Design for Values in the Fashion and Textile Industry

  • Claudia EckertEmail author
Living reference work entry


The fashion and textile industry is one of the largest industries in the world producing billions of garments every year with a remarkably low awareness of the moral issues associated with the production and use of garments. After a brief introduction to fashion as a cultural phenomenon, this chapter explains the life cycle of garment production and use, which uses large amounts of energy and water and deploys many toxic chemicals. Globalized production raises many issues around the ethical employment of staff. Design decisions have to be taken throughout the life cycle, but are often highly constrained by the commercial pressures of an industry with very low profit margins. Making moral decision in design is therefore in many cases a selection of the least harmful option. However, the chapter explains how some designers have found business models that allow them to produce garments in a least harmful way. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the conflicting drivers in design for value in the fashion and textile industry.


Fashion and textiles Values Sustainability Ethical production Ethical consumption 


We all own scores of garments at any one time. We dispose of many clothes before they reach their natural end of life, because they go out of fashion, they do not fit any more, or we simply do not like them anymore. An individual garment does not have an enormous social or environmental impact, either in how it is produced or how it is used. But the cumulative effect of the billions of garments that are produced, used, and disposed of worldwide is enormous, on individual lives, on national economies, and on the environment in large areas of the world. This raises the question of what values are expressed in the production of all these clothes, could they be different, and what effect might designing clothes for different values have on the world?

Designing, manufacturing, and selling clothes and other textile products involve the expression of two distinct types of values: the values expressed through the clothes and the values concerning the creation of clothes. The more conspicuous of these are the values that the purchasers and wearers of clothes express through their style choices and are enabled or prevented from expressing by the range of clothes offered to them. The role of designers and design choices in the construction and expression of styles and the values implicit in them is beyond the remit of this chapter. However the values expressed in the style choices of consumers influence and are influenced by how garments and other textile products are designed, manufactured, and sold. This chapter concentrates on designing for implicit or explicit values in the life cycle of making, using, and disposing of clothes in the fashion and textile industry.

The production of clothes and other textile products involves trade-offs between factors that may be viewed as values. How far it is possible for individuals and organizations to make value-driven choices, and how far their actions are dictated by economic and political necessity, is a complicated question. The main countervailing force is of course cost and the need to make a profit in a keenly competitive market, and some positive values may be in conflict with this force. These value conflicts (real or hypothetical) include:
  • Improving quality and durability of the product itself; some design choices will increase the robustness and durability of the product without this being visible as added value to most consumers.

  • Producing products that can be recycled easily or cheaply.

  • Producing in one location rather than another, for instance, to employ staff in the country in which the company is based or to move parts of the production to low-wage countries.

  • Maintaining long-term relationships with supplier companies.

  • Paying above the minimum possible rates of pay.

  • Ensuring better working conditions for the employees of supplier companies, or insisting on health and safety standards comparable to those required by law in Europe or North America.

  • Minimizing the use of energy, water, or other scarce resources in production.

  • Minimizing the pollution resulting from production.

  • Minimizing the environmental degradation resulting from the production of raw materials, notably by making use of organic cotton.

Producing clothes and other textile products involves a variety of design activities, not all of which are seen as design within the fashion industry. There are two distinct groups of designers who influence the products and the effects they have: the fashion or textile designers and the designers of enabling technologies such as knitting machines and printers.

Fashion and textile designers specify the visual and tactile appearance of yarns, fabrics, and the products made from them. However, they typically operate within tight constraints imposed by cost-driven manufacturing and profit-driven retailers. The fashion and textile industry itself has a very narrow definition of design, only acknowledging the definition of visual and tactile properties as design. This excludes, for example, the knitting machine technicians who carry out the detailed design of knitted garments, which determines the details of the production process and thus aspects like the energy consumption in production or the waste of fabric (see Eckert 2001; Eckert and Stacey 2014).

Design for values in the fashion industry is often about choosing the less harmful option from a set of aesthetically equivalent alternatives and influencing manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to adopt more ethical alternatives. Very few designers are empowered to create products that are as sustainable and as ethical as possible. There is a small but visible group of fashion designers who create collections in the most sustainable and ethical way possible, distancing themselves from the bulk of the textile industry. These designers serve as role models for others and have advanced the debate on values in fashion, but have made very little impact on the environmental and ethical impact of the fashion industry at large. As their products are considerably more expensive than most comparable garments, they typically cater for a market of ethically conscious affluent customers, who use these eco-brands to express their own values and group membership. Much ethical and sustainable fashion is produced by micro companies that like other designer-led fashion business usually earn far less money than their public profile would suggest; scaling sustainable and ethical design businesses is proving a great challenge in a globalized world.

Another group of designers that have a huge impact on environmental sustainability and ethical production are designers of the enabling technologies for garment production. The fundamental principles behind most textile production technologies have changed very little. However modern machines have become extremely reliable and versatile; and current innovations focus on optimizing energy consumption as a means to gain competitive advantage. Similarly the chemical engineers working on dye stuffs and finishes have been working on reducing the impact of the chemicals they are using. It would also be possible to think of the design of supply chains in textile production as a design problem, with the logistics experts as designers. The key choices affecting values and profits are almost always management decisions rather than part of design as it is usually understood.

Fashion is a system of continuous renewal and obsolescence of objects that are functionally equivalent and become desirable because they are new, different, or exclusive. Trends in fashion respond to cultural phenomena and often follow the leads of celebrities or star designers. However, mainstream high street fashion is a highly self-referential system where designers pick up on trends they see in the garments coming on sale and incorporate them into their own styles to create products that look both different to attract the customers and sufficiently similar to fit in with the other clothes on sale and in people’s wardrobes. As these trends emerge, some are more or less sustainable or ethical; for example, when hand embroidery is part of a trend, a large number of people have to be hired who are no longer needed when fashion has moved on. While designers create the detailed appearance of their garments, they typically have to work within these trends.

While fashion and clothing is endlessly discussed in the media, fashion professionals rarely discuss their own processes or reflect on their practice in a formal and organized way. The discussion of moral issues, such as environmental sustainability or labor conditions in the developing world, is done either by academics or by campaigning groups who are outside the fashion industry, such as the fair-trade movement.

Companies appear to become active when they fear an adverse economic effect on their businesses. An example of this is Primark which has compensated victims and their families affected by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh1 in 2013, where over 1,100 people died and 2,500 survived, 600 with severe injuries (Siegle and Burke 2014). The building had been designed as a lower building for shops and office to which additional floors were added, where factories with heavy equipment were housed. The building had shown cracks on the day before the collapse, but the textile factories forced their worked to work regardless of the apparent risk.2 As this example has been widely discussed in the media, we will use it in this chapter.

The moral values associated with fashion and textile consumption are to some extent in direct conflict with each other, between individuals’ needs to express themselves in ever-changing styles and the wastefulness of disposing of garments that could be worn for many more years, or between the desire to reduce the environmental impact of products by producing locally under controlled conditions in western countries and the desire of third-world countries to improve their collective economic situation through the employment of their workers in conditions that people in western countries would regard as exploitation through low pay, lack of legal protection, and suppression of union activities.

The chapter starts with a short historic and theoretical discussion of fashion and clothing in section “Fashion and Clothing” before providing a systemic view of the fashion life cycle in section “A Systemic View of Fashion”. Section “Design for Values” discusses the two groups of designers who influence the fashion life cycle: the designers of the garments and the designers of the enabling technology. Section “Moral Responsibility in the Fashion and Textile Industry” posed the question who holds the moral responsibility for values in the fashion industry before section “Approaches to Ethical and Sustainable Fashion” provides examples of approaching these values before a discussion in section “Discussion” and conclusions in section “Conclusions”.

Fashion and Clothing

Clothing meets one of the fundamental human needs protecting us against the elements. Up to the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, the majority of clothing has been produced locally. However textiles have been traded over very large distance since antiquity; for example, the Romans imported silk from China and cotton from India to supplement the wool and linen produced in the empire. The trade of raw materials and finished textile products has been a significant driving force of political events and wealth ever since and is part of a long and ignoble history of exploitation. Fibers and textile products are still traded globally. However a very significant change has occurred in how clothing is valued. Textile products used to be expensive compared to other commodities. Up to well into the twentieth century, people used to own a small number of clothes that they looked after well. Clothes were kept over long periods of time. The clothes were adapted to changing uses and styles or were mended when necessary. Clothes that became surplus to requirements were sold on or passed to poorer people. The fabric of worn out clothes was reused or recycled for paper. Now clothing has very much become a throwaway commodity: people have been buying an increasing number of clothing items which they only wear a few times before disposing of them. UK consumers spent £780 purchasing 35 kg of textiles in 2004 (Allwood et al. 2006).

The clothing, footwear, and textile sector is the fifth largest economic sector, employing up to 40 million worldwide, of which up to 19 million are employed in China, 2.7 million in the EU, and 400,000 in the UK (excluding retail), where it employs as many as the aerospace and automotive sectors combined (OECD 2004). Between 2005 and 2011, the value of global apparel exports rose by 48 to USD 412 billion dollars. The top ten developing country suppliers now account for 58 % of global apparel exports, with China taking 37 % of that share in 2011 (IDE-JETRO 2013). Allwood et al. (2006) point out that in the UK, the amount of clothes purchased per capita grew between 2001 and 2005 by 37 %. As the price of clothing has fallen, the value end of the market (i.e., cheaper clothing) is booming, doubling in size in just five years to £6 billion of sales in 2005 (Lee 2007, p. 24).

Fashion is a phenomenon not limited to clothes and textile products, but is often associated most closely with clothing. Sproles and Burns (1994) define fashion as “a style of consumer product or way of behaving that is temporarily adopted by a discernible proportion of members of a social group because that chosen style or behaviour is perceived to be socially appropriate for the time and situation,” whereas Welters and Lillethun (2011) define fashion, “as changing styles of dress and appearance that are adopted by a group of people at any given time and place.” Sproles and Burns (1994) point out that fashion artifacts can be viewed as “symbols possessing meaning beyond their tangible characteristics.” According to Flügel (1930) clothes serve three purposes: providing protection against the element plus the contradictory desires to display our bodies while covering them up, which he phrased as “decoration” and “modesty.” Clothing can “communicate much more about the person than the social status he or she occupies or aspires to … gender, sexuality, age ascriptions, leisure inclinations, ethnic and religious identifications, political and ideological dispositions, and still other attributes of the person can be in play in the clothes we wear” (Davis 1992, p. 112). Fashion is a key means for people to express membership of a particular social group (Polhemus and Procter 1978, p. 20).

Simon-Miller (1985) makes the distinction between clothing as language, a “conventionalised set of norms that leads X to be perceived, by his clothes, as a businessman, or Y as a soldier,” and fashion as speech, “a statement which leads Z to take Y’s fatigues [i.e., military uniform] and accessorise them into a stylish, urban outfit.” Buying new clothing signals both the ability to understand what is currently fashionable and the ability to afford clothing to keep up with changing trends. Over the last 50 years, the rate of change in fashion has accelerated greatly (Lowe and Lowe 1985); women’s wear in particular sees multiple seasons per year for catwalk fashion, not to mention the growing and constantly evolving influence of street and subcultural styles. Even since 1985 much has changed: today’s commercial fashion system is a highly developed complex of brands, designers, retailers, imitation, and adoption hierarchies, with the Internet accelerating information flows and feedback loops (Cappetta et al. 2006).

As Fig. 1 illustrates, products stay in fashion for a certain period of time, with new styles being added as others go out of fashion. Some designs outside of the space of fashion at any one time and either might not sell or won’t be offered. Some of these designs might later come into fashion. Fashion designs are typically based on garments offered by stylistic leaders, which are than adapted and reinterpreted for a specific market (Eckert and Stacey 2000) rather than the needs and desires of potential customers as would be the case in other design fields. Fashion tends to evolve with new features coming into fashion while others slowly fade out. Others are not yet acceptable to the market and might be picked up in future collections. Customers have very little input into design process and only influence the development of fashion through the styles that they choose from the garments on sale.
Fig. 1

The envelop of accepted designs (From Eckert and Stacey 2001)

The changes in acceptable or preferred styles mean that many garments are discarded before the garments have reached their natural end of life. Fashion is a powerful economic driver, sustaining global industry and employment, but fashion’s inbuilt obsolescence is intrinsically unsustainable – a contradiction at the heart of contemporary fashion consumption which Black has termed “The Fashion Paradox” (Black 2008). She acknowledges the need for fashion and with it the fast renewal of styles and advocates addressing sustainability in the production and distribution of garments while empowering the consumer to acquire garments that meet their personal needs in terms of style and in particular fit, as many garments are rarely worn because they no longer fit or never fitted. The Considerate Design project (Black and Eckert 2009) therefore explored mass customization as a means to improve sustainability. Fletcher (2008) questions the whole fashion system more fundamentally and advocates changes in both consumption and production, for example, by repatriating production to avoid the negative impact of transport.

A Systemic View of Fashion

To understand the ethical and sustainability issues as associated with clothing, it is important to look at fashion and textiles as a global system operating across the entire life cycle of the garment. Many of the issues that concern clothing are shared with other consumer products, but aggravated in the case of fashion due to the sheer volume of clothes produced and consumed.

Until the 1980s most garments were designed and manufactured either in the same factory or fairly close together. Since then production has been moved repeatedly to cheaper production locations leading to lower production prices but also to reduce flexibility in the supply chain. For many countries textile production has been a stepping stone to later attracting higher-value production into the country when textile production moves on to other places. However when the production was moved to cheaper location by customers, this has posed a significant problem for workers who lost their jobs and has to reskill. This was the case first for Eastern Europe and later for China. Currently places like Bangladesh and Vietnam, which have a workforce willing to work for very little money to escape from the poverty of an agricultural society, have become centers of textile production.

While some garments are produced and used in the same part of the world, most garments sold in the developed world follow the pattern shown in Fig. 2, of design where the majority of customers live and trends emerge, and production in cheap labor countries. The fashion mass market is dominated by large retail chains that have been competing on price. Asia is becoming an increasingly large market for western brands as well as new emerging Asian brands which also design in Asia. The European Union alone imported clothing products and merchandises worth $170,058.1 million (WTO 2013).
Fig. 2

Life cycle of garments

This section provides a systemic view of the life cycle of garments including alternatives for the major groups of products, first from the raw materials to the garment in the shop and then from the point of purchase to the end of life. Some of the ethical issues will be highlighted.

The Production of Clothing

The supply chain of garments overlaps with supply chains of many other products and requires input from other industry sectors; it therefore shares the problems associated with them.

Figure 3 provides an overview of the major stages in the production of textiles and an indicative profile of the major environmental impacts of the different stages of the production life cycle. The production of textiles begins with the fibers from which the fabric is made. Fibers come from three main sources:
  • Animal fibers, mainly wool from sheep but also cashmere, mohair, and angora.

  • Vegetable fibers, mainly cotton and linen as well as fibers made from cellulose.

  • Man-made fibers which are produced from fossil fuel.

Fig. 3

The production of textiles

Natural fibers are then cleaned and prepared before they are spun into threads for weaving and yarns for knitting. Knitwear is usually knitted directly into panels that are assembled into garments. For tailored clothing the threads are woven or knitted into fabrics, from which panels are cut and assembled into garments, which results in inevitable wastage of fabric. For so-called nonwoven fabrics, which are used for household fabrics like cleaning cloths, the fibers are directly formed into fabric.

The materials can be dyed at each stage, as a fiber, as fabric, or occasionally as garments. The newest development is digital printing straight onto fabric panels.

In the assembly process trimming, buttons, and zips are added. Many garments or fabrics are treated with chemicals after treatments to create a certain visual effect or to improve comfort or durability during wear. For example, many school uniform clothes or office clothes are now Teflon coated so that strains can be mopped up easily. The finished garments are then packaged and shipped to the shops for retail.

The transport of garments across the world can be considerable. For example, a designer interviewed as part of the Considerate Design project (Black and Eckert 2009) commented that she had worked for an Australian knitwear company which used Australian wool. The wool was shipped to Italy for spinning and then to China for knitting before being shipped back to Australia for packaging. The garments are sold as Australian wool garments worldwide. Textiles are mainly shipped in large container ships, which often travel slowly to save on fuel consumption. Garments are sold by fashion brands either directly or through retailers, who have their own distribution networks. The textile supply chain has significant markups between the different players in the supply chain. Allwood et al. (2006) provide the example of a classic white T-shirt where the cotton yarn from the USA costs £0.55, the knitted fabric from China £1.08, and the knitted T-shirt from China £1.96, with a UK wholesale price of £2.65 and a retail price of £7, showing that the largest share of the profit goes to the retailer.

The long delivery time means that the designs have to be finalized early and so might miss the taste of the market if predictions of the development of fashion are wrong. Up to the 1980s many garments were still produced fairly locally in Europe and transported by truck or rail. At that time it was possible to both reorder successful designs and cancel unsuccessful ones. Now garments are usually produced in preset numbers regardless of whether the design is successful and would sell in higher numbers or is unsuccessful and will end up in the sales or even as landfill.

The Use and Disposal of Garments

In spite of endless coverage of fashion in fashion magazines and the mainstream press, surprisingly little is known about how textiles are consumed by the majority of the consumers. Figure 4 shows the remaining steps of the life cycle. Many garments are bought without ever being worn or being worn once. Besides the obvious examples like wedding dresses or ball gowns which are used for very limited occasions, many garments are not worn because they do not quite fit or the owner decides that they do not particularly like the garment after all. As clothes have become cheaper, anecdotal evidence also indicates that some – young woman in particular – buy clothes as almost deposable products to be worn once for an evening or event and then discarded and kept unused. WRAP (2012) point out that around 30 % of the clothing in the average UK household has not been worn for over a year. If garments are worn frequently, the majority of their environmental impact lies in the use phase; otherwise the balance shifts to production.
Fig. 4

Use and end of life of garments

If the garments are used, they need to be washed, dried, and maybe ironed. The energy and water use in these activities varies enormously with household practices and garment types. Some people wash garments in full 10 kg washing machines at 30 °C, while others wash their laundry in smaller loads and higher temperatures. Both tumble drying and ironing are to a large extent optional activities, which take up huge amounts of energy. When a garment needs to be washed is to some extent a matter of personal choice. People are concerned about smell, stains, and to overall appearance. While some people would wear the same garments for several days, others would change several times a day. Historically people washed clothes much less than we wash clothes now and used other garments like aprons to protect their main clothing.

Again there is a huge variation in how people discard garments (see Fig. 5). Some clothes are worn until they fall apart, while others are discarded in next to new condition. Some garments end up in landfill. Some local authorities collect garments for recycling. Garments can be recycled provided they are made of single materials. In practice this is rarely the case, as this would require removing fasteners such as buttons or zips. Often the threads or labels are made of different materials, thus limiting the possibility to recycle them. To avoid this label information is sometimes printed directly onto the inside of garments. Some garments are reused by passing them on to another person either within a family or friendship group, through charities, or secondhand trading such as eBay. Two thirds of UK consumers buy or receive secondhand clothing (WRAP 2012). Many UK charities, most famously Oxfam, sell secondhand garments to consumers in the same country as the donors both to raise money for the charities’ general causes and to provide cheap clothing. Many used garments are shipped to the developing world.
Fig. 5

End of life of textile products in the UK, according to WRAP (2012)

While the steps described are generic, very little is known about the variation in behavior between individuals. There is no reliable data about how long people keep garments and how frequently they are washed. This makes it hard to estimate the number of garments owned and worn by people and therefore to deduce the environmental impact of garments. However a simple calculation can illustrate the scale of the problem. If we make the (conservative) assumption that each person owns 10 T-shirts, then the whole of Britain owns at least 600 million T-shirts.

Ethical Issues Associated with the Production of Clothing

All of the different stages of production of clothing have issues associated with them that they share with other goods that use similar processes. The main categories of problems that are usually discussed are the use of water and electricity as well as labor and transport issues.

Man-made fibers are produced from fossil fuels and therefore compete with other uses of plastic. Textile fibers can be produced from recycled materials, but are themselves difficult to recycle, because the material has to be uncontaminated, e.g., not mixed with wool and cotton. The issues here are the same that affect other recycling loops, which might cost more than they save. For example, fleece fabrics are can be produced from recycled plastic pallets. Germany has a sophisticated system of recycling of plastic bottles, which are brought to retailers, collected in collection centers, and turned into pallets. These pallets are bought up by Chinese manufacturers to make fleece fabric, because they are of high quality and comparatively cheap. They are shipped to China and often reexported back to Europe.

Arguably the biggest impact of textile production comes from the production of cotton, which requires enormous quantities of both water and fertilizer. The most extreme example is the Aral Sea, where years of diverting water for cotton production have resulted in the Aral Sea shrinking by over 80 % of its volume causing an environmental disaster (WWF 2008, p. 22). Cotton is competing with food crops, and the production of cotton for export is contributing to food shortages in Africa, in particular as the fertilizers required to grow cotton make the land unsuitable for arable use. Historically growing sheep for wool has transformed the landscapes as native landscapes have been transformed into grassland for grazing. This is particularly an issue in Australia and New Zealand, where the sheep are also using up precious water resources.

Spinning, weaving, and knitting are highly mechanized processes with high energy consumption. In this phase the major environmental impact lies in pollution arising from dyeing, printing, and finishing fabrics. State-of-the-art expensive technology is often not used in unregulated countries in the developing world.

The process of making tailored garment has been fundamentally unchanged for centuries. The fabric is cut and assembled by people on sewing machines. While parts of the process have been automated, complete automatic assembly remains expensive and dedicated to special applications. Sewing machine operators require a certain amount of skill and training, but very little by way of formal academic training and therefore can be recruited and trained swiftly in different parts of the world. Knitting machines have been developed over the last decade to knit garments, such as underwear, sportswear, or jumpers, in one piece; however these processes are still error prone, so that the assembly of knitted garments is still a labor-intensive process.

Finished garments are either quality checked and packaged at the manufacturer or shipped to specific processing plants. Fabric and garment inspection can now be largely automated, but as machinery is very expensive, inspections are largely carried out by human operators. Fashion mass production is highly competitive and operates with very low profit margins. Manufacturing jobs are monotonous and notoriously badly paid with operators being barely paid a living wage for long working hours and working under sometimes appalling conditions, as the recent problems in Bangladesh have shown.

The garments are then distributed to retailers across the world and therefore need to be packaged appropriately. Some are boxed as groups, while others are individually wrapped. A significant part of the impact of garments is in the retail: heating, lighting, and repairing the retail space eat resources. As these issues are shared with all other consumer goods, the problems and environmental impacts and the expression of values by various stakeholders involved in retailing are considered to be outside the scope of this chapter, but need to be considered.

In use the main sources of environmental impact are washing, drying, and ironing of clothes, which are greatly influenced by user behavior. Tumble drying and ironing are steps that can also be omitted entirely, thus changing the balance of impact from use to production. The disposal of garments shares many general issues associated with waste disposal. A particular issue in textiles is the fact that 31 % of textile waste is shipped to the developing world. While a small fraction is upcycled, i.e., turned into a higher-value product, most are sold at markets in the big cities, while the rest is sold by traveling salesmen in remote areas. This had a devastating effect on the indigenous textile industries, which cannot compete on price with the very cheap imported garments (Sinha et al. 2012).

In summary the ethical issues associated with the production of clothing can be associated with the following categories of problem, shown by the indicative profile in Fig. 3:
  • Water being used in the course of the growing or creating the fibers and dyeing and finishing the fabric and garments and later in laundry.

  • Pollution of drinking water and wastewater during production as well as the pollution through fertilizers for growing cotton and other vegetable crops.

  • Energy used in the production of the garments and the transport of garments across the world as well as the energy used in washing, drying, and ironing clothes.

  • Labor conditions for the workers involved in growing the raw materials and making the garments

  • The effect the reexport of used garments has on production in the developing world.

The major occupational hazards associated with the textile industry are hazardous chemicals, fiber dust, noise, and monotonous repetitive processes (see Allwood et al. 2006).

Design for Values

Many of the decisions that affect the ethical and environmental issues in the fashion and textile life cycle are commercial decisions taken for commercial reasons. Designers have to operate within these commercial constraints regardless where in the market they are operating and inevitably make compromises.

There are two categories of designers that have a huge impact of the fashion industry, the engineering designers who generate the enabling technology and the fashion and textile designers who design the individual garments. In the fashion industry the boundaries between commercial decisions and design decisions are blurred. In practice they are often associated with the organizational set of the companies more than the tasks that people carry out.

Manufacturing Machine Builders

The fashion and textile industry has seen very few fundamental technological innovations over the last century. For example, the development of the first mechanical knitting machine dates back to William Lee’s invention of the stocking frame in 1589, the spinning Jenny invented in 1769, and the Jacquard loom in 1801. The products they produce have also changed very little. Modern textile machines are highly optimized mature technology, which is adapted to particular uses. Production machinery has high energy consumption, and machine manufacturers have turned their attention to energy reduction as a distinguishing sales feature. For example, knitting needle manufacturers claim that they have been able to reduce energy consumption in the knitting process by 15 % by optimizing needle geometry, and knitting machine manufacturers claim reductions of 35 % up improving electronic control of the knitting process.

Technology is also used to merge previously separate production steps, for example, integrated spinning machines, which can move from raw fiber directly to threads or yarns, thus removing the need to transport materials between different operation steps, or seamless knitting machines which produce entire garments rather than individual panels to be sewn together or pieces of knitted fabric to be cut into shape.

Computer control technology has significantly reduced waste materials over the last two decades. Knitted garments are used to be cut from squares of fabric with significant offcuts, but are now mainly knitted into shaped panels, thus reducing the waste yarn. Laser printer technology has also reached the fashion industry. Both woven and knitted fabrics can now be printed to produce printed panels. Currently traditional printing methods, which use screens for individual colors, are still far more economical for large volumes. Laser printers have the potential to reduce waste fabric by enabling more flexible control over production volumes and reducing the amount of dye required.

The aim of the machine builders is to produce highly reliable machines to reduce the time when the machines are out of production and to reduce the number of faulty garments, which become waste in production. Machine builders and the chemical industry are investing heavily in using less harmful chemicals.

Fashion and Textile Designers

Designers are involved whenever there are aesthetic decisions involved (see Fig. 6). Yarn designers design yarns that are knitted and threads that are woven. Fabric designers (sometimes called textile designers) design weave and print patterns. Knitwear designers design knitwear and socks. Fashion designers design tailored garments, while contour fashion designers design underwear and swimwear. In the UK separate degree courses and specific training exist for each of these specialisms, but designers move between fields during their careers.
Fig. 6

Design input in the fashion life cycle

Practically there is a big difference between what design could do for values in the fashion industry and what designers can practically be able to do. With the exception of small designer-lead businesses, where the designer is involved in most decisions, designers work for brands or manufacturers with limited ability to make decisions about the business aspects including the price point. Designers work with business people on customer accounts and create products for specific customers and market segments, with known tastes and given price points. Suppliers are usually selected for commercial reasons and designers are mainly consulted on the quality of the product in terms of the suppliers’ ability to meet design intent. Designers therefore have little direct influence on the ethical issues of production.

The designers’ ability to make ethical and sustainable decisions is limited to the choices that they are able to make in their designs. The impact of garments can vary significantly between almost identical pieces depending on how and where it is produced. Designers know that and can select options that have less impact. For example, collections might include crochet clothes. This process cannot be done by a machine, and therefore garments have to be hand crocheted in the developing countries by workers who work on a piece commission bases. However, a similar visual effect can also be achieved by knitting a garment on a state-of-the-art machine. Designers also decide on the material composition of the fabrics or yarns that they are using; therefore they influence to some extent the durability of the garments and the way they need to be cared for. For example, putting an anticrease finish onto a shirt means that less energy will be used in ironing. Designers often have very little information concerning ethics and sustainability that they can use to select design options. At the moment there is a plethora of eco-labels, which are not standardized and only are applied by a fraction of producers (Sinha and Shah 2010). It is also very difficult to do a proper life cycle analysis of a garment, because the data is not available in standard life cycle assessment tools to cover the enormous variation in production and specialist analysis is not affordable considering the low profit margins of textiles.

Designers can also try to influence their organizations to adopt a more sustainable or ethical approach by pointing out either how this would enhance the brand or why this is necessary to compete in a particular market segment. Designers also influence in each through the products that they create. By starting or picking up on trends, they can create or encourage virtuous behavior. Many designers find their limited ability to influence their business and the repetitive and organizational nature of many design positions frustrating and move into more managerial roles, where they no longer generate the designs, but can work on market strategies, buyer management, or supplier selection.

Moral Responsibility in the Fashion and Textile Industry

Legislation has a powerful impact on the production and use of garments by outlawing particular materials or practices, either by banning chemicals or processes used in production in its jurisdiction or by forbidding the sale of products under its jurisdiction that have been produced in a particular way. For example, European Union has banned the use of the chemical biocide dimethyl fumarate (DMF) for leather tanning in Europe in 1998 and banned the sale of products using the chemical in 2009.3 However these bans can be difficult to enforce, since costly tests would be required to identify the chemicals in products. Therefore the onus of assuring the legislation is complied with falls to some extent to brands and retailers to assure that their supply chains are compliant.

Governments can also influence textile production by trade agreements. The World Trade Organization4 introduced the Multifibre Agreement in 1974, which limited the import of textiles from developing countries into developed countries with the aim of enabling the developing countries to build up a textile industry for export. This was replaced in 1994 by a further agreement that brought textile incrementally in line with the general GATT rules applying to other products. The end of trade restriction has contributed to a significant fall in textile prices across the world over the last two decades and has been blamed for some of the increased consumption in the west (Allwood et al. 2006).

Governments of course also have the usual diplomatic and political means of influencing production and work conditions in other countries, as well as raising awareness in their own country. In 2011 the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a sustainable clothing road map in 2011 (Defra 2011), showing best practice and making suggestions of how to make clothing more sustainable through improving environmental performance, affecting consumer behavior, and creating public awareness.

The question of who is responsible for moral decisions in the fashion industry is hotly debated; and there is neither a simple answer nor a simple consensus. The issues around exploitation of workers have been debated in the public sphere in response to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building. The Guardian newspaper in the UK reported on the Rana Plaza collapse5 and published a week later a summary table of the online discussion in response to this article. 36 % of the Guardian respondents blamed the corporations/retailers, 26 % the consumers, 22 % the factory owners/building inspectors, and 16 % the government.6 While this is by no means a rigorous study or a statistically representative result, it highlights how divided public opinion is on the moral ownership of the problem. Are the consumers demanding too low prices or are the retailers pushing the suppliers to unreasonable price points? Are greedy manufacturers not paying adequate wages or making their workers work under unreasonable conditions? Are corrupt officials signing off unsafe building? The answer is probably yes to each of these questions. However this is not a deterministic system. Each of the players could to some extent push back and thereby cause a change in the system. Consumers have been paying higher prices for other goods, such as food. Workers in other industry sectors work across the world in far better working conditions under better pay.

In 2009 the Considerate Design project (see Black and Eckert 2009) looked at how garments might be designed so that they better meet the needs and desires of consumers while limiting their environmental impact. As part of the project, we conducted a workshop with over 20 industry and academia experts in London to identify the factors that affect this and identified a range of similar broad issues as shown in Fig. 7 (Eskandarypur et al. 2009). The workshop identified both barriers and enablers for sustainable and ethical design, which designers needed to become aware of in their practice. One of the main issues was raising awareness of values in fashion across the general public, who remain largely unaware of the issues and therefore not willing to accept any cost increases arising from responses to sustainability and ethical issues. Greater transparency of the impact through labeling and life cycle assessment tools was identified as a requirement not just for changing public attitudes but also enabling designers to make more sustainable decisions.
Fig. 7

Systemic influences on considerate fashion

Approaches to Ethical and Sustainable Fashion

Different stakeholders have taken their own approaches to creating more sustainable fashion products. The following section provides a flavor of the range of different responses to a common and systemic problem, which play out at different scales.

The Ethical Product

Some designers and brands have decided to produce as sustainable fashion as possible by both sourcing and producing fashion as sustainably and as ethically as possible. This happens at very different scales.

Designers who produce their own products in many ways have the most control over their production . For example, Steven Harkin runs a small company for high-quality leatherwear.7 He designs his own products and sources his leather from Italy from sustainable sources looking at both sustainable conditions for the animals and environmentally friendly tanning and dying processes. He makes the bags himself in the UK and sells them directly to retailers and the general public through trade fairs and makes the bags to order. He also takes the bags back and repairs them if necessary. While he has very little waste in his process, his bags are expensive using expensive high-quality materials. As he is running his own business with limited help, he often works overtime in particular to meet the deadlines of promised deliveries (see Wynn et al. 2011). While this is in many ways a very sustainable form of production, he is exploiting himself as a worker. Buying small orders he has to trust his suppliers and cannot personally control their processes. Steven Harkin’s products look very smart and professional; other designers include a certain “eco-aesthetic” in the styling of their clothes. This has become a real problem as anecdotal evidence indicates that customers consciously avoid garments with an “eco”-look and feel. This appears to be a problem for Fairtrade® garments.

Sustainable production can also be a business model, as illustrated by the Californian sportswear company Patagonia, which has the company motto: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”8 The company uses materials from sustainable sources as much as possible, such as organic cotton, or recycled materials for man-made fibers. They monitor their suppliers’ working conditions and publish their supply chain on their company Web pages. They aim to use energy from renewable sources as much as possible in their production and distribution. The garments are designed to be long lasting and repairable. At the end of life, the garments can be recycled through the stores. The price point of Patagonia clothing is at the upper end of high street clothing. Their products are aimed at the outdoor wear or sportswear market, where consumers are interested in performance and are typically willing to invest more and give more thought to purchasing products than for day to day clothing. Their customers being into nature and outdoor activities are to some extent naturally predisposed to care about environmental issues, and Patagonia has been very clever at using their environmental credentials in their marketing, so that they have been a brand of choice for a segment of the population.

Some companies produce products in a sustainable way, but do not market the fact because they do not want to put potential customers off with an eco-image for their products. For example, John Smedley9 has been producing knitwear in Derbyshire in the UK since 1784. They specialize in fine gauge classical knitwear often used in catwalk shows. Almost all their designs are either made of New Zealand merino wool or Sea Island cotton, which is a stable long-fiber cotton, which is sourced “responsibly” from selected suppliers with whom they have long-standing relationships. They ship the raw materials in bulk to Derby and spin, dye, and finish the garments on site. This gives them not only much reduced transport but also full control over their production runs as they can respond in their production of yarn to market demands and stop unsuccessful production runs.

Large clothing retailers are also increasingly embracing a sustainable agenda, as part of their corporate social responsibility as well as a means of generating a distinctive brand image. In 2007 Marks and Spencer, one of the largest retail chains for clothing in the UK, which for many years has provided a de facto benchmark for textile quality in the UK, launched the so-called Plan A across its entire product range,10 which includes a combination of measures to improve ethical and sustainable issues across the fashion and textile production use system. This includes diverse activities like a project for the protection of the rain forest in Peru, health training for workers in Cambodia, and financial training for workers in India. In the UK Marks and Spencer have a clothing swapping scheme, where customers get M&S vouchers if they bring M&S garments to Oxfam charity shops. They also invested in aerodynamic lorries. The companies see this approach as a means to achieving both environmental and financial sustainability.


Corporate social responsibility (CSR) means “companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interactions with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis” by “going beyond the legal expectations and investing ‘more’ into human capital, the environment and the relations with stakeholders” (EC 2001). European policies have pushed CSR in different industry sectors through sectoral social dialogue committees. For textiles and clothing, they recommended core labor standards in 1997. As with all voluntary arrangement, the challenge lies in monitoring and enforcing policies. Nordestgaard and Kirton-Darling (2004) cite Patrick Itschert, the then General Secretary of the European Trade Union Federation for Textiles, Clothing and Leather ETUF-TCL, as saying that “beyond the ideal solution of having shop stewards in every plant monitoring agreed codes, it is possible to identify a number of application tools available to the trade union signatories of these codes of conduct: (a) involving international verification bodies (e.g., ILO, OECD etc.), (b) ‘naming and shaming’ companies who violate the codes signed, and (c) convincing market leaders to develop and participate in joint projects and apply peer pressure to other companies.” These are exactly the mechanisms that have come into play after the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza building collapse. Western customers were identified and named. Some of the western companies have grouped together to set up compensation funds for the workers and their families.

Two legally binding agreements between western customers and Bangladeshi clothing manufacturers have been put into place. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh11 has been signed at date by 150 apparel corporations, two global trade unions, trade unions in Bangladesh, and several NGOs. The Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety12 is similar with mainly US companies involved. Bangladeshi companies also have these CSR strategies in place in response to the Rana Plaza disaster to assure their links to their customers; however these appear to be falling short of international expectations. Despite international concerns about workplace conditions and safety, their accountability and transparency still fall short of expectations according to Kamal and Deegan (2013). These agreements were initiated by the customers who were concerned by their reputation and wanted to reduce their burden of needing to inspect work places, rather than proactively generated by Bangladeshi companies or government.

Behavioral Change

There are few in-depth studies of consumer behavior in fashion and textiles. Preliminary studies indicate a low awareness of sustainability and ethical issues in fashion in textiles (Crommentuijn-Marsh et al. 2010). In on-going studies participants with some awareness of fashion sustainability issues mentioned a few common sense approaches.
  • Recycling: People both bought secondhand clothes, for example, on eBay, and recycled their own clothes through charity shops. Having purchased a product secondhand appeared to give the people the sense of being excused from the environmental impact of the garment.

  • Eco-brands: They bought a limited amount of eco-brand and fair-trade garments and looked for organic cotton in high street brands. However, they also commented that since these garments are more expensive and offered limited choice, they only bought a fraction of their garments in this way.

  • Conscious shopping: They tried to only buy garments if they felt they really needed them and select the garments carefully. Therefore they also selected classical styles.

  • Made do and mend: They tried to look after garments and wear them until they are totally worn out.

However, it is difficult to say conclusively whether the strategies are driven by environmental and ethical concerns or by economic considerations.


The examples have shown that it is possible for individual stakeholders to operate in a way that is ethical and sustainable for them. However, there are fundamentally conflicting values at the heart of the fashion and textile industry, which make it difficult to make moral judgments.

Changing fashion is a reflection of our changing culture, in which individuals express themselves consciously or unconsciously. We tire of clothes as they go out of fashion and like new and exciting things. Therefore many clothes are replaced before they are worn out and people own many more clothes than they would strictly need. The resulting level of production is on the long run not environmentally sustainable. The ability to afford new fashion items is an outward symbol of prosperity. We find high levels of consumption of cheap fashion among relatively poor people, who use clothing as a means to keep up. The same appears to apply to people in the developing world, which has already resulted in enormous growth in East Asian fashion markets and will aggravate the sustainability problem further on a global level. There is a direct conflict between sustainability in textiles and clothing and the right of self-expression.

Another major conflict of values lies between reduced and sustainable production in developed countries and the need of the developing world to build up an industry that provides employment for its growing population. By western standards the working conditions in textile factories in the developing world are extremely harsh with people working at low pay for long hours in very repetitive tasks. However, for the workers it is an opportunity to avoid even worse living conditions. The workers do not want us to move production back to western countries, but offer them better wages and working conditions. By the cruel logic of the economics of the textile industry, higher wages means the production will be moved to another place. China has now reached a point in its industrial development that it wants to move to higher-value jobs and lets low-wage job go, but other countries like Bangladesh are trying hard to hang on to the low-wage jobs. This raises the question whether we have the right to deprive them of the opportunity to work.

Fashion is competing with other industries for valuable resources in terms of water, land, and fossil fuels. From an environmental perspective, reduced consumption of textiles would free up these resources to need more fundamental needs, like growing food or providing fuel for heating and cooking. However a reduction in the volume of production would have a huge impact on employment and growth across the world.

Another conflict lies between the desire to reuse garments to avoid further impact caused by producing more and the effect the large-scale export of secondhand clothing has had on indigenous textile production and markets in the developing world, in particular in Africa.

Changes to the textile industry are possible and necessary, but there are no simple solutions. Rather than radically changing the system with which textiles are produced and used, the improvement lies in making more ethical choices when choices can be made. For example, organic cotton can be grown after a transition period with yields marginally lower than nonorganic cotton. Working conditions can be improved by making sure that suppliers adhere to regulations and pay locally fair wages. Retailers can be encouraged to switch away from their least ethical suppliers.

Larger changes in the fashion and textile industry would require an underlying shift in the value that consumers give to clothing and textiles in the twenty-first century. Modern customers need to be reeducated to recognize quality in garments, so that they realize once again when it is worth paying a higher price for particular garments. At the moment low prices have pushed both environmental exploitation and low wages. However, a greater understanding of what is worth paying for might entice people to pay more for better quality garments. Higher price points would allow for more sustainable forms of production and better treatment of workers. It would also give garments once again an enduring value of their own.


Fashion and textile products are deeply personal and often have an emotional value for the consumer which far outweighs the monetary value of the garments. Looking at fashion and textile production and consumption from an industry perspective rather than the relationship of individuals to their garments, it is necessary to take a systemic perspective, which shows that fashion production and consumption share many steps with other consumer products.

The key values to consider in fashion and textiles are the sustainability of production, retail, use, and end of life and the ethical issues involved with the production of textile products in the developing world and the impact the large-scale export of secondhand garments to the developing world has on its indigenous industries.

The ability of the designers to make systemic changes in fashion and textiles is quite limited, unless the designers take charge of their own production and retail operations, which very few designers can. However designers need to be aware of the ethical and sustainability issues associated with their designs, so that they can make the least harmful choices, while influencing the overall system in a more favorable way. Rather than being able to outline a set of design principles or procedures to design for values, it is necessary in fashion and textiles to become aware of the choices and options designers have at each point. For example, the designers might like to use organic cotton, but cannot push for it at the price point they are working toward, but they will always have a choice between a number of options from which they can choose the best one. In this case this might mean sourcing cotton from a country where cotton production does not compromise other food crops, or choosing something that is dyed with less harmful chemicals.

Improving the textile and fashion life cycle requires systemic changes to the way textiles are made, designed, used, and disposed. A starting point would be greater awareness of the process by all stakeholders. For example, effective and potentially compulsory eco-labeling across the supply chain would make an enormous difference to the designers’ ability to make informed decisions.




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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Engineering and InnovationThe Open UniversityMilton KeyesUK

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