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 can 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 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 your 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 production circumstances. Are energy and water consumption kept in check? Does the manufacturer comply with environmental legislation? What is his position on the use of chemicals? And are the textile workers employed in a fair and safe environment?

As a designer, the quality of your 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 either. 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 overstated.

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 and 3D weaving allow for limited editions or even production on demand.

strategies for Production

Mind people and planet

The environmental consequences of production are widely known – think for instance of the excessive use of water, energy and chemicals. A sustainable model obviously strives to reduce these negative effects and to use renewable energy whenever possible. Perhaps you can even   generate energy during the production process.

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


The raw materials used to create clothes each have their own impact. Depending on the type of cultivation or the 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, yet they need pollutants like heavy metals to stick to the textile surface.

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 (in compliance 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.


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: which chemicals are used and how? Which energy-saving measures are taken? Is the place air conditioned? How are the materials transported to and from the workshop? How is transport arranged from the workshop to your company? Especially the latter question is within your control. Clear and timely planning decisions can make the difference between being able to transport your order by truck, train or boat, and (in the case of last-minute orders) having to resort to planes and increasing your environmental footprint.

Respect the universal human rights

In addition to asking your manufacturers about their environmental actions, you should pay attention to their social sustainability practices. The clothing industry still has a reputation for violating human rights: in a lot of production countries, you cannot simply assume that the textile workers get fair wages and that they are employed in a safe environment. Make sure to discuss these matters with your production partners. The Fair Wear Foundation or amfori BSCI can provide a supportive framework.

Due diligence

The term ‘due diligence’ refers to the habit of identifying and preventing social and environmental risks in your supply chain, even before your items go into production. You can either adopt your own procedures or rely on existing tools and frameworks.
In the Netherlands, you can become a member of the Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile, while in Germany you have the Textilbündnis or Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. Both initiatives help you move towards a more ethical and sustainable production process. And then there is the Higg Index, which was developed by the international Sustainable Apparel Coalition to assess several ecological and social criteria throughout the supply chain.

The Dutch Schone Kleren Campagne (Clean Clothes Campaign) published a brochure on sustainable sourcing that helps you take the first steps in the right direction. In addition, their website provides an overview of textile and clothing certification systems that you can work with to build a sustainable chain:

  • codes of conduct
  • sustainability labels
  • audits
  • management systems
  • platforms

You can see at a glance which Close the Loop phases these systems relate to, and how widely they are used among Belgian fashion companies.


It’s incredibly hard to describe the perfect, environmentally friendly and ethical production process, yet there are a few general issues that you can take into account when selecting a producer or manufacturer. Make sure to also discuss this topic with your current partners. If they become aware of a growing interest in the market, they will be more inclined to make a change!

Pay attention to:

  • the origin of the resources
  • responsible use of energy (is renewable energy used?)
  • minimal use of water (is the wastewater treated and reused?)
  • the use of environmentally friendly dyes or dyeing processes (e.g. water-based prints)
  • the use of other eco-friendly finishing techniques


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Try new technologies

New technologies are developing rapidly. Who knows, some of them might replace or complement your traditional production processes, thereby reducing your ecological footprint.

After all, new technologies might need less energy, water or chemicals, or allow you to skip certain harmful steps altogether (like transportation). They may facilitate local production, or enable smaller editions. Perhaps it’s even possible to work on demand, which is the golden rule to avoid 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 twenty meters. 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 
    Laser cutting is exactly what it says, 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 finish.
  • Digital 3D samples
    Designers, pattern designers and manufacturers can use 3D virtual prototyping to reduce the number of physical samples. This has its advantages in terms of speed (you can make on-the-spot decisions and instant changes) and it helps reduce waste. Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger already use 3D sampling.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
    More and more companies use AI to enhance the customer experience. They analyze the enormous amounts of data that can be gathered from social media, e-commerce and smartphone feeds to anticipate purchasing decisions. This allows them to avoid overproduction. The smart mirror and virtual dressing room are other interesting new technologies that could help reduce your fashion footprint.
  • Blockchain
    Increasing transparency is key in a more sustainable fashion industry, and blockchain can help to make that happen – from fabric choice to end product. The Belgian company quiFACTum is on a mission to make fashion chains more transparent through blockchain.

Would you like to stay up to date on technological developments? Make sure to join the ‘FashionTech works’ Facebook group. You will find like-minded souls there, as well as interesting cases from Belgium and the rest of the world.

Finally, the book ‘Technology-Driven Sustainability: Innovation in the Fashion Supply Chain’ was inspired by the Close the Loop framework. Head to Google Books to read a part of the chapter ‘Opening New Opportunities to Close the Loop: How Technology Influences the Circular Economy’, written by Nina Bürklin and Jasmien Wynants.


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Produce locally, match supply and demand

Which is the most sustainable option? An Asian factory whose employees cycle to work and whose machinery is solar-powered? Or a European factory that needs air conditioning and that makes no use of renewable energy sources?

Questions like these show that black-and-white thinking gets us nowhere in the whole sustainability debate. A European manufacturer is not necessarily better than an Asian one, 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 into 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 shopping behavior.



Clothing is often produced in faraway destinations like India or China. This does not necessarily make for better products; 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, a pandemic 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 in Belgium are fifty 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 established this textile community in 2010, when she took up the year-long challenge to wear only clothing produced within 240 kilometers from where she was based.
  • Makers Row, in turn, 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: a loss margin of up to 20% is not exactly peanuts.

To bypass these negative effects, you can 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, the fabric that is left over is often mercilessly discarded. Thus, on average 10 to 20% of the fabric ends up in the waste bin. 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. Her platform offers 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 (you can make on-the-spot decisions and instant changes), efficiency (100% instead of 20% go-to-market) as well as leading to less waste.


Knitting and weaving are techniques that produce less waste because there is no pattern cutting involved. The best-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 go. 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.

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 or manufacturer can organize the system or process in such a way that his waste is efficiently collected. This not only results in a clean workspace; it also creates opportunities for upcycling surplus materials.

A small manufacturer could for instance accomplish a whole lot thanks to these simple 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. We now 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:
Global production of clothing has doubled in the last fifteen years. The average life expectancy of a piece of clothing is about three years. For fast fashion this is even shorter. Some clothes are discarded after one wear or are not even worn at all. (Source: Awearness Fashion)

Clothes are discarded when they are no longer satisfactory. This can mean that they are torn or no longer have the right fit, but also that the consumer is not interested anymore – he or she has grown tired of them. The first reason has to do with the quality of the clothes, the second with our emotional attachment to them.


(Source: Anuschka Rees)

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 its shape – it shouldn’t shrink or stretch. It should retain its fit and not hinder the wearer.

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 breathe quality.

In Close The Loop's Guide ‘Clothing Design for Longevity’, you get concrete recommendations to extend the lifespan of new collections. Per clothing type, you will find minimum values, target values as well as technical guidelines to avoid common defects or wear and tear.

The website of Anuschka Rees also contains a useful guide: ‘How to assess the quality of garments: A Beginner’s Guide.’ It helps you determine the quality of a piece of clothing. We’ve summarized some tips here, but the cheat sheet is very useful as well.

First and foremost, it is important to look at the characteristics of the fabric: what are its strengths and weaknesses – and will they 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 consumers decide whether or not to throw clothes away. They are often led by their emotions and their 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 overconsumption’ 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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