Design for eternity


Did you know?

Decisions made during the design phase are responsible for 80 to 90% of the environmental and economic costs. 

In contemporary (post-war) society, ‘planned obsolescence’ has become an important strategy to ensure sufficient consumption. Consumers are steeped in the idea that they always need something a little newer, a little better and a little sooner than is absolutely necessary.

In this part, we take a closer look at the different ways in which this 'planned obsolescence' can be avoided. 


As a designer, you are responsible for what you create. This does not only apply to materials, styles, colors and shapes. Rather, the design approach that you adopt should take into account the entire life cycle of your product. Every step is important: from resources to design, production, retail, consumption and end of life.

Let’s start by doing the reverse of planned obsolescence: make sure you design to last. Quality is the key here, but you should also try to work with designs that outlive trends and hypes.

If clothing does not last long, make sure it gets a second life in one way or another. Design for rebirth by contemplating every possibility in terms of re-use, repair, redesign and recycling. Think of the environment too: maybe you can use an organic material that is biodegradable and simply returns to nature?

In any case, and for every design, the golden rule is to avoid waste or surplus as much as you can. Go for a design that minimizes waste through smart production solutions, reuse of someone else’s waste or multifunctional designs.

On a more abstract level, there is ultimately one goal: avoiding fast consumption/overconsumption. This also can be achieved by focusing on the services you offer to those who buy your product. By devoting attention to the experience and involvement of the customer, you can strengthen the relationship between the user and his piece of clothing. We are talking service models here, as well as interactive/cooperative design, customization, timeless aesthetics and emotional design, to name just these.

In conclusion, it is not unimportant to design with the right techniques in mind. There are several techniques that generate much less waste than some that are more currently used. Have you given (fly) knitting, 3D printing, 3D weaving … any thought?

strategies for Design

Design to last

Sustainable or circular fashion starts with the design. Whereas fast fashion has no qualms about something falling apart after a few washings, circular fashion resolutely steers clear of waste. The initial aim is to create products that last; things that we’re dying to have and to keep. Timeless design and above-average quality are important prerequisites here.

Most of you will be familiar with having a few items in your closet that you’ve been wearing for years. Some special item handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, the first pair of leather gloves that your father got you or those unique designer shoes that you just can’t part with. These are of course not your average items (you don’t usually have 20 of these hanging in your closet), but that does not mean they should be overlooked in a sustainable fashion industry. These days there’s a strong movement that strives for sustainability in the sense of ‘lasting long’, thus focusing heavily on quality - and not only for the premium brands. This movement, which we also come across in the mid-range segment, is called ‘slow fashion’ and it’s probably here to stay. 



As a designer, you have the choice to go for sustainability, to create products that last, and to take the time to make quality and customer satisfaction your top priorities. It’s all about making clothes that lasts and that people want to take good care of. You can read more about the values of slow fashion here.


Supporters of slow fashion denounce the excesses of the fast fashion industry. While earlier on, two to four collections per year was more or less the norm, the industry has evolved to a point where trends seen on the catwalk can be bought in the stores within a mere six weeks. Big fashion chains aim for 30 to 50 collections a year.

The slow fashion movement believes that quality loss is inevitable in fast fashion, which does not shy away from deplorable working conditions either. Moreover, its speed encourages a throwaway society.

To conclude, we should also mention hypes and trends. After all, what looks fine today may be not done tomorrow. To avoid this, you can work with timeless/classic designs - a strategy adopted by, for instance, Flippa K.


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Design for rebirth

Arranging fabrics according to their impact is not an easy task. It is hard to tell which is environmentally friendliest: fabric from natural fibers or synthetic fabric. Each material affects the environment in its own way.

A good item is designed to last and puts quality up front. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that it will never wear out. Acknowledging this, you can incorporate the possibilities for repairing items into their very design, for instance. In addition, you can start thinking about the recycling options right from the start of the design process.


Repairing and fixing are run-of-the-mill activities these days. While earlier on people tended to take good care of their belongings, the second half of the 20th century saw a huge shift in this attitude. Everything was available in large quantities and at unbeatable prices, so an entire generation lost touch with fixing things. The current generation, however, is once again finding its way to sewing machines and repair cafés. For a designer it can be interesting to offer repair services. As a bonus, this will enhance customer bonding.


For a designer, a silhouette or a choice of fabric is often what gets the creative juices flowing. Yet even in this phase it’s already important to take the end of a product’s life cycle into account. Check which fabrics are easy to recycle. Yet not only fabrics matter: the way a piece of clothing is assembled is just as crucial. At this stage you can keep in mind that your product should be easy to take apart and sort. A design that caters to these needs is designed for assembly.
A few pointers:

  • When using fiber blends, the sorting process is slowed down and recycling actually becomes downcycling (meaning items lose much of their quality in the recycling process). Go for only one material to facilitate the sorting process (e.g. use 100% bio cotton rather than 50% polyester and 50% cotton).
  • Check which materials are easier to recycle than others. Read more about recycling fabrics here.
  • Pay close attention to bindings and seams. Avoid permanent bindings and opt for threads that you can quickly remove when necessary.
  • White textile makes it possible to redye after recycling.
  • Consider modular design so you can replace parts that wear out quickly without having to throw the entire item out. (Think of detachable white collars for shirts, for example.)

For more information, check End of life - Recycle textile.


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Design to minimize waste

In a circular economy, waste is regarded as a product of bad design. Traditionally, waste has always been considered a necessary evil of production. But lately we are seeing a shift from this point of view to, for example, cradle-to-cradle thinking.

This part focuses on the widely supported no waste philosophy that comprises renewable energy sources and minor design interventions such as zero waste pattern cutting, virtual prototyping and design on demand, among others.

The idea of zero waste fashion is hardly new. Clothing used to be made from an entire piece of fabric - a decision dictated by economic reality, because the fabric was very expensive. Today the term ‘zero waste’ suggests avoiding waste, while earlier on the focus was on making maximum use of pricey fabrics. Today, in the light of the increase in production, consumption and use of resources, both sides of the question are relevant.



In a linear approach, discards are seen as the final phase of a piece of clothing. However, waste does not exist in the cradle-to-cradle approach. Everything that was ever made has to return either to nature or the industry without damaging the environment. Natural products are a source of inspiration here, as they are also absorbed by the soil or serve as a buffet for other organisms.

The fashion industry is picking up on this philosophy. We see more and more innovative experiments looking into the biodegradability of textile. Biodegrading or composting means breaking down fabric fibers with the help of microorganisms, light, water or even air. In contrast to synthetic fabrics, vegetable and animal fibers are quite easy to degrade. Unfortunately, however, some phases of the processing cycle such as dyeing and coating can spoil the fun, underlining the need for innovation in these respects. In addition, research into the addition of nutrients to textile, for instance, could ensure that decomposed clothing actually feeds the soil. A lot of opportunities to look forward to, right?

Be sure to take a peek at Fashion Positive’s website for more information on cradle-to-cradle (certified) materials.


Waste does not only result from clothing that’s worn out or that the owner has grown tired of; the production process also costs a lot of energy and resources, like when patterns are cut. A pattern is cut from a piece of fabric, and then the remaining material is thrown away. On average, 10 to 20% of the fabric lands on the floor! By avoiding these cut-offs or pre-consumers spills, make sure the water, energy, dyes and chemicals that went into this piece of clothing, weren’t spent in vain.

Zero waste design is one way to eliminate these cut-offs and to optimize the use of fabric for the production of clothing. This is the time to shine for pattern design - in contrast to traditional processes, where pattern sketching is a mere by-product of the idea a designer had in mind. Designing clothes by draping on a stand also allows designers to come up with silhouettes that are made from an entire piece of fabric.

In case there are leftovers, collect them and reuse them. Read all about this in the section on reusing waste.

Eager to find out how this principle is translated into zero waste knitting or weaving? Make sure to go to the part on avoiding waste and surpluses during the production phase.


Designers, pattern makers and producers can all benefit from 3D virtual prototyping to limit the number of physical samples that they have to make. This has its advantages in terms of speed (on-the-spot decisions, followed by instant changes) and waste. The software still needs some fine-tuning, but these developments are definitely going in the right direction. There is certainly room for improvement in terms of speed and the intricacy of the patterns this software can handle. Most programs limit themselves to pants and t-shirts for now.


Design on demand has both economic and ecological benefits. First of all you can be sure that the selected design really appeals to someone and will be purchased. While you are looking at on average 30 % overstock with a normal process (design, followed by production and only then followed by retail), design on demand will help to push that number down.

Second, it’s only a small step to incorporate made-to-measure applications, allowing the client not only to pick the design, but also to easily select the right sizes. This immediately creates the right patterns and reduces the risk of a bad fit.

This strategy can be applied in two different stages of the creation process. On the one hand, you have design on demand, where the entire design is still a question mark and preferences in terms of color and taste can be met. When you are entirely sure of your design, you can also opt for production on demand in a later phase -- another eco-efficient strategy in which production doesn’t start until you are certain that sales will be sufficient.


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Design to reduce the need for rapid consumption

Digging through the discards of other people’s closets, we seldom find clothes that are completely worn out -- rather, we usually come across pieces that are still perfectly usable. We could argue that products have two potential expiry dates: the first when they break or fall apart, the second when their owner is simply tired of them.
This brings us to the question: how can we integrate emotional aspects into our products to make sure our feelings for them last? What could stimulate users to hold on to things a little longer and to temper the need for new?

The value of a product is often said to lie mainly in the momentary satisfaction we get from buying it. Yet after the purchase, these positive feelings tend to fade quickly. Long-term satisfaction seems to be much harder to attain, and once the fun has gone, the itch to buy inevitably returns.

Yet by adding the right extra’s, the customer’s positive feelings can be extended, so he will enjoy his product for a longer time. That’s why buzzwords like co-creation, consumer engagement, storytelling or customer experience are heard more and more during product pitches. They all come down to the idea of giving the customer an experience he’ll want to talk about. The new generation of entrepreneurs assumes that today’s client not only wants to be complimented on the perfect fit of his pair of pants, but also likes to get some praise for his interesting choice and the story behind it. Make a product attractive in this respect, and it is likely to stick around for a while.

Though at first sight this may seem like playing tricks on the customer, this development often happens bottom-up. After all, customers have become more assertive, they are not afraid to ask questions and they attach importance to the how and where of their clothes’ production. In business terms this approach is called multiple value creation, which means focusing on more than just the physical product itself.

A few examples of added value are:



These days we see more and more experiments or even full-fledged business plans that meet the need for participatory or interactive design. This approach is predicted to increase in popularity or even to announce a whole new era, as futurist Paul Scaffo puts it more strongly: that of the creator economy. Scaffo is convinced that maximizing the interaction between designer and customer creates the emotional attachment that today’s and tomorrow’s customers are looking for.

In his view, the process of making and creating has become a new status symbol: being able to say ‘I made this myself’ or ‘I contributed to this project’ is highly satisfactory. By involving the customer in the creation process, the product will automatically acquire a deeper meaning and will be cherished for a long time.

In fashion, co-designing often takes the form of digital platforms or user interfaces that enable customers to submit their preferences in terms of style, cut, print … While the options used to be limited to picking a color (remember Nike Air Max), it has now become possible to incorporate children’s drawings, photographs or even ‘emotions’ into a print.



Whereas co-design is all about being involved in the making of a product, storytelling or emotional design revolves around telling how (well) someone else has made something. The time and care that have gone into a piece of clothing are highly valued, as well as the circumstances in which it was made, the size of its ecological footprint, its innovative character or any other beautiful story that lies behind it.

The American brand TOMS, for instance, successfully markets the formula one for one: whenever a product is sold, TOMS donates a useful equivalent to a person in need. So purchasing of a pair of glasses corresponds to giving someone The Gift of Sight, which could be prescription glasses, sight-saving surgery or medical treatment. As long as it’s fun to tell this story, you’ll probably take good care of your pair of glasses and perhaps wear them more often than others.

The circumstances in which something is made are a conversation starter too: those studios crowded with grannies and young Peruvian mothers knitting scarves for LN Beanies? That story never gets old.



Offering a unique creation process is one thing, yet the act of buying is another phase that can be spiked with an experience: the tale of the hunt. As a fashion entrepreneur, it is therefore worthwhile to ponder those possibilities that add a dash of excitement to the moment of purchase.

Was it a dark corner at a flea market? A once in a lifetime find? Did you haggle over the price? Today, these happy coincidences that we love to talk about are professionalized and incorporated into the business model.

Think of companies such as Suitcase, which offers you a personal style adviser. You just tell them who you are, and a couple of days later a suitcase full of carefully selected clothing is waiting patiently on your doorstep. And then there’s Café Costume, where you have your measurements taken and leave with a tailor-made suit. Such experiences will surely be discussed and shared widely.

Read more about service-oriented business models in retail.



To conclude, we’ll briefly discuss consumer engagement. The rise of social media has made it easier for fashion designers to maintain customer relations. Whereas stores used to be the only places where clients and entrepreneurs met, nowadays a series of digital channels have been added to the list of options. This creates communities and enhances consumer engagement.

The practice is frowned upon, because it tends to be hard to find a balance between the time you spend updating your social media platforms, for instance, and designing itself. In any case, this is a channel that -- when properly used -- can yield strong customer loyalty.

Going beyond mere communication, you can also let your clients participate in your business management. Think of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and other ways to make your customers an integral part of your business, up to and including shareholdership.


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Design with new technologies in mind

New technologies are developing rapidly, and who knows some of them will replace or complement our traditional production processes, thereby helping to reduce our ecological footprint.

After all, new technologies might need less energy, water or chemicals, or allow us to skip certain harmful steps altogether (like transportation for instance). They may facilitate local production, for example, or enable smaller editions. Perhaps it’s even possible to work on demand, which is the golden route to avoiding surplus.

Some techniques that are already quite common:

  • Digital printing/finishing
    While conventional printing techniques involve large quantities of chemicals and dyes, digital printing can do without those. What’s more, traditional industrial rotation techniques require test print sheets to get everything right, and these imperfect pre-printings can get up to several meters (20 meters is no exception). So what’s to gain from digital printing? A few crystal-clear facts:
  • Energy use: - 60%
  • Water use: - 80%
  • Ink use: - 90%
  • Color use: - 90
  • Laser cutting 
    It’s exactly what it sounds like, namely using a laser rather than a blade to cut into a surface. The benefits include a cleaner, more accurate cut, as well as a higher quality of finish.

Want to know more about experimental technologies? Kate Goldsworthy’s paper is definitely worth a read. 


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