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Design for the future:Sustainable and ethical textiles and fashion

Curator’s Catalogue Essay, by Dr Luke Keogh

The fashion industry has become one of the most unsustainable and unethical industries on the planet.

In the last 15 years clothing production has almost doubled. And yet one garbage truck of discarded clothes is incinerated or sent to landfill every second. The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply.

Can we keep making fashion while leaving a lighter footprint on the planet? How can we recognise and respect every single person involved in turning raw materials into clothing?

Although the numbers are horrifying, there are solutions. Starting with a community of makers and working all the way up to best designers, we can all start to think about the garments we wear – where they come from and the waste they create.

Sustainable fashion is about environmentally responsible design processes that are conscious of a number of factors, including the circular economy, energy reduction, recycling and minimal waste. Ethical fashion focuses on the fair treatment of people and animals at every stage of the supply chain.

The theme of the 2020 WE THE MAKERS DESIGN FESTIVAL was Design for the future: sustainable and ethical textiles and fashion. With this provocation we asked all makers to respond in some way to the challenges we face as a global community of consumers.

The 21 artists in the DESIGNER SHOWCASE are all designers for the future. But they are diverse grouping. And that is one of the most exciting parts of this exhibition. Solutions are not only possible, but it wears many different outfits.

Worldwide we dispose 1 Garbage truck every second of clothing
Worldwide we consume 1.5 empire state buildings every day
The average Australian consumes 27kg of clothing per year
Australia is the second highest consumer of clothing worldwide per year
82,782,000,000kg

Worldwide consumption of clothing every year
Enough to fill the Sydney Harbour!

Source: World Resources Institute, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Fast fashion or slow fashion?

Fast Fashion refers to cheaply produced and priced garments that replicate the latest catwalk styles and quickly find their way to stores. Fast fashion has meant a speeding up of the fashion and textile industries – acceleration in the globalisation of fashionable mainstream products, swelling in manufacturing and retail and increases in the wearing out and discarding of garments.

Sometimes the period from design to delivery can be as short as two weeks. Fast fashion has produced today’s new rapid fashion consumers. But increasing economic profits from fast fashion comes with environmental and social costs.

People bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, but they kept the clothes only half as long. Australia is the second highest consumer of new textiles after the US, averaging 27 kilograms of new textiles per annum. But Australian’s send 85% of these new textiles to landfill each year. And even if you choose to buy Australian made fashion, there is a likelihood that these are not even made under ethical conditions.

As a reaction, the Slow Fashion movement is becoming more and more important. It challenges both manufacturers and consumers to find a new form of responsibility and respect towards people, the environment and the products we wear.

Slow fashion stands for sustainable and conscious fashion. It means slowing down so that we can find the benefits of environmentally friendly manufacturing; so that we can select raw and recycled materials that are both sustainable and high-quality; so that our clothing is fair trade; so that, as wearers, we are conscious of the items we are consuming.

Maybe it is the effort they have put into selecting the products for their garments, maybe it is the technologies and machines they have chosen to use, or maybe it is simply the time they have put into their creations, but all 21 designers presented here, in some ways, exemplify the new slow fashion revolution.

Making a solution: People creating, not consuming

The emerging Maker Movement has brought about a new focus on design processes. Makers foster experimentation, invention, creation and exploration to make and remake the possibilities of production.

Inspired by our makers, the exhibition we created was more sustainable than any we had done previously. All materials in the exhibition were upcycled, borrowed or recyclable. One-third of the museum’s energy comes from recently installed solar panels on our roof. No plastic signage was used in the exhibition. Print materials were FSC Certified and 100% recyclable and we had greenguard gold certification on all printing inks. A great outcome, but we are always trying to improve.

There are many communities of makers working to create unique fashion and textiles that do not cost the earth. Every artist has their own unique approach and use of materials. At any one time they value the traditional crafts of the past, while also adding their own modern twist.

Maker culture is rooted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Arts and Crafts Movement that marked a shift in the way society valued how things were made. It was a reaction against both the damaging impact of industrialisation and the low status of the decorative arts. It promoted distinct and handmade designs.

Today makers can be found all over Australia and around the world. Today’s makers turn their hands into activists for a sustainable and more ethical fashion production. We are all makers who can make a difference.

Dr Luke Keogh is Senior Curator at the National Wool Museum and was the lead curator on WE THE MAKERS. His past exhibitions include Our Heritage, Our Collection (2020, with Padraic Fisher).