Design students: your planet needs you to Make Fashion Circular - RSA

Design students: your planet needs you to Make Fashion Circular


  • Picture of Lynn Wilson
    Lynn Wilson
    Founder and Director, Circular Economy Wardrobe
  • Circular economy
  • Design
  • Sustainability
  • Environment

Lynn Wilson FRSA is a designer, researcher and circular economy expert with extensive national and international experience in circular economy and resource efficient strategies. Here she describes how design students have a crucial role to play in moving towards a sustainable, circular fashion future.

I’d like to spend the next few minutes convincing you, as a student designer, to tackle the Make Fashion Circular brief in this year’s RSA Student Design Awards.

The fashion industry currently creates a variety of problems for our natural environment. Our existing models of design, production and consumption are simply not sustainable. By 2025 there will be over 8 billion people on the planet who all need clothing. We are now consuming more natural fibres than can be grown on our planet.

Surprisingly, the production methods associated with natural fibres have the highest environmental impact of all textiles. Silk, for example, has detrimental effects regarding the depletion of natural resources and global warming, cotton contributes excessively to water scarcity and wool production adds significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

Man-made fibres, on the other hand, bring their own issues. Polyester, for example, is made of fossil fuels and is non-biodegradable – and we now know that one load of laundry of polyester clothes (also nylon and acrylic) can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibres, which release toxins into the environment and can end up in the human food chain.

Designed for life

Given the wide variety of environmental impacts generated by the textile and fashion industry, the level of waste is particularly hard to stomach. It is estimated that a staggering 300,000 tonnes of textiles goes into landfill in the UK every year, totalling a staggering value of £140 million. What’s more, roughly a third of our clothing (£30 billion worth) is estimated to be hanging in our wardrobes unused.

As someone who has spent my professional life in textile design and manufacturing, I’m particularly interested why we as consumers throw away millions of tonnes of clothing every year.

The move to a ‘circular economy’ is about doing things better and differently, whether that is as designers, manufacturers or as consumers. The problems that we face are complex and, at the same time, very simple – there is no alternative, we only have one planet to live on. Change is essential.

Which is where YOU come in. According to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact can be determined at the design stage. Like it or not, the future depends on you.

Lessons from Japan

In 2015, I spent a month in Japan researching technology, design, retail and heritage trends that could contribute towards a sustainable, circular economy fashion industry.

A truly ‘circular economy’ requires a closed-loop process. This means that materials are fully recovered at the end of their life and transformed to be used again. In Japan, I found several examples of such closed loops to study. For example, Teijin Limited, along with other Japanese companies such as Toray Industries Inc. and Jeplan Limited are global leaders in closed-loop systems and technologies for material processing.

Polyester used to make clothing is called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is also used in the manufacture of plastic bottles. New chemical technology can process used plastic bottles into uniforms, sportswear and fashion. Teijin Limited has been working with schools in Japan since 2010 on return systems for polyester school uniforms that can be recycled and made into new products. The technology can also be used in fast fashion and sportswear, such as football strips called Eco-Circle.

It was on this incredible trip that I learnt how the Japanese kimono is truly a ‘zero-waste’ garment, using traditional production methods that date back hundreds of years. There is a growing group of pioneering garment researchers who present their research as open source in order to accelerate the adoption of zero-waste pattern cutting by the industry. Timo Rissanen and Holly McQuillan are two of the most advanced in the field and recommended reading is their book Zero Waste Fashion Design.

Another key learning from Japan was that transparency in how and where a textile or garment is designed and made is increasingly important to consumers. This is particularly important for the international export market. The ‘provenance’ of a garment or textile can be an excellent way to engage consumers in what they are wearing and help them make considered choices that mean they don’t discard clothing so quickly. It can also be an integrated part of the design process which adds authenticity and ultimately value to the design. As a Scottish designer, the provenance of our global heritage brands such as Harris Tweed is critical to ensuring its longevity as one of our leading international exports.


Design the future

The RSA Student Design Awards is an annual competition for higher education students and recent graduates. Each year the awards challenge emerging designers to tackle a range of design briefs focused on pressing social, environmental and economic issues.

This year the RSA, in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has dedicated funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery to develop a partnership award focused on ‘circular fashion’. This has taken shape in the form of Brief 3 from this year’s Student Design Awards, namely:

“How might we use circular design principles to innovate the way we produce, use and access everyday clothing items?”

Watch the launch video for Brief 3, with Elodie Rousselot of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

Registration is now open for the awards. Please take the time to consider Brief 3 – your contribution could be more important that you know. Josie Warden put it beautifully when she wrote: “Our current fashion industry works on the premise that the materials and natural systems around us are resources to be exploited for economic gain, that increased consumption fuels those gains and that we can continue to consume resources endlessly. We cannot.”

The competition officially opens for submissions on 20 January 2020, so now is the time to consider how you could design a more circular fashion future for us all.

Want to find out more about circular fashion? Watch Lynn's TEDx talk:

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles