White paper

Sustainability by design

Design for circularity
Using design thinking and holistic business models as a driver for sustainability
Togetherness across the industry
Creating systematic industry change through collaboration and valuable partnerships
Data-driven responsibility
Digitalisation as enabler for more transparency and innovative production processes

Forward-thinking solutions for the future of fashion and textile

Editor in chief
Creative Denmark
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Executive summary

The fashion industry accounts for roughly 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater, making it one of the highest polluting industries in the world. However, complex supply chains, archaic business models and overconsumption make this a challenging problem to tackle. This is why innovative and creative thinking is needed to confront systemic issues to reduce the industry’s impact and create a more sustainable business model – one that works for the planet, people and profit.

Holistic business models

The most sustainable item of clothing is the one already in a consumer’s wardrobe, but for an industry driven by rapid growth and newness, this reality is at odds with many brands’ strategies and consumers’ desires. Holistic and circular business models can solve this problem on a consumer and brand level, keeping clothing in circulation for longer, maximising the resources used in production, reducing waste and creating recurring revenue streams. Chapters 1, 6 and 8 explore different ways to close the loop, through customer education and engagement, circular economies and strategic design thinking.

Togetherness across the industry

To push the needle and drive global, systemic change, the fashion industry must find ways to collaborate and work in partnership. Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 look at the potential for impact, both in terms of major players coming together in a shared vision and in the creation of stronger links between every stage of the value chain.

Sourcing responsibly

The volume of resources required to meet the demand for raw material is staggering – a single pair of jeans needs up to 1,800 gallons [6,813 litres] of water to grow the cotton alone – and poses a real threat to the planet. Built into the mass consumption of finite resources is an exploitation of the people producing them and the destruction of habitats intended to sustain local populations. With respect for the planet and its people, we can find better ways to source and produce raw materials and cause less impact. Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 7 showcase different approaches to sourcing, from the use of blockchains and certifications for transparent supply chains to honouring local farming methods.

Federica Marchionni

CEO, Global Fashion Agenda


Fashion’s first priority

Fashion design is an outlet for expression, creativity and style, but with it comes a responsibility – a responsibility to design for the benefit of people and the planet.

A beautifully designed product would traditionally be deemed as one that captivates with its aesthetic, fit, functionality and how it makes the user feel, but the product’s life and impact are fundamental considerations that are often forgotten during the design stage.

Over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase . If prolonging the life and minimising the impact of a prod- uct were prioritised at the start of the value cycle, the harmful consequences of manufacturing and waste could be significantly reduced.

With enough textile waste to fill a garbage truck going to a landfill every second, and 73% of the world’s clothing eventually ending up in landfills , the fashion industry is pushing the planet to its limit. According to current fore- casts, one in five garments need to be traded through circular business models by 2030 if we are to meet the Paris Agreement. Consequently, the traditional, linear model of “take, make, dispose” cannot continue and the industry must evolve into a circular fashion system.

Designers have the power to lead this transformation.

One of the ways they can do this is by designing products with more sus- tainable materials that can be responsibly sourced, require less resources to manufacture, and can be broken down and reintegrated into the supply chain easily at end-of-life. It is also of high importance to design with longevity in mind. By combining low-impact durable materials with timeless design, con- sumers will be able to use products for longer and eventually re-sell or pass on to others to enjoy.

These are just a few examples of sustainable design. This whitepaper will provide further insight into the state of the industry and where action can be taken, while providing the inspiration and tools for collaboration; change will not come by working alone – we need to work together. Not only with others in the industry, but with policymakers, investors, NGOs and innovators that have the tools to scale sustainability efforts and create widespread change.

We hope you will join us on the journey to making sustainability fashion’s first priority.

Ulla Ræbild

Associate Professor, Design School Kolding


Strategic design thinking

Up to 80% of a product’s overall environmental impact is decided in the design phase. The choices made at this point have the possibility to impact every other phase in the product’s life cycle. Strategic design thinking offers an opportunity to make responsible choices at the start of a product’s life and implement sustainable practices across the entire value chain.

Ulla Ræbild, associate professor and head of the international MA programme Design for Planet at Designskolen Kolding, discusses how strategic design thinking can create resource circularity, how it can be used as a tool for rede- signing the industry and why Denmark is the best place to test new systems:

What is strategic design thinking?

Strategic design thinking is the process of developing new products, services or systems where you think about how the design works in synergy with the busi- ness you are driving. You place design within the strategy of the business.

There is more than one definition. As a design discipline, it originates from other topics than fashion and textiles – which have been a latecomer. Driving fashion and textiles from research is a new thing, but what it has brought to design is the consideration of the whole user aspect and looking beyond the product.

How can strategic design thinking be used in fashion?

There are discussions around designing for longevity, that you can design classics that will be fashionable forever, but we all know that is not the case. Ultimately our tastes change. But,we can slow the use of planetary resources. We need to use strategic design thinking to understand first how we can design and develop systems to activate new inner loop cycles For example, re-sale, re-design and repair. And secondly, how to design for mechanical or chemical recycling of fibres to ensure that regenerated fibres from discarded textiles actually can become new attractive and relevant products, and not just another form of waste.

Circular systems can accommodate many different types of paces. This is not about saying one way is better than another, but refining each garment for its type of use-loop and developing certain systems for certain garments instead. Through strategic design thinking, we can start thinking about resources in cir- cular ways, as well as economies.

Why is strategic design thinking important for driving sustainability in the fashion industry?

When it comes to sustainability, we cannot separate it from design and business models. All three elements have to be thought of at the same time because they have to be developed together.

We cannot just keep adjusting minor things within the existing system. To develop new ways of driving fashion, it has to be redeveloped and redesigned all over. It cannot stay as one big highway, as it has been until now, where there is one system going at one pace. We have to use strategic design thinking to envision a landscape of different business models of various sizes and cycles, driven by clever, strategic design.

Having just one-size-fits-all is not sustainable – this is why we need strategic design thinking

How can Denmark be a leader in this approach?

There is a long tradition in the Nordic countries for participatory design that
is involved in civic society and finding solutions, and Denmark has a history of thinking in alternative economic models. For example, we use a shareholder economy and we are used to working with systems like pant bottle collections. Lastly, Danes are firstmovers when it comes to adopting new technology, and we need new technology to drive this change.

For these reasons, Denmark could be the ultimate lab for finding solutions for global implementation. It is an incredible place to experiment because the educational level is there, the companies have a strong position in the market and are genuinely ready, and consumers are ready for change as well.

What are the challenges of implementing strategic design thinking?

It is very difficult to make change by yourself when you are a small company – it is something that has to be solved at a bigger structural level – and as a consumer, it can be difficult to make choices when you know nothing about materials or how things are made. If we do not educate people and create
a kind of textile citizenship, then we will not achieve anything with strategic design thinking. We can make systems we want people to act in, but if they do not know why or how, they become too difficult to manoeuvre in.

In Denmark, there is a high level of sustainability education in design schools. The result is a workforce ready to go out and act on these principles. It is time to reach across the silos of academia, practice, production and use, and come together. Everyone sits on so much knowledge and there is no opportunity like now: Three years ago, we were told we have 10 years to create change – we do not have much time left.

Next - chapter 01

Collaboration for impact

Sharing a future for fashion