Making clothes that last: Surprising design insights from Norway
Laitala, K., Boks, C., & Klepp, I. G. (2015). "Making Clothing Last: A Design Approach for Reducing the Environmental Impacts." International Journal Of Design, 9(2), 93-107. IJDesign/article/view/1613
The fashion industry, from the manufacture of textiles to the ultimate journey of clothing to the landfill, contributes 3 percent of global carbon emissions. "Fast fashion," or low-cost clothing manufactured quickly to capture the latest style trends, has become a hallmark of the globalized, western world, although it conveniently ignores its social and environmental implications. Can a better design approach delay clothing disposal and mitigate the environmental costs of the industry?
In a recent study, researchers from the National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) investigated reasons for disposal of 620 clothing items from 35 persons in 16 Norwegian households. Published in the International Journal of Design, the researchers also collaborated with three design schools — the Chelsea School of Art & Design, the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, and The Swedish School of Textiles — in an effort to introduce user-centered design methods into a quantitative consumer research. The article attempts to identify design strategies that can increase the active use period of clothing and delay disposal.
The researchers selected three main groups of households for the interviews based on age. They then categorized the responses for clothing disposal into seven broad categories: changes in garments; size and fit issues; taste-related unsuitability; situational reasons; functional shortcomings; fashion or style changes; and other/unknown reasons. The results are fascinating. It turns out that changes in fashion or style and/or taste-related unsuitability are not the main causes for clothing disposal. The most common reason for disposal were changes in garments (holes, wear and tear) for men and women's clothing; for children and teenager clothing, size and fit issues were predominant factors. The material property of the clothing dominated the reason for disposal in comparison to a desire to own new clothing. For a small percentage of respondents who did mention fashion and style as a reason for disposal, the type of garment played a huge role. Jeans and trousers were disposed more often for fashion reasons compared to socks, stockings, underwear, or nightwear.
The researchers acknowledge the limitation of the sample size and the fact that the results cannot be generalized. However, they point out four key design strategies that can delay disposal. Firstly, an increased technical quality of the material and the seams can enhance durability and lifespan. To avoid size and fit issues, flexible clothing design that can adapt to the changing body figure can play a big role. Similarly an emphasis on services and education on repairing and altering clothes can enhance clothing lifespan. Systems for feedback and communication between users and clothing designers on the other hand can create clothes that users want to wear, fit well, and have an emotional sentiment attached to it that will deter easy disposal.
The researchers emphasize that designing clothing to meet the challenges of quality, fit, and lifespan are more important and perhaps the best solution to counteract fashion change.