Produce clean, local and with respect


Did you know?

Cut-offs make up a large share of the fashion industry’s waste stream - the numbers go up to 20 %!

Production -- or the production process -- is all about turning designs into (sellable) physical products. Production might not be the most sexy part of the chain, but it is nevertheless a deciding factor in becoming a successful brand and it offers multiple opportunities to start focusing on sustainability.



In a traditional process, the design phase is followed by the creation of a small sample collection (prototypes). Those samples that get a stamp of approval and are deemed interesting, will enter production. This means switching to commercial entities varying in size, color and pattern. It is important to incorporate zero waste thinking into the production of prototypes, for instance by creating the sample collection digitally (at least in part) or by working with zero waste pattern designs.

When selecting a manufacturer, you can take into account the circumstances of production. Are there any efforts to keep the consumption of energy and water in check? Does the manufacturer comply with environmental legislation? What is his position on the use of chemicals?

For a designer, the quality of his collection is key, so it is crucial to start designing with the right fabrics in mind, while not losing sight of aspects like the seams, buttons, labels, fit and color fastness. The core of a sustainable product lies in its quality and the length of its life cycle, so the importance of quality checks during the production phase can hardly be overestimated.

Producing locally obviously facilitates both quality checks and communication. In addition, it reduces the risks that come with a global supply chain. Especially in the case of smaller collections, the advantages of producing locally outweigh the costs of global transport and (more) difficult communication.

In addition, it’s always an option to look beyond the standard methods of production. Digital technologies, for instance, have a lot going for them in terms of local production. Digital designing, printing or even 3D weaving allow for small editions or even production only on demand.

strategies for Production

Mind your environment

The environmental consequences of production are widely known -- think for instance of the excessive use of water, energy and chemicals. A sustainable model then obviously strives to reduce these negative effects. The use of water, energy and toxins has to be limited to an absolute minimum. Furthermore, the energy that is used has to be, as much as possible, renewable or perhaps even induced during the process.

Food for thought:
Each pair of organic cotton jeans saves the environment from half a liter of chemicals.


The raw materials used in the process of creating clothes each have their own impact. Depending on the type of cultivation or production method that is used, crops are grown with the help of water, energy and/or chemical pesticides. Read more about the environmental impact of resources here.


The process of turning resources into fabric involves finishing. Finishing imparts certain functional properties to yarn. Giving it its typical shine and strength, for instance, requires a lot of cooking, bleaching and washing. This phase is therefore considered the most damaging in the entire production process. Dyeing is also a finishing technique, and some dyes are extremely poisonous. Other dyes do better, but then again they are attached to the textile with the help of pollutants like heavy metals.

Printing, washing jeans, treating clothes against wrinkling or fungi, applying a flame retardant … these processes all call for a lot of chemicals and water.

We should mention here that legislation on the use of chemicals and environmental legislation in general are much stricter in European countries than for instance in developing countries. The consequences of this imbalance are, of course, easy to predict.

European fabric finishing companies are obliged to cleanse the wastewater that they discharge (compliant with the surface water regulations). In addition, Europe has the REACH regulation. REACH compels the industry to register chemicals and to assess their (safe) use. This system grants licences to companies as well as imposing restrictions in use.


The workshops or manufacturers can also devote attention to an environmentally friendly process, for instance in terms of energy use and logistics. Local production can reduce the ecological footprint, but the circumstances in the factories or workshops themselves are equally important. Relevant questions are, for instance: Is the place air conditioned? or How is transport arranged to and from the workshop?



It’s incredibly hard to describe the perfect, environmentally friendly production process, yet there are a few general issues that can be taken into account in the choice of producer or manufacturer.

Pay attention to:

  • the origin of the resources
  • responsible use of energy (Is renewable energy used?)
  • minimal use of water (How is wastewater treated?)
  • the use of environmentally friendly dyes or dyeing processes
  • the use of other environmentally friendly finishing techniques


  • DyeCoo - Waterfree textile dyeing
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  • REACH - European legislation on chemicals
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  • Maker’s Row - ‘Made in America’ - local production platform
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  • Centexbel - The Belgian Textile Research Centre
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Try new technologies

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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Produce locally, match supply and demand

Which is the most sustainable option? An Asian factory whose employees commute to work by bike and whose machinery is powered by the sun? Or a European factory that needs air conditioning to control the temperature and that makes no use of renewable energy sources?

Such questions show that black-and-white thinking gets us nowhere in the whole sustainability debate. A European manufacturer is not by definition better than one in Asia, for instance. Local production only means European production for Europeans. It’s about creating as many short chains as possible. For an Indian designer, then, a manufacturer in or close to India will be the best option.

Bringing production and consumption closer together has several advantages:

  • logistically (shorter distances)
  • communication-wise (efficiency and fewer misunderstandings)
  • in terms of closing the loop (e.g. reusing clothes will be easier if they can find their way back to production in the same country)

Moreover, keep in mind that local production has a direct and tangible result: the consumer pays for the impact of his or her consumption behavior.



Clothing is often produced in faraway destinations like India or China. This does not necessarily make for better products, but the cost of labor is just much lower in these countries. Moreover, their (environmental) legislation is often weak or even next to nonexistent.

The other side of the coin (which is often ignored) is that the logistics of the entire system depend on the supply of fossil fuels. Local production would save a lot of oil due to shorter transportation distances.

In addition, local production would make us better suited to cope with possible interruptions in the global distribution chain (be it due to war, economic sanctions, political troubles or other difficulties).
Next to environmental considerations, there are also economic factors at stake: local production generates jobs. Moreover, this means that it would be much harder to turn a blind eye on possible social and economic wrongs in the production process.



The obvious downside is that products that are made here often come with a hefty price tag. Minimum wages here are 50 times higher than in, say, Bangladesh.

At the moment it’s impossible for local (mass) production to economically compete with the global production system, which can always deliver cheaper (despite greater distances).

For smaller collections, however, the benefits of local production can outweigh the risks and costs of worldwide transportation and the accompanying difficulties in communication.


  • Fibershed is a beautiful example of a community-supported production project. Founder Rebecca Burgess started this initiative in 2010, when she took up the challenge to wear only clothing produced within 240 kilometers from where she was based.
  • Makers Row helps designers to connect with local manufacturers.


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Avoid waste and surplus

Zero waste production, of which zero waste design is part and parcel, is a holistic approach aimed at avoiding textile waste throughout the production process.

All through production, waste comes in two shapes:

  • waste of resources, water, energy and an excessive use of chemicals
  • waste of efficiency: 20% loss margin is not exactly peanuts.

To bypass these negative effects of the production phase, you can obviously put the cut-offs to good use, but top of the list is of course avoiding waste in the first place.


After a pattern has been cut, all the fabric that is left over is mercilessly dumped into the wastebin. On average 10 to 20% of the fabric is thrown out in this manner. This scenario can be avoided by working with a zero waste design that translates into a zero waste pattern. Holly McQuillan is an important source of inspiration in this regard. In addition, this platform also offers more information on zero waste design.


Designers, pattern designers and manufacturers can use 3D virtual prototyping to show their collection, rather than working with the usual physical samples. This has its advantages in terms of speed (on-the-spot decisions and instant changes), efficiency (100% instead of 20% go-to-market) as well as waste.


Knitting and weaving are techniques that produce less waste because there is no pattern cutting involved. The most well-known examples of these zero waste techniques are undoubtedly the Adidas Primeknit sneakers and Nike’s Flyknit. Rather than being made from pieces of fabric that are put together, these shoes are woven in one piece. Less waste? Check! This technique is sometimes even used to make entire pieces of clothing.

The process of knitting or weaving is often preceded by a digital design. This means the pattern is computer-designed and then digitally transferred to the loom or sewing machine.



A producer/manufacturer can make sure to organise the system or process in such a way that his waste is efficiently collected. This not only results in a clean workspace, but it also creates opportunities for upcycling surplus materials.

A small manufacturer could for instance accomplish a whole lot thanks to these simple design interventions:

  • use waste buckets to collect waste
  • transfer waste immediate from the sewing machines to the buckets
  • sort your waste (don’t just throw it all together!)

Want more? Read all about upcycling and the use of leftovers here.


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Go for long life and durability

Clothes are often not worn or worn only once before ending up on the waste pile. This means that all the resources, water, energy and chemicals that were used during their production are lost very shortly after. What a waste. In the meantime we know that avoiding waste is one of the pillars of circular fashion, which is why focusing on long life is the key.

Food for thought:
The average life expectancy of a piece of clothing is about 3 years. For fast fashion this is shorter. Some clothes are discarded after one wear or even completely untouched. (Source: Awearness Fashion)

Clothes are discarded when they no longer suffice. This can mean that they are broken or no longer have the right fit, but also that the consumer is just no longer interested -- he is simply tired of them. The first reason has to do with the quality of the clothes, the second with our emotional attachment to them.


(Source: Into Mind)

Quality can mean a lot of things. Do the clothes last? Preferably longer than one season. Should we worry about seams ripping or buttons tumbling to the floor at the slightest movement? A piece of clothing should keep the shape it had when bought -- it shouldn’t shrink or stretch. It should retain its fit and not limit the wearer’s freedom to move.

Steer clear of fabrics that give off lint or that fade after a few spins in the washer. Clothes should also have the right feel to them. In addition, items should look quality. Stay away from T-shirts that scream ‘I will fall apart if you just look at me’.

The website of Into Mind contains a useful online guide to help you estimate the quality of a piece of clothing. We summarized some tips, but the cheat sheet of Into Mind's cheat sheet is a good guide as well.

First and foremost, it is important to look at the characteristics of the fabric: what are its strengths and weaknesses -- and will it fit the designer’s purpose? Next, the seams, the fit and other details like buttons, zippers, pockets and labels should be checked.



Clothing should be designed to look good and to be comfortable for as long as possible. Though this actual, measurable quality of a garment is crucial, there is often also a less tangible element at play when deciding whether or not to throw clothes out. We are often led by our emotions and by our attachment to things. As a designer you can work with this: think of the experience you want to create for your customer. The strategies ‘Design to reduce the need for rapid consumption’ and ‘Design to last’ address useful aspects such as long-lasting essentials, made-to-measure and the addition of an experience.


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