challenges facing industry and society. While much of the environmental movement focuses on the march to zero (zero emissions, zero waste), reducing consumption and production, Perkins challenged the audience to imagine a world of “abundance” while still improving industry’s impact on the environment. With an estimated growth of 3 billion new consumers joining the middle class by 2030, reducing consumption is an unrealistic goal. In his view, we should be focusing on developing factories to generate excess clean energy, return cleaner water to the environment and find ways to add value to materials from use to use.

Next we heard from Dan Schiff of Fabric of Change, a nonprofit organization providing funding for innovators with solutions for new materials. He highlighted several recent grant recipients making strides in the sustainable fashion world. Stacey Flynn created Evrnu, an extremely soft and durable yarn made from recycled cotton garment waste. Scientist Ashkay Sethi is currently developing Ambercycle microbes that eat plastic waste which can be used as feedstock for virgin polyester. These inventions are especially notable as examples of upcycling, or adding value to waste materials (conventional recycling often means losing material quality with each successive iteration).

Garment waste is still a very real problem. Only 16% of the 32 billion pounds of textiles consumers throw out annually are recycled1. The rest are incinerated or sent to landfill. I:CO, the global leader in post-consumer textile collection, is working the brands to find solutions. Hand-sorting is still used today because a lack of technology exists to efficiently separate garments by fiber content. I:CO collaborates with cities and multinationals to divert textiles from the waste stream and repurpose materials, e.g. remodeling flip flops into children’s toys.

During the workshop, break-out group activities were assigned to foster discussion and brainstorm solutions. My group, consisting of students and industry veterans, debated the merits of government vs. industry-led efforts. Eliminating harmful chemicals from the supply chain is another problem without a clear and easy solution. We determined there is a great need for green chemistry in the textile industry and more collaboration between scientists and designers to really effect change. While in Europe there is some funding for alternative chemistry research, given the current political climate in the United States it is highly unlikely similar levels of funding will be available in the near future. Therefore it is imperative that successful brands invest in new alternatives, not only for the good of people and the planet but in order to protect their own bottom lines.

Maura Dilley and Laurin C. Guthrie of Fashion Positive presented an in-depth overview of what it means to truly use circular design thinking and really challenged the audience to consider each step of the process in a product’s life cycle. For those of our readers who run a Fair Trade company, you may already use recycled or repurposed materials. Cradle to Cradle design thinking can help you continue to innovate and reconsider the whole lifespan of your product. If you haven’t already, start to consider:

  • What are the component parts of my product and can they be easily separated or recycled?

  • Does my product contact any harmful chemicals that could be toxic?

  • Where does my product ultimately end its’ life, in landfill? In the ocean? Can I take back used products from consumers and refurbish them?

Brands currently embarking on sustainability journeys were also featured. MAIYET, a luxury knitwear brand, developed a fair trade and sustainable cashmere yarn with yak herders in Mongolia. Eileen Fisher, a brand with a solid reputation in sustainability, is attempting to close the loop by taking back used clothing and repurposing it for resale through their “Green Eileen” label.

The event finished with a group discussion in which many of the attendees addressed the elephant in the room, overproduction. Some designers expressed frustration at the constant pressure to create more and more product, season after season. Others noted the lack of information availability, especially for students and young designers in locating verified factories and suppliers who would be partners in sustainability.

Overall the group agreed on the importance of sharing technology between suppliers. The more we share, the lower the cost for new, cutting edge materials. One of the biggest challenges for companies wanting to encourage their suppliers in invest in sustainable materials is meeting minimums. When brands collaborate on materials at the pre-competitive stage, costs are lowered and everyone benefits along the supply chain.

For designers looking to challenge themselves with a Circular Design project, the Cradle to Cradle Initiative hosts a design competition twice a year. For more information check out the official website. Design and fashion are all about the new, the next idea. It’s time for designers to start thinking about redesigning the whole system, not just the end product.

1: Gilbert, Jennifer. “I:CO” Circular Fashion Learning Day, 7 March 2017, The New School, New York, NY.